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Ghosts of Christmas Past, er, Present Part 4–Christmas Eve Now

 Part 1 The Hanging of The Greens

Part 2 On The First Day of Christmas

Part 3 Getting There From Here

We’ve had some good Christmas Eve celebrations over the past two decades or so, since my wife and I started celebrating together.  Each year we gather at my in-laws home with however many relatives and friends are available–sometimes as few as nine of us, sometimes closer to 29–and  spend the afternoon talking and laughing, catching up, calling out, the usual–with the occasional decimation of a shrimp cocktail and a cheese & crackers plate thrown in, but the main attraction is my mother-in-law’s meal, a combination of her Polish and Italian traditions that suits my tastes even more than a Thanksgiving Dinner.

S2007 Christmas_130 2007 Christmas_134he cooks a marinara sauce that is not only the best I’ve ever eaten, but which has a unique character unlike any I’ve tasted before, rich and simple, flavored with smoky cooked parmesan–and she only makes it at Christmas.  This is served over spaghetti, along with pierogies, fresh baked rolls, and a multitude of delicious sides for a meatless meal that makes both carb-counters and I cry, but for diametrically opposed reasons.  If you don’t get my implication: I’m the one crying for joy.

After dinner, there’s a bit more hanging around, but eventually the pious among us (which is pretty much everyone who doesn’t live at my house) takes turns slipping off to get dressed up for midnight mass.  When the time is right, then, we take our leave amidst Christmas wishes, but not to head home.  For the next 90 minutes or so we idle around town and the adjoining sprawl and take in the Christmas lights, carols singing from the car stereo.  There’s a lot of small talk and a lot of consideration as we evaluate the displays, but we’re not harsh judges.  If you’ve made the effort to celebrate by decorating your home/yard/pets you’ve got my appreciation.

For many years we did the light tour on the pretense of taking my wife’s great aunt Julie home, turning the 7-mile, 14 minute trip into a few hours of crawling through residential streets, but Julie’s up around 90 now and her vision has failed, so she’s no longer game.  I’ll always smile and think of her on the tour–I’d walk her to her back door, and she would “slip” a crumpled five dollar bill into my hand “for the ride.”  I tried to not to accept it the first time, and she pinched me on the wrist and chastised me.  The pinch hurt, and I remembered someone once telling me, “it’s good to be generous, but it’s important to know how to accept generosity graciously.”  So, hey: five bucks for me.

Christmas Tree 2012When we finally get home, it’s straight to “work.”  We hang stockings while more Christmas music plays, put out a plate of cookies and a cup of milk for Santa–one year we opted not to put out the milk, in fear that it would get warm for Santa, and left the cup and an invitation to serve himself from the refrigerator, but Santa hit the eggnog instead.  Hard.

Lesson learned.

Next up, from my wife’s childhood, the opening of a single Christmas present–a tradition I indulge–reluctantly, at first– because, well, I’m not in charge, even though it makes me nervous.  My mom was a Christmas despot–we weren’t allowed even a sniff of presents until everyone was awake in the morning.  Opening that present at night seems dangerous.

Christmas Tree 2008After that, it’s off to bed, where we all pile in for the reading of our favorite Christmas books, the ones saved after a month of reading to each other.  It used to me me reading all the stories, but now that the kids are mostly grown we take turns, although there are still calls for me to read “Marty The Christmas Moose” using goofy voices for all the characters.  They may be indulging me, but what the heck.

Then it’s off to bed. I used to wait to wrap all my presents on Christmas Eve, alone after everyone else turns in, right there in front of the tree, but I need my sleep more these days.  Oh, I still stay up a few minutes after everyone else, but I’m content to take a few laps around the house and look at the decorations and let what memories that may come venture into my mind.

 

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Ghosts of Christmas Past: Part 3–Getting Here From There

Back To Part 2

1970 christmasWhile I was baking cookies with mom last week, she asked me the kind of question for which she’s infamous: which three Christmases were your favorite?

I laughed.  Her memory is selectively perfect, by which I mean if it matters to her she recalls details of times and events with the closest thing to eidetic memory I’ve ever encountered.  She can tell you, for example, what she got for Christmas in 1947–when she was 5 years old–as well as what the weather was like, who was at the house, and how dinner was that year.  After she told me of her three favorite years, in unnerving detail (my wife thinks mom is totally bullshitting us–“she’s convinced herself that it’s what she remembers”–but I don’t know.) I had to admit that I was lucky to resolve the details of any specific year.

