Last year at this time, I posted a lengthy -- some might say, er, long-winded -- reminiscence of Christmastimes from earlier in this little life of mine. In the weeks that followed that post, a surprising number of PEMs arrived saying surprisingly nice things about the piece. Because of that, I've decided to re-post it this year in reworked form and in two parts, beginning tonight.
Ghosts of Christmases Past
I grew up in a Roman Catholic family, a middle middle-class clan planted in the middle-middle-class community of North Merrick, near the south shore of Long Island, New York -- all of that being a set of conditions which set the tone for many things, including the way Christmas unfolded year after year. ('Planted' -- possibly not the most accurate word. Transplanted might be more like it, my parents having moved there from Jackson Heights, N.Y.C. with my two brothers and me when I reached the six-month-old mark. Oddly enough, the housing development the family bought into was called the flower homes, all the streets bearing names like Verbena Avenue, Larkspur Avenue, Crocus Avenue. Crocus Avenue, by the way: our street. So planted, transplanted -- whichever.)
Not a spacious home, our little house. Decidedly unspacious, in my memory -- cramped, even. The ground floor: a tiny kitchen into which my parents had rammed a small dinner table; a small dining room, which saw gustatory action only when holiday company happened by; a living room -- the largest space in the liveable parts of the house, but again, not what I would call, er, capacious; a teeny bathroom, two small bedrooms. The second floor: two more small bedrooms bookending a closet, along with a microscopic crawlspace. I mention all this to draw a picture of a home notably short on storage capacity, a serious limitation for a family mothered by a professional packrat. The basement, in theory, had a fair amount of cubic footage for storage. In practice, most of it consisted of the laundry area, my father's shop, and an unfinished play area, part of which had been cordoned off by a decrepit piano and a vaguely Japanese-style standing screen to be utilized for desperately-needed storage. That left the basement's built-in bar which, sadly, never experienced loud and/or happy people swilling liquids -- instead it found itself pressed into use as storage space.
Not an affluent bunch, my clan, during my younger years. On the contrary, obsessive austerity was the family m.o. Clothes were picked up at cut-rate stores and passed down the line once outgrown (eventually winding up on my pudgy bod), and a fair amount of the furniture seemed to have been built by my father, with the notable exception of the living room sofa and armchairs, whose lives my mother extended through repeated patching and re-covering.
Many of the nicest items in the house were given by or inherited from relatives, including a sizeable portion of the Christmas decorations, which I think came by way of my Uncle Sam, the family's only representative of the Jewish tradition, who married into our gene pool and lived in Brooklyn with my Aunt Florrie in a townhouse that, for many years, functioned as my only exposure to an affluent lifestyle.
Despite the general threadbare living mode, we had a startling abundance of Christmas paraphernalia, including boxes and boxes of old, interesting German ornaments -- again, as far as I know, courtesy of Uncle Sam -- which contrasted nicely with the mass-produced stuff the family picked up over time. The decorations spent most of the year in the second-floor crawlspace, surviving summers that essentially transformed the storage tunnel into a solar oven, miraculously making it from one Christmas to the next with most casualties occurring once they were actually out of the boxes and on the tree.
The holiday season began slowly in those years, not at the now customary mid-November creep/6 a.m. day-after-Thanksgiving gallop. Halloween passed by. A few leisurely weeks of candy-consumption later Thanksgiving showed up. From there, the procession of days constituted a slow gathering of steam until about two weeks before the 25th, when everyone abruptly seemed to wake up to the alarming fact that Christmas lay 14 short days off. Which unleased pure pandemonium. Enjoyable pandemonium, at least from my perspective. Darkness fell earlier and earlier, until one evening found my father outside stringing up lights in the cold December air. Somewhere around the middle of the month, someone picked up a tree and the living room became centered around something other than TV. The tree wound up in front of the living room window, the better to show off its soon-to-be-excessively-tinseled splendor to the neighborhood. Old, worn boxes materialized around it, producing far too many ornaments. Festive Christmas candles and other assorted tchochkies (or is it chotchkies?) appeared around the living and dining rooms, along with glass bowls of sour balls, ribbon candy and peanut brittle, pandering to the family's eternal sugar jones. The household record player alternated Christmas carols hooted by Bing Crosby with Christmas carols performed on bells, chimes and the occasional overly-fruity Hammond organ. And the teeny manger scene surfaced, materializing on the top tier of the thigh-high dad-made bookshelf by the front stairway. Minus the baby Jesus, of course. He snuck in during the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning.
