2016-12-22 / Columnists

Babylon News & Muse

Well, if Saturday morning’s snow didn’t show you, perhaps the arctic blasts have— it’s winter, even though it arrived officially yesterday. We may not have a white Christmas, but at least we had a taste of the white stuff a week early. Fortunately, it was gone by the next day, so we could continue with plans for the holidays that arrive this weekend.

This is the week that, as a child, I would recruit several of my friends in the neighborhood to practice singing Christmas carols. We would tramp down our cellar steps and practice the songs several times. I was better at remembering the lyrics than carrying a tune, but no one ever complained about that. We would find and light candle stubs, wrap ourselves up to stay warm and start walking around Argyle Park, singing as though our lives depended on it.

If we knew you, and your lights were on, you were serenaded.

I love to sing and always did. If I won the lottery, one thing I would do is to take singing lessons. I probably sang the carols louder than the others, but no one told me to hush (thank heavens).

During the week before Christmas we would spend the evenings watching variety shows such as Andy Williams and Perry Como. My father would sit in the big chair, puffing his pipe, while my mother sat on the couch with me and the other children, all of us stringing popcorn and cranberry chains for the Christmas tree.

Most years we got the tree a couple of weeks before Christmas, piling into the car with Dad to go to the Christmas tree lot. For some reason I think we went to a place on the south side of Sunrise Highway, perhaps in Lindenhurst. Whichever of the six kids went along, we would race around the trees, chasing one another and playing hide and seek. But we would eventually settle down to business, looking for trees, or critiquing those father thought might do. We would scrutinize the tree from every angle. This one had a hole in the middle and that one was too skinny. We needed a tree that was no less than six feet tall and was usually closer to seven. When we finally found one that we all agreed on, within the right price range, Dad would have it tied up and placed atop the car.

By then, we were all frozen and wanted to get home.

When I was little, the tree usually was kept next to the garage. Later, when Dad got a bit older, the tree was placed on the cold front porch where it was out of the elements but still kept cold.

We would pester my mother, asking when we could trim the tree. When Christmas drew closer we grew more vociferous and Mom finally gave in.

Putting the tree up was a serious affair. First the heavy cabinet with the marble top had to be moved into the corner of the dining room, which displaced a couple of dining room chairs. The china figurines that sat high on a shelf above the table lamp for the cabinet had to be taken down and carefully stored.

Next “the men” (my father and brothers John and Rob) would cut the base of the tree so it could fit into the tree stand. Sometimes they would have to cut the top back as well.

When it was finally in the stand, they would carry it into the living room. It always went into the northwest corner of the living room, next to the door that led into the dining room. It was not unusual to find that it was still too tall and it would have to be trimmed some more.

Finally, the tree was hauled upright and turned several times until the barest section faced the corner and was invisible. Cord was used to keep the tree up straight and to prevent it from falling over.

At this point, Dad was exhausted and we would have to wait a day or two to let the branches settle down. We set to work making the popcorn and cranberry chains as we watched Perry Como sing “Oh, Holy Night.”

Finally, the great night arrived and we would traipse down to the oil burner room where the ornaments and other Christmas décor were kept. It took some courage to go into the boiler room, which was dark, and the boiler made scary sounds! Finally we had everything ready and we began to prepare the ornaments.

At this point Dad (and later my brothers) would hang the lights on the tree. This was a tiresome chore that seemed to take forever!

All of us wanted to hang the “special” ornaments, which had been handed down by Grandma Gallagher. I wish I had asked more about them, because my mother and Grandma didn’t get along too well. To this day it is a mystery why Grandma gave those old ornaments to Mom. They were very thin and light and broke easily in clumsy hands. The most popular of all was a Santa Claus face that we all wanted to unwrap and thus claim the right to hang it. There were also some chains made of smallish glass balls that I think came from my mother’s grandmother. Naturally, there were ornaments each of us had made, usually at school. They tended to end up near the back of the tree…I suspect that Mom moved them while we were at school!

At last it was time to put on the chains made of popcorn and cranberries and the silver “rain” or icicles on the branches. The lights were flipped on and we all stared at what we had created. It was always lovely.

On Christmas Eve, the stockings would be hung in order of age, down the handrail from the landing, waiting to be filled by some elf during that long cold night.

When I think what my parents had to accomplish that night I am extra grateful to them.

The next morning always seemed stretched out. No one was to make a noise. When we woke, we would creep out of our bedrooms and make our way to the top of the stairs. As other siblings joined us we would move one step lower, until we could see the bulging stockings through the railings. The first one or two children would be fairly quiet. No one was supposed to wake Mom and Dad. But with six children sitting on the cold hard stairs restlessly, it seldom took long for them to join us.

Mom and Dad would go down and turn on the coffee and the tree lights, and finally signal us it was time. We would usually start with the stockings, but it didn’t take long to demolish them. Then the chaos would really start. We began to hand out the gifts and rip off the carefully wrapped paper. Christmas had finally arrived!

Merry Christmas to you all!

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