I happen to think that it’s for the better.  Oh, I remember spectacular gifts I received: specifically: the GI Joe Training Tower–that’s right, for the GI Joe with Kung Fu Grip, the

yellow Mobile Action Command Rescue Vehicle and Mountain Base (that’s two different things–and both of them were awesome and just what I wanted), and the HO scale train set for which my dad made an immense platform upon7 itm_251456370394he

 

which he mounted tracks, painted roads for automobiles, and sites for buildings from the Plasticville, USA and Pleasantville series of HO scale accessories.  I remember that the train

Plasticville--build your own dismal sub-division.
Plasticville–build your own dismal sub-division.

was 1976, because it was a Tyco Bicentennial Edition.  A small residential neighborhood included a couple of boxy cap cods and some really depressing 1960’s vintage ranch houses, pictured here–the houses each included an mid 1970s primer grey camaro up on blocks in the driveway and a collapsed above-ground swimming pool full of tadpoles and dead squirrels.  Well, not quite.  There was also a really, really cool lumber mill on a siding on which, when the train pulled up , a switch would Triang_2010_log loaderbe engaged and three plastic logs would roll down a chute and onto the waiting log car.  Finally, there was a vintage diner building that concealed a simulated train whistle.  Those were the best three toys of my life–and I still have the train set and the yellow plastic MAC van.

There are less vivid memories–the year my mom caught the curtains on fire cooking bacon for Christmas breakfast.  My then 15-year old aunt carrying me from the house and running down the street, tripping on her slippers and both of us falling to the concrete–I would have been about 3.  I remember her holding me, and I remember fear and falling–nothing else.  Not even the firetruck.

Speaking of fire trucks, another memory is a Christmas memory, but it actually happened on the day before Thanksgiving.  My dad was a firefighter back in those days, and Santa would arrive at a local strip mall each year on a fire engine, and I got to go.  We drove to the mall in a cool old American LaFrance engine and met Santa, who was waiting patiently around back, by the service entrance,  smoking a cigarette with a custodian. He tossed his butt on the asphalt and hopped on the truck–I got to push a pedal on the floor that made the siren work, and pull a cord that rang the bell.  Pretty cool, right?  I was probably around 7 or 8 and, at the time, it was the coolest thing ever–both the fire truck ride and getting Santa to myself for 3 minutes.  He gave me a heaping handful of candy canes that kept slipping through my mittened fingers, and growled, “So remember to be nice, and not naughty, ’cause Santa Claus is watching your ass, ” a comment that amused my dad and the other firefighters to no end.

I remember the year some neighborhood kids knocked out a bunch of the big C9 lights my dad nailed to the porch roof by throwing rocks at the house–the adults were outraged, but I was mainly focused on the degree of accuracy required to accomplish such a feat.

AdventWreath-300x225And then there was Advent.  My mom had an advent calendar each year that counted the long days, but the big countdown came in church, with a special ceremony each weekend in which a candle was lit signifying the 4 weekends of the liturgical calendar leading up to Christmas.  A fifth and final candle was lit on Christmas Eve.  I didn’t fully understand then and certainly don’t recall now all the conceits, but it was pretty much the solemn, religious countdown to The Big Night, and like all the really great Pagan rituals that were stolen and co-opted into Christianity, it was an old German thing.  My mom had her own advent wreath at home that she lit during dinner every Sunday night, at least for a while, which seemed perfectly normal at the time but strikes me as strange now.

The Christmas season permeated all aspects of life back then, religious and secular, as any number of hyperventilating “war on Christmas” conservative hysterics would have you remember.  Not only did mangers and giant plastic advent wreaths adorned church lawns and public buildings alike, but school music classes were focused on singing carols–not just Frosty and Rudolph, but Silent Night and other spiritual fare, and I have to say that we’ve lost something in excising the spiritual element of the holidays.  That doesn’t mean that I think it’s wrong to respect our rapidly changing population–there ought to be a way to deal with our celebrations through inclusivness–but that’s a whole different post on it’s own, one I doubt I’ll have time to address this year.

We never made a big production out of the Christmas tree–they were available everywhere, for about $5 most of my childhood, sold by a local boy scout troop. Ostensibly I was there to help choose, but that decision always ended up with my mom

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Ghosts Of Christmas Past Part 2: On The First Day of Christmas….

…My True Love Gave To Me: Thanksgiving.

Read Part One Here

The first sanctioned Christmas even may have been our church’s Hanging of The Greens Night, but the first real day of Christmas was always–and still remains–Thanksgiving, if for p1030957no other reason than we had to get through it to get to Christmas.  In hindsight, it reminds me of those signs you see for Wall Drug in the western USA–Wall Drug, 981 miles –>> Yeah, that far, but still: you’re on the right path and boy will it be a good time when you get there.

Not that it was a chore for a kid–relatives magically appeared in my grandparents’ living room, as if brewed from a magical gravy cauldron; 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, even now 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 c6beecd3-6890-4c5c-9b99-cf30b17b25c2_650x366remember 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  middle class family (back when America had a middle class) 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. There was no shopping at all.  In fact, if one forgot to buy something there was one option–a shamefaced knock on the neighbor’s door.  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. Last year, visiting my sister, we realized that some items were missing from the pantry and my wife and I heroically volunteered to 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’s mysterious, never-seen husband Harry did not attend.  I imagined them, at the time, sitting forlornly at home, waiting while we trod the glittering holiday path through Monroeville Mall, the largest Mall in the region at the time, in a Pittsburgh suburb and hour or so east of us.  It is more likely Ernie and Harry reveled in their day of peace just as much as I looked forward to a day with the masses.

And 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 the organ 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 is 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 Cafeteria. That’s right. It was a store. With a restaurant inside