Holiday Nostalgia Rides Again!

Christmas is nostalgic by nature, but rather than dress it up like a rummage sale of family history, why not focus on a certain period in the past, between VJ Day and the Summer of Love, that many parents and grandparents remember like it was yesterday?

Tomie dePaola on Décor

Tomie has written and illustrated 200 children’s books and at least two dozen are set in Christmas, his favorite time of year. Nowadays he decorates his home in Southwest style for the holidays, but here he remembers his early efforts at Christmas decorating.

Ah, the ’50s. It was a time of “taste transition” for me. Graduating from high school in 1952 and deeply rooted in my art school phase at Pratt Institute, my visual spin on Christmas began to “modernize.”

Of course, from my high school days on, I designed the family Christmas card, and my dad and I even began to make life-size figures of carolers, the nativity scene, etc., to set up on the lawn in front of the house.

But my Bauhaus-based training at Pratt led me away from holly and evergreen boughs to white spackled and glittered twigs sparsely adorned with small silver and blue balls. I set them around our living room, competing with the more traditional Christmas tree.

The pièce de résistance was the mantel. I put large blue glass balls hanging from the ceiling on white satin ribbons, and reflecting in the mirror above the fireplace.

I was dragging my family into the “modern” era. “It looks just like Lord & Taylor’s,” one of the relatives said.

Thank God, there are NO photos! — Tomie dePaola

There once was a time when, if you put up a Christmas tree, you put a toy train under it. Around and around the track the black locomotive, puffing out smoke, would pull a line of cars. (Remember the log carrier and the little guy in the door of the freight car?) It was an eagerly awaited Christmas morning treat to pre-computer generations (OK, mostly boys) and, even now, still has its charms. Places in New Hampshire to buy toy trains: Depot Antiques & Toys, Laconia; New England Railroad, Nashua; Treasured Toys and Bill’s Hobby Barn, Salem; Brentwood Antiques Train Shop, North Hampton; and the MIlford-based online shop, www.pettycashjunction.

Above: Retro Planet, a Web enterprise located in Nashua, is a great source for nostalgic gifts, from metal ray guns to party supplies to ’50s diner furniture. For the real retro-fanatic, you can even get a custom ’57 Chevy car couch. Only $3,995.

Crosley AutoRama CD-Record Player
Mimicking the clean, streamlined styling of a classic 1950s automobile this beauty takes you back to the days of drive-ins and diners. The Crosley AutoRama CD-Record Player features an AM-FM Radio, a 3-speed turntable for your vintage vinyl, a front-loading compact disc player and enough fidelity to render most enthusiasts speechless. $179.95,

Larry Benaquiston Movies

Since he’s the chair of film studies at Keene State College and a filmmaker himself, Larry Benaquist is the perfect guy to recommend his favorite nostalgic Christmas film. Turns out he had two — or three.

The original “Miracle on 34th Street” came out two years after the war and is a fascinating film about the power of belief. The film posits a world in which even the most practical capitalists at Macy’s and Gimbels know a good thing when they see it. I’d say that the lesson from that film made 60 years ago is that there is a good payback for us if we do the right thing.

The 1951 British version of “A Christmas Carol” with Alastair Sim is too good to be shown only at Christmas. Sim performs Scrooge as a man who is capable of great delight in the evil he does. Dickens always wrote large and in “Christmas Carol” he created a new master narrative for the world. We can be doomed to revisit the evil we have done or we can change. People can be enlightened. I think it’s the great Christmas story.

For something a little different, try to find “Christmas Holiday.” It’s not what the title might lead you to think. Somerset Maugham wrote the short story; Herman Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay; Robert Siodmak directed it; Deanna Durbin plays the fallen women who made the tragic mistake of falling in love with a sociopath — played by Gene Kelly, believe it or not, in one of his early roles. An amazing and powerful film. A true film noir in the psychological tradition. — Larry Benaquist

A Christmas Oddity

When Barry Yellen produced his first and only full-length movie, it was a business decision. He was operating a series of children’s matinees across the country and needing new movies to entertain the masses. He figured that if he made one himself, he could show it every Christmas and save himself some money along the way. Made in Italy, “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t” is a strange spin on the Christmas Carol theme, full of catchy songs and bizarre sets. It broke theatrical records for a children’s film for awhile and appeared on HBO for 15 years. Now there are Web sites devoted to it. Producer Yellen, who now lives in Lancaster, is as surprised as anyone about the cult following of his little film. “Those who remember it grew up with it on TV,” he says. It’s currently available on DVD.

