At Christmas Time, folks tend to get nostalgic, remembering how Christmas used to be when they were a kid and all. I can remember very well how Christmas was for me, when I was around five years old. The year would have been 1957:
The season started the day after Thanksgiving. Not with getting up early for the 'Black Friday' shopping debacle. There were some folks that did do shopping that day, but it was nothing officially designated with all thehooplah as it is now. We would go to the guy on the corner that had a bunch of trees huddled underneath a light bulb that hung from a drop cord. That was the 'official' start of the season for us. Trees freshly cut from someone that grew them locally. The house I grew up in had nine foot ceilings, so we'd get a big one. Dad would supervise as the older kids cut an inch or two off the bottom of the trunk to help the tree soak up the sugar water we would 'feed' it. Screw the tree down tight in the tree stand, drape Mom's home sewn tree skirt around it and decorate it. The older kids would get the top, the younger kids would get the bottom. We had the old time big lights, bubble lights, a huge box of ornaments, all of them ended up on the tree. We tried stringing popcorn a few years, but with seven kids in the house, no food was safe. Especially popcorn. Throwing the tinsel on the tree was the final ritual.
Then us kids waited for the next step, the arrival of the Montgomery Wards and Sears Christmas catalogs! When they arrived, Mom and Dad would tell us to look through them, put a circle around what we wanted and write our initial in the circle. That way SANTA would know what to bring us. I had my suspicions about the validity of this Santafellah. It just didn't sound right, even to my young ears. My suspicions would turn into full-blooded disbelief on Christmas Eve.
The next step in our Christmas ritual was shopping. With no shopping malls, trudging from store to store in the cold and snow was the practice of the day. Like most kids, I loved the snow. Looking back it sure seemed like it snowed more then. But the memory can be afooler . It's probably seems that way because six inches of snow is a lot deeper for a five-year old than a fifty five year old. My Mom , my little brother and I made our way from store to store, and when there were so many packages we couldn't carry any more, we went back to the car. It was at this tender age that my thoughts about the Great, White-Bearded Fat Elf turned from the fog of suspicion to the beginnings of disbelief. For if SANTA gave the presents to people, what were WE doing all this shopping for?
Then a wondrous thing happened. This Santa guy showed up in our town! And he was fat, had a white beard, and said HO HO HO! It was enough to make me wonder if Santa wasn't for real! In 1957, Santa had his own 'house' on the corner where the YMCA was. Not much of a house, some plywood nailed together with a roof. But it was painted red and green, and had a window the kids used to get a glimpse of Santa while they waited in line to get into his house. My little brother and I waited in line on a very cold afternoon. My Mom stood off to the side with the other mothers, all of them smiling as they talked. It began to snow, and my little brother's nose began to run. Right on down under his nose, over the lips and down the chin. But he fit right in with most of the rest of the kids that had the same problem.
My little brother went in before me, but he didn't last long. He was about 3 years old, and ran out of Santa's house squawling like a pig stuck under a gate. Santa scared hell out of him. But that didn't deter the rest of us. We'd seen other 'sissies' that did the same thing. I was next, and by now I was downright curious about the whole thing, so I marched into Santa's house, and plopped myself on his lap. He gave a loud HO HO HO and asked me if I had been a good boy. Of course I answered in the affirmative. Then he asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I told him I already had circled all I wanted in the catalogs, so he should already KNOW. Santa said he didn't know anything about any catalogs. He asked me again. So I told him a few things, but he didn't inspire much confidence (or belief) in him if he didn't know about the catalogs. Besides, he had the smell of beer on his breath and cigarette nicotine stains on his fingers. I never heard of Santa being a beer drinker, and everybody knew he smoked a pipe. I left his house very unimpressed.
Fast forward to Christmas Eve. Dad would get Grandma and bring her to our house for the holidays. She lived about 50 miles away, and he always went on Christmas Eve day, come hell or high water or deep snow and cold. Grandma was a short woman. Her family was Polish mostly, with a little bit of German thrown in for good measure. Dad would get back, drive up to the house with Grandma in the front and three cases of beer in the back. Dad liked his beer, and he came by it honestly because Grandma liked her beer too. All of us would line up in the living room to welcome Grandma. She would pinch each kid's cheek, and give them a beery kiss. When she pinched the older (and taller) kid's cheeks she'd hold on and pull them down to her level for the kiss.
Our family tradition was to open our gifts on Christmas Eve. Mom and Dad would take all the kids (except my oldest brother) to look at the Christmas lights. Now that was a pretty big deal, even for me. We'd come back home in about an hour, and there would be all kinds of presents under the tree that weren't there when we left! A miracle! Mom and Dad would make a big deal out of telling us that Santa must have visited while we were gone. But I noticed my oldest brother sitting in the kitchen. He was all red in the face and sweaty. While everyone else got more and more excited, I walked into the kitchen and asked him point-blank, "WasSanty really here and bring all them presents, or did you haul them down from the attic?" He told me to shut up. But it didn't matter. I knew that's what happened. I knew all the presents had been in the attic. I had gone present hunting (my brother called it snooping) and found them . But I didn't make a big deal out of it. My Mom and Dad seemed to be getting a lot of enjoyment from the whole thing. So I played along with the Santa bit, and joined everybody else in unwrapping presents.
We never really had a sit-down supper Christmas Eve. Mom would make a big pot of meatballs, or home made pizza, or something similar and we'd 'graze' on the stuff as we took stock of our presents. We'd stay up until the wee hours playing and eating, with my Mom watching and smiling and my Dad drinking beer and playing with our toys. Grandma would try to stay up late with us, but after so many beers the dear old soul would be a combination of tipsy and tired, start talking about Grandpa (who had been dead for years, Grandpa was 30 years older than Grandma) and begin to cry. Some of the kids would help Grandma into her room, and get rewarded with another beery (and teary) kiss. Mom and my sister would get her ready for bed and tuck her in. Eventually everybody would wind down, and we'd head for bed. It was usually a short night.
We used to have a real goose for Christmas Dinner, and we'd get up with Mom and help her get things ready. My Dad would give Mom a Christmas Goose too, but I didn't understand what that was all about until I was older. We'd eat Christmas Goose with all the trimmings, then settle in and play with our stuff some more. Mom, Dad and Grandma would sit at the kitchen table, play cards and drink beer. Except for Mom. She was a teetotaller, so she'd drink tea.
So that's how Christmas was when I was a kid. They are all good memories, even Grandma's beery kisses. She's been gone since 1977, and what I wouldn't give for her to be here and give me one of those kisses this year. Mom and Dad are gone, my oldest brother too. The rest of us have gone our separate ways, and for various reasons (none of them good) we don't see each other much. But life goes on. I've got my share of good memories. Some people do not even have that. So there actually much that I am thankful for, despite the troubles in the world and in our country. Even the memory of the fabricated jolly old elf that so many people tried to convince me existed (that I don't think I EVER believed in) is a good one. A fabrication it most definitely was, but at least in those times it seemed like it was an innocent one. At least it appears that it did no harm to me.
But as I've already said, the memory can be a fooler. Although I do look back, I have no desire to go back to those times. I've never bought into the 'Good Ol' Days' nostalgia business. It is far too easy to remember bit s and pieces of what you want to remember and color those memories differently than they actually were. The only things I really miss about those times are the people that were in them that are no longer here. The rest I can do without. And that includes SANTY CLAUS, HO HO HO!