My ardent followers and weary friends will certainly attest to my love of most things Christmas, not to mention my enthusiasm for Christmas-themed posts. It didn’t come out of nowhere–which is a fancy, literary way to say that it did come from somewhere, like just about everything.
To cut to the quick, I wasn’t the happiest kid. It takes an effort to find a picture of me smiling, but each year as the days turned dark and cold, my family’s humble holidays brought moments of magical respite from the rest of the year. It wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was better and in endeavoring to make it similarly special for my children I’ve found even greater joy and satisfaction as an adult–so right up front there’s a lesson for you: focus on making some other people happy and it’s likely you’ll get a little good back for yourelf….
Now, to be clear, when I say “Christmas” we are talking about an extended period which began before Thanksgiving and persisted through New Years to Epiphany–the last of those happy “Twelve Days of Christmas”–the very sort of Holiday over-reach that drives Christian extremists nutso. Not that I care what they think. For many of my generation, “Christmas” began with the arrival of the Sears, Roebuck & Company “Wish Book” and it’s myriad, fantastical possibilities–toys I had never imagined, let alone seen, and mostly likely never would, but of which I could marvel and dream. (all this and a ladies lingerie section, too–the Wishbook was the original internet). Within moments of it’s arrival, I had a ballpoint pen in my hand, circling anything interesting with reckless disregard for reality, or anyone else who might want to read those pages. I never seemed to notice that I would get none of it–the magic was in the dream, not the reality, which was never half as entrancing as the catalog imagery. I mean, all that crap broke by New Years Day, in any case.
The next great holiday milepost was our church’s annual “Hanging of The Greens” night–a massive covered-dish dinner, at which hundreds of people–mostly the older folks and families with young children–gathered and sat at long tables, partaking in the seemingly endless bounty of casseroles, gelatin-based salads, and chewy white rolls. After dinner, the men would go to the huge sanctuary and decorate the half dozen or more trees, the hundreds of poinsettias, wreaths, swags, bows–it was truly spell-binding, and it’s disappointing that I have been unable to locate a picture. While the men scaled ladders and hefted trees, the women cleaned up dinner (ha!) then adjourned, as did the children, to their various Sunday School classrooms to decorate them with craft decorations we had made ourselves. At the end of the evening, we’d all gather in the sanctuary for a small lesson, a few Christmas hymns, and a benediction. I invariably went home exhausted, but excited. Christmas was really on the way. It’s odd to me now, three decades after my scandalous, sin-tainted family–with the adulterous father, the cloying mother, and their no-good, unruly little boy– was quietly marginalized and driven from that church, to recall how warm and inviting those halls were, as familiar as–and far more comfortable and safe–than my own home.
We had had to get through Thanksgiving first, not that it was a chore for a kid–relatives magically appeared in my grandparent’s living room, food filled the tables as if conjured from some mystical autumnal netherworld. In a tough year I had to help set the table, though I was hardly trusted with the “good dishes” and crystal that, with the exception of three meals a year (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter) rested, inviolable, gathering dust in my grandmother’s corner cupboard. Looking back, I have to wonder if those glasses were really crystal–hell, I don’t even know what crystal is, compared to glass, and it’s not a luxury in which my particular circle indulges (we don’t even have “good dishes,” but a collection of mismatched plates and bowls, the unbroken remnants of several sets bought at thrift shops in Pittsburgh and Philomath, Oregeon–linked not by size or style, but by color–vaguely)–but it seemed remarkably classy to me. We used the “nice napkins,” and they weren’t folded, but rolled and gathered in soft cotton scrolls by napkin rings (napkin accessories? oh brave new world!).
And that wasn’t the half of it. The turkey was always huge–it cooked all day, while I huddled in the living room, a fire in the fireplace, watching Thanksgiving parades on television. I remember waking on Thanksgiving morning, my mother clattering around in the kitchen making some side dish or another to take to Mummum & Grandpa’s house, carols playing in the background, the TV turned on–and up loud–so she could “listen to the parade” while she worked. The Macy’s Parade: giant balloons. More magic. I’ve negotiated with my wife to allow the playing of Christmas carols beginning on Thanksgiving Day, because that’s when it feels right to start.
I’m not a turkey aficionado, but I do appreciate the scent of a good, roasting bird mingled with onions and a hint of celery. We ate late in the day, as the sun set, a typical lower middle class family wrapped in the warmth of convention, the illusion of luxury–my wise-ass great-uncle George up from his haunts as a beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking, genuine artist from old town Alexandria cracking jokes about our affected formality in the day, reaching over someone for a gravy boat and quipping, “now, this isn’t done in the best of families” and somehow seeming both polite and, in retrospect, just a little critical of the whole Norman Rockwell dog and pony show. Bemused, that’s the word I want. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to go back and soak up his benevolent raillery as a perceptive adult. There’s a lot more of him in me than a love of turtleneck sweaters and scotch on the rocks.
It wasn’t a holiday of originality–everything was rigidly conventional, as if pulled from the pages of a Thanksgiving manual: turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole with mushroom soup and those odd canned, dried onions crusted on the top, cranberry “sauce” on one of those alleged crystal plates, direct from a can, sliced into magenta medallions, quivering modestly every time someone bumped the table. We had real butter–not margarine, or “oleo” as my grandfather called it–and, in later years, crescent rolls. Not actual croissants, but the factory-made homage; I know you know of what I speak: fat-laden white bread triangles delivered compressed into a cardboard tube that explodes into full-scale carbo-reality when one bangs it on the side of the kitchen counter–poof!–like freaking David Copperfield (the magician, not the Dickensian protagonist). Unroll the lump of dough onto a tray, separate into triangles–it’s perforated, thank the gods–and roll them into little whatever-shaped rolls. These were the epitome of classy, almost reckless holiday indulgence. Of course, a can of these puppies now goes for over $2.00, making them more expensive, ounce for ounce, than gourmet bread from the bakery, so maybe we were onto something.
