If you were born and raised south of the South, as I was, you may not have quite the same holiday traditions – and Christmas memories – as others can so lovingly and longingly relate at this time of year.
A cardboard fireplace may not be one of them.
I was reminded of this mostly forgotten relic of our family life when reading Terri Evans’ piece about her loft-living flat tree. Terri’s memory of her mom’s “fabulous faux fireplace” brought mine flooding back.
A native of Miami, I was raised there by a Swedish-American father and a mother with deep Virginian roots who ought to have known better than to subject me (and my four brothers and sisters) to year-round sub-tropical solar misery. But because it was my parents’ misfortune to be hit by a late-March blizzard in Ohio, it was my mine to be home for the holidays where the high 50s qualifies as a brutal cold front.
Naturally, as in most South Florida homes of the period, our concrete-block ranch house contained no traditional source of heat, except the outdoor kind. The closest thing we had to conventional heating was a couple of gas-fired wall strip heaters that my dad had long before shut off due to a bitter dispute with the gas company. When the temperature dipped below 60, he would drag in from the carport (no garage) a cylindrical kerosene-burning heater. When lit, this portable furnace would grace the family room (known as a “Florida room”) with an oily ambience, leading to a soot-stained ceiling and a fair amount of heat – as long as you stayed within about two feet of it. Its presence indoors made that part of the house kind of like a tropical campsite with walls.
Lacking anything approximating a fireplace to hang the family’s Christmas stockings was a bit of a challenge.
So annually, following removal of our attic-stored Christmas decorations otherwise imported from Ohio, was the ritual unfolding of the holiday hearth. It was a hideous brick paperboard fireplace that, once assembled, could stand up by itself only if you leaned it against the wall as was intended.
Waist-high, its primary feature was a cardboard brick pattern printed back before we could adequately photo-optimize onto paper what brick actually looks like. This was more like cartoon brick. Topped by a black paperboard mantle.
Our stockings, therefore, could not be hung (as the poem goes) by the chimney with care. As far as I knew, there was no chimney anywhere within several hundred miles. Our Clement Moore care went into trying to ensure the fireplace did not tip over, top-heavy with stockings for a family of seven.
In this sun-soaked environment, reading holiday books featuring bundled-up Northern kids playing with snowballs, sleds and skates always had a surreal quality for me. It was as if the rest of the country got to actually experience something at Christmas we could only dream about in Miami. Why weren’t there any holiday books nostalgically depicting kids who went to the beach the day after Christmas only because their relatives from up North were visiting?
Besides, it’s tough to take the whole Santa thing too seriously if the prospect of him entering your house through the chimney is … highly unlikely. To a five-year-old, that paperboard fireplace made buying into the whole storybook Santa scenario pretty dubious.
When my wife and I moved up north to the South (Atlanta) and began raising a child of our own, one of the most important things to me was to have a real, working fireplace in our house. Carrying wood inside, sparking up a fire and keeping it stoked are no longer foreign (Northern?) concepts to me. Over the years, we’ve accumulated living room-pictures of our son, now over 6 foot tall, that benchmark his relentless growth by the height of our home’s mantle.
I’m not certain where the cardboard fireplace we once used annually in December in Miami ended up. This was before the days when recycling consciousness captivated our generation. I suppose modern cardboard fireplaces are now marked and sold as 100 percent recyclable and made of post-consumer paper.
My memories are not so disposable. Like most every day when I grew up south of the South, they’re mostly sunny but partly cloudy.