The manger scene: another interesting element of our Christmas season. Foreign-made, I think, nicely crafted and painted, nothing cheesy about it, except arguably its music-box component, tucked away underneath which tinkled out "Away In A Manger" whenever someone cranked the bugger up. Which brings up the word 'manger.' When did everyone begin substituting the word 'cresh' for 'manger'? Sometime during the last 10 or 15 years a consensus was reached behind my back, manifesting suddenly enough that it felt like a kind of mysterious telepathic programming, as if it were the will of Landru, leaving me out of the loop. Not that it matters. Just seems strange.
As Christmas slouched closer and the air in the house grew tangy with the scent of sacrificial pine tree, homes all over town found themselves abruptly adorned with strings of lights and electric candelabras and glowing plastic figures of Santa and reindeer and candy canes and snowmen and solemn Jewish couples with babies named Jesus. Several blocks up Jerusalem Avenue (I am not making that name up) from our street, in the shadow of the Southern State Parkway overpass, the annual Christmas tree market got underway. I actually tried working there once, maybe during my 9th or 10th year. Man, I hated that. I remember standing out in a heavy snowfall one Saturday morning, dragging trees to buyers' cars in the hopes they'd tip me well enough to make the suffering worth it -- they didn't, it wasn't -- and I remember looking up into the sky, thick, white flakes swirling down around me, my hands aching with cold, ears hurting, snow collecting in my collar. I asked myself what I was doing there, couldn't come up with a good enough answer, came to my senses, went home to sit by our tree -- benignly lit up, massively overdecorated -- where I watched Saturday morning television dreck on our console TV and ate a bowl of sugar frosted chocolate bombs. Much better.
At some point, someone -- maybe the local weekly newspaper, Merrick Life -- began sponsoring a, er, front door contest, motivating homeowners to do up their front entrances as creatively -- elaborate wreaths and light arrangements; large, disturbingly happy Santa faces; outsized simulations of gift wrapping -- as they could, tossing a further point of concentrated color and light into the mix. I liked all this, actually. Still do.
And then, of course, the radio pumped an increasing amount of Christmas music into the house, advertising flyers featuring SALES, SALES, SALES slithered through the mail slot, and a growing avalanche of Christmas imagery/music poured into the living room via the idiot box. Until Christmas eve, when one of the local New York City stations -- channel 11, maybe -- broadcast a yule log burning in a fireplace all evening long, and things quieted down.
In my younger years, no one in the family attended midnight mass. My father was one of the ushers at the 8 a.m. service, we customarily ended up there by default. That meant I would get shunted off to bed sometime before midnight, when the parental work crew finished the last-minute wrapping and staging of gifts. Considering the heap of presents that awaited come Christmas morning, I can only assume they'd been stashed off-premises in the days beforehand. As I've already laid out, the house was modest in size, drastically lacking in storage space. There not only weren't many hidey-holes I didn't track down in the pre-Christmas days, there just weren't many effective spots of concealment, certainly none of any real cubic-footage. It was enough to make one believe in overweight pixies in garish outfits using animal slave labor to transport Christmas giftage.
Somewhere between my 10th and 12th years -- between the time my mother moved out of the conjugal bedroom into separate quarters and my eldest brother went into the Coast Guard -- tradition changed. Midnight mass became part of the mix. Prior to that, I would rise around 4 or 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, my pudgy body agitated from more anticipation than one little nervous system could keep anesthetized with sleep. I would stumble quietly downstairs, crank up the lights on the tree and sit scoping out the display of presents, the world outside and the house around me silent and still. Just me, a pile of gifts, and an overactive brain riffling through thousands of possibilities for what might be lurking under all that wrapping.
Actually unwrapping anything would result in me catching absolute hell when the parental units woke up. Likewise for anything like playing music or charging up the TV, the single difference being that hell would arrive sooner. My only option was the only option: me sitting alone, waiting until the day commenced and we went to church or ate breakfast or whatever the hell we did in any given year before the gift-opening ritual.
I suspect most families have their version of holiday rituals. I sure as hell hope they do. I'd hate to think mine was the only one -- trapped in slightly goofy behavior patterns, triggered when the daylight grew short and the yearly leftover-turkey assault started up. Some of the rituals were more general in form and timing, others more specific, more rigid. Case in point: the unwrapping of presents.
In the years when 8 a.m. mass was the rule, the present opening waited until later in the morning, until my parents had fortified themselves with a meal before stumbling, sleep-deprived, into the rest of the day. This, of course, was pure torture for me. In later years, as early mass blessedly became a distant memory, the unwrapping hour grew a bit more flexible, though still forbidden until after a round of morning chow and caffeine. It was during those mornings that I learned the delicate art of hovering -- never actually hanging over the person(s) to whom one is beaming psychic commands (UNWRAP PRESENTS! UNWRAP PRESENTS!), but never truly disappearing from sight. Never nagging, but always present. Always somewhere nearby. Waiting.