I was a kid, and the oldest grandchild by seven years, so my earliest memories were of being the only child at a table full of adults, and like a good kid I kept my mouth shut and listened to the adults-though I really only recall that, with my mother and aunt both being nurses, the conversation inevitably turned to talk of medical procedures and the sloppier aspects of physiology. Yech. Each year around the holidays I see articles on how to remain pleasant in the company of one’s wild-eyed tea-bag conservative uncle, but I think I’d find a swaggering gun-luvin’ Toby Keith Republican preferable to an extended dialogue on the post-surgical complications following a bowel resection. Just keep that in mind when you’re courting: limit family trees to one or less medical professionals–or suffer the consequences in silence.
There was not midnight shopping. In fact, if one forgot to buy something there was one option–a shamefaced knock on the neighbor’s door, but of course this never happened, not at Thanksgiving. Folks planned accordingly–you did last minute shopping, filled the gas tank in the car, and maybe even got a prescription filled. We’re soft, now, and lazy with the expectation of convenience, when with a little planning and a little restraint we could allow everyone to enjoy their holidays. I’m not immune. This past year, visiting my sister, we realized that some items were missing from the pantry and my wife and I heroically volunteered toss aside our convictions and venture out to WalMart. Our cashier was an 86-year old great-grandmother who hadn’t just been assigned to work Thanksgiving morning, she’d been split-shifted, scheduled to work 6-11 in the morning and 6-11 that evening, and then 6-3 the next morning. What kind of bastards do that to an employee??
We did shop on Black Friday, though I’d never heard that term until sometime in the past decade. For us, residents of a sleepy town in the Alleghenies, it was not about the deals and sales but about variety. It was a time when Main Streets were starting to die, but Malls were still a largely urban and suburban phenomena–like Chinese food. Every year (and it seems like it was forever even though I’m actually talking about a string of maybe 7 or 8 years) we would rise early, drive south to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and pick up my Aunt Jean and her best friend Nell. Uncle Ernie, and Nell mysterious, never-seen husband never attended. We would then drive an hour west to Monroeville, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb with the largest mall in the region.
It was amazing. The stores were arranged on two levels–if you can believe it–a first AND a second floor, with a large ice skating rink in the center, three large department stores (Kaufman’s, Gimbel’s, and Horne’s), and all manner of small, interesting specialty shops–including an entire store dedicated to just toys. All toys, all the time! And a store full of music–National Record Mart!–a store full of organs. Organs! Some guy sat on a bench at the front of the store and played all damned day–Christmas carols with the automatic bosa nova beat. Wow. All that, and Monroeville Mall was famous, too: ever see the classic zombie movie “Dawn of The Dead”? The one with all the Zombies at the mall? Yup.
I was promptly set loose–and I was rich. My birthday was earlier in November, and I would be flush with gift cash–twenty, sometimes even thirty dollars of it, and that’s in 1970s money. Aunt Jean always slipped me a few extra bucks, and other adults would hand me fives and tens to buy presents for each other. Grandmother: buy something for your mom. Mom: buy something for your sister and your dad. Dad: I’m gonna beat you with a stick if you look at me again. Etc. I had all the Mall to prowl, as long as I met up with the family for lunch at the Horne’s (?) That’s right. It was a store. With a restaurant inside. And they had the best damned grilled cheese sandwiches. Magnificent grilled cheese sandwiches, and they weren’t all smooshed down into a chewy mess like mom’s. These were crispy, yet tender, golden hued, and was it just me or did the “Behold, I bring tidings of great joy…” Angels hover around the plate when the waitress tossed it onto the table. Sandwiches of great joy. That’s right.
The independence was the thing–just me, a digital wristwatch, and a time and place to meet. I wandered around, enjoying the decorations, the carols, the displays of cheesy mechanical elf figures sawing the same pieces of wood, painting the same toy trains, wrapping the same presents hour after hour, week after week, year after year. I enjoyed the hustle and bustle–all those people, all those packages, all crammed together. The shopping rarely took more than an hour–what kind of 10 year old puts that much thought into presents? The rest of the day I just wandered, taking it all in, reveling. There was just nothing like it at home–no huge crowds, no robot elves, and certainly no wander all day freedom. I was hooked on the novelty of it as well as the excitement.
Each year, on the way home, we would eat at a restaurant called The Corners in New Alexandria, PA–I think it’s a bank now, and if there was anything special about it, I couldn’t tell you what it was–except that we ate there every year because it was out of the suburbs and a little less than half the way home. I don’t remember actually eating there (probably a grilled cheese sandwich), or if it was really great or just average, though I’m guessing the latter–my recollection is that it was one of those half-step up from a diner deals that were pervasive before the rise of the corporate “improvement” on the model–Denny’s, and that lot, but I remember that we were always hungry, the food was always great, everyone (even my eternally angry father) was always happy, and it was the second time in a day that we ate in a restaurant. We didn’t even do that on vacation! It didn’t hurt that Aunt Jean was a wonderful, intelligent, warm and loving presence–actually my dad’s aunt, she was like an extra grandmother (right down to the socks and underwear she gave me each year for Christmas). I was happy simply to be around her, which–after a chocolate sundae–didn’t stop me from falling asleep on the way home.
Part 2 is On The Way….