2016-12-29 / Columnists

Babylon News & Muse

My memories of Christmas from when I was a child are still strong. From the time when we were small, we had a crèche on top of the piano in the living room. My mother would put in all the figures except that of the infant Jesus. We were all encouraged to do good deeds and for each good deed, we could put a piece of straw in the crèche.

I suspect that some of us may have fudged the good deed once or twice, but the pieces of straw piled up until we were sure the baby Jesus would have enough for a soft, warm bed.

Like most of our friends, we were probably more concerned with going through store catalogues to pick out gifts we wanted for Christmas, making our list and checking it twice! We listed many items without looking at the price tags, although as we got older we realized that with six children in the family, cost was a factor.

As we got a little older, we would go shopping for gifts for our parents and siblings. We would try to save our allowance and sometimes Dad might slip us an extra dollar to use while shopping. At that time there was a Woolworth’s as well as the Necessary Store, both located in the middle part of Deer Park Avenue, almost opposite one another. You could find a lot to buy for five or 10 cents.

Occasionally another gift store would open for a brief period and we would check out what they had as gifts. I remember one store, located near the bakery, which had those tiny houses made of cardboard and painted with a nubby surface that looked like snow. Cellophane windows made them look as though they were stained glass or lit from within. As I recall, we spent a good deal of time trying to figure out if a brother or sister would appreciate “this or that.” Then we would bring them home in triumph to hide the treasures from the intended recipients.

Initially, Mom or one of my older sisters (Isabel or Janet) might help us wrap our gifts, but at some point I became the wrapper. I still enjoy wrapping gifts and even find myself doing it now at Barnes & Noble as a fundraiser for a club I joined. My aunt would invite me to her apartment overlooking the East River after work (I worked in Midtown at that point). We would have dinner and then I would wrap her gifts until it was time to go to bed. I taught Abby, TJ and Kristen Kane, and then my three nephews, how to wrap gifts. Then, when I moved out of the house, I would find myself up until after midnight, wrapping gifts at Isabel’s before I went home to bed. I would be up early Christmas morning to wrap my own pile of gifts for others!

At school, we were busy making ornaments, cutting out paper Christmas trees and decorating them. As all of us attended St. Joseph’s School, we went with our class for occasional visits to the church just across the parking lot. It was not well lit at that time of day, but that just added to the sense of mystery and holiness.

During those years, we had a lot of snow on a regular basis, and when we weren’t helping get the house ready for guests, we would play outside, checking Argyle Lake regularly to see if it was safe for us to go skating.

Christmas Eve would come and our excitement would build to a fever pitch, driving my poor mother mad with our antics. We never developed much of a Christmas Eve tradition, and even today I miss that but every year my mother would call us to the living room, where the tree lights shone, and read us the Nativity story as written by Luke.

When we were very young we went to bed as soon as Mom could persuade us. When we were nine or 10, we would dress in warm clothing, light a candle and go caroling. At some point, Mr. and Mrs. Farrington, our next-door neighbors, would stop by for a drink or two. We were told to stay for a little while, and Mr. Farrington (who was about 80, I think) would pull out his harmonica and play some songs for us. Then it was time for us to leave.

The next morning, after we had opened our gifts, we would dress and go to Mass as a family. If I had gone to midnight Mass, I would stay home and start getting breakfast ready. We would have orange juice, scrambled eggs, bacon or sausages, and rolls fresh from the bakery, finishing with a coffee cake. Then we would all relax for a while before jumping up and preparing for our visitors.

By four o’clock most of our guests had arrived. Usually our number was between 25 and 30 people. More gifts were opened and a round of drinks and hors d'oeuvres were served. Stories and anecdotes about the family and friends, the war (three of the uncles had served in both World Wars) were told and re-told with laughter and love as the main ingredients.

At last, one by one, our guests reluctantly departed until the house was quiet once more. Having four daughters came in handy then, as we all cleaned up and did the dishes and finally drifted up to bed. Dad was always the last one up. He would smoke one last pipe, fill the tree holder with water, double-check the ashtrays and adjust the thermostat. He would make sure that only the light at the bottom of the stairs was lit, and then lock the doors before heading to bed too. Christmas was over for another year.

Well, today much of this holiday has passed, and everyone is sitting back, trying to relax, get the place cleaned up, the sheets on guest beds changed and staring at piles of leftovers in the refrigerator. If you have children, you may be telling them to bring all their gifts to their rooms and perhaps even write thank you notes to those who gave them the gifts. New Year’s Eve is a couple of days away, and you can think about it tomorrow.

I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year!

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