Inevitably, my relentless mental assault wore them down. Chairs got pushed back from the kitchen table, dishes went into the sink, people moved toward the living room. All members of the family materialized as if beamed in -- focused, intent, making little conversation.
The old man presided over the ceremony, taking a seat near ground zero. The rest of us found a chair or patch of rug. Homage was paid to the household's unofficial 11th Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Throw Out Used Wrapping Paper) with a centrally-placed cardboard carton, The Patriarch then parceled out the first round of stuff. Everyone received a present, everyone opened their present, appropriate noises/comments/silences. Another round followed that. Then another. If, between any round, someone needed to get up -- telephone call, potty break, numb butt -- the proceedings were briefly put on hold. Briefly. With the person's return, action recommenced until every gift had been handed out. In my memory, I see the post-gift-ritual living room looking like a bomb had landed on it, like someone had broken open a monstrous piņata, leaving the area littered with debris. Not, I suspect, the actual scene. My mother may have been a packrat, the house may have been bulging with accumulated STUFF, but everything had its place, and that was the general state of things, even in the wake of a gift frenzy.
After that, everyone else in the family took off to whatever responsibilities awaited. For my parents, that usually meant Christmas dinner prep. For my brothers, well, who knows. My oldest brother had eight years on me, so he was out of the mix as soon as he could manage it. Terry, the middle brother, had six years on me -- he took the same path. They returned during the holidays from the Coast Guard/college, respectively, sometimes with company -- sweethearts or friends far from home. And when my father's mother was alive -- the only grandparent to make it to my epoch -- she usually took the train out from Brooklyn, often bringing a bakery cake to contribute to the dinner.
So for a while -- two, three hours -- I was left to entertain myself. Which generally meant remaining in the living room to survey the wreckage and wring some fun out of it. Which I sometimes found surprisingly hard to do. My parents, bless their hearts, usually managed to shower me with a fair amount of toys, though rarely toys I might have asked for, so I found myself in the odd position of abundance, but usually not the abundance I would have chosen had I been able to choose. Which created the classic picture of material plenty creating little joy. (D'OH!) And when I occasionally managed to entertain myself with something I'd been given, my parents often regretted it as the proceedings had a tendency to become disorderly and raucous. I'm remembering rubber tipped darts flying around the household, I'm remembering plastic balls hurled at stacked-up, soon-to-be-wildly-airborne plastic Yogi Bears -- all Christmas presents, all items I'm sure my parents quickly regretted. Interestingly, what seemed to work the best for all concerned were books -- fiction, nonfiction, comic books; didn't matter. I loved reading, my parents probably loved the silence.
I'm not sure why I wasn't consulted re: potential gifts. The one time I remember trying to ask for something, I did so via a letter to Santa Claus, probably around my seventh year. The family had had two kittens -- Puss and Boots -- both of whom checked out early, one from sickness, one under the wheels of the family car. I mourned their passings, dealing with it by writing Santa to ask for another kitten. My parents took the completed letter, assuring me they'd funnel it on the appropriate party. Come Christmas morning, I found a stuffed pussycat under the tree. A little pink stuffed kitty. A nice thought, but not what I was looking for, and the first step in my disillusionment re: The Fat Man.
So I killed time between the gift orgy and dinner. Once in a while I'd go bother a neighbor kid, but usually I kept to myself, and the times I wound up with something good to read were the best times.
The holiday dinners -- Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter -- were the high points of the family year, I think. My mother -- not normally an inspiring cook, I suspect because she loathed being trapped in the housewife thing, with its repetitive, low-status, mind-numbing duties -- threw together excellent feeds, meals I remember to this day with an automatic drool-response. And the combination of the staggering expanse of excellent food and guests brought out the best in the family. Hilarious conversation, exchanges that burst into one-liner fests, abundant laughter, good cheer. Times that stand out in my memory as genuine fun, times when I saw the best aspects of my family. Rich memories, memories that make me smile.
Here in Spain, it is often the custom to linger over a meal, drawing out the time together with conversation and long, relaxed eating/drinking. The time after the meal proper when the diners relax and enjoy being with other is called sobremesa -- literally, over table. It reminds me of the way holiday dinners in our home lingered on, through all the various courses, the second and third rounds, the dessert and beyond. Just sitting, enjoying. When I think back on it, that to me best embodied the holidays -- time together when we could, however tense and fractious our life in general may have been, create some fun together. Fun -- often a rare commodity in our family, or at least that's how it stands in my memory. Except during the holidays.