Remember ribbon candy? Bright and sweet, it came in a long coil that had to be lifted out of the box carefully lest it break into pieces. Maybe it was more fun to look at than eat, but it always had a place on the Christmas table. Below are two New Hampshire shops that still make it.
Kellerhaus, Weirs Beach
Granite State Candy Shoppe Concord

Above:Gail Wilson’s folk art Christmas figures add the perfect touch to an old-time celebration. Use the Acworth resident’s kits if you want to create them yourself (Primitive Santa kit, $48; Broom Snowman, $36) or you can buy them already-made ($175 and $85, respectively). For more information visit
Kits are also available at the Dorr Mill store.

Guy MacMillin on Music

Ask everyone who knows him and they will testify that Guy MacMillin of the Keene Sentinel is nuts about the 1950s. He was a local DJ back in his college days, working at WKBK in Keene and later as program director for Laconia’s WEMJ, so he’s had plenty of chances to rock the holiday airwaves.

I can’t help but notice how a couple of mediocre 1950s-era Christmas songs keep coming around every year — like Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” There was a great song back then by Little Bobby Rey called “Rockin’ ‘J’ Bells.” One of the things you wanted from rock ‘n’ roll was something that would terrify your parents. You wanted a song like “Rockin’ ‘J’ Bells” that took Christmas music and turned it over with a serious saxophone riff. I remember adults would say it was sacrilegious, and, of course, we loved that. We forget what a thing it was to have Elvis singing Christmas music. You know he sings “Blue Christmas” in an almost striptease manner. Now it sounds camp and fun, but when that came out it was quite a jolt. — Guy MacMillin

30 years after his death, Elvis is everywhere and earning more than he did while alive. Little Bobby Rey, however, can be hard to find outside collector’s shops. One place to get his “Rockin’ ‘J’ Bells,” plus other wonderful vintage Latin Christmas music (like “December Twenty 5,” by the Flashcats — a holiday version of “Mambo No. 5” made current by Lou Bega), is this CD: “Mambo Santa Mambo; Christmas from the Latin Lounge,” available at

Above: The New Hampshire Toy Factory in Center Barnstead is about as close to Santa’s toy factory as you will find in the Granite State. But it isn’t elves who build the tops and yo-yos and paddleball games. Bob and Paula Oberg (mostly Bob) hand-make their items and sell them at museums and gift shops. Call (603) 776-4545 or e-mail

Above;Handcrafted European glass ornaments, like this one from Christopher Radko, can dress your tree in designs you remember from your childhood. It’s part of a whole retro Christmas line from Radko, including “Shiny Brite” with retro packaging. In New Hampshire, you can find them at Scontsas Fine Jewelry & Home in Nashua ( and Christmas Dove in Barrington (

Susan Laughlin on Food

Although she’s usually sampling the cuisine of others as the food editor of New Hampshire Magazine, Susan Laughlin is quite a cook herself. Along the way she’s picked up ideas for dishes from some of the best chefs in the state, but here she relates a recipe from her own holiday past.

Fruitcake Redemption

1 1/2 cups unsweetened applesauce, preferably homemade
1 stick (8 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark molasses
1/3 cup honey
1 package (14 ounces) mixed dried fruit
1 package (6 ounces) mixed cranberries and golden raisins
1 cup walnuts, toast then coarsely chop (about 1/2 pound)
1 cup pecans, toast then coarsely chop (about 1/2 pound)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon mace (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
Walnut and pecan halves, for garnish
1/4 cup brandy, bourbon or rum

1. Heat the applesauce over moderate heat in a medium non-reactive saucepan. Add the butter, a few pieces at a time, and stir until the butter is melted and the applesauce is bubbling (4 to 5 minutes).

2. Add the sugar, molasses and honey, and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves (about 1 minute). Add the dried fruits and let the applesauce mixture cool to room temperature.

3. Preheat the oven to 275°F. Butter and flour 10
5″ x 3″ x 2″ loaf pans. (If you use tinfoil pans you may want to line with parchment paper.)

4. Toast the nuts lightly (5 to 10 minutes) in the oven on a large sheet pan.

5. Sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, salt, cloves and optional mace into a medium bowl. Add the nuts. Fold into the applesauce-fruit mixture until just blended. Quickly divide the batter among the pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula dipped in water. Press walnut and pecan halves into the tops to decorate.

6. Bake the fruitcakes for 60 to 70 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans for one hour. Unmold them onto a rack and let cool to room temperature. Brush the brandy, bourbon or rum all over the fruitcakes. Wrap tightly first in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil. Store in a cool, dry place for at least one week and up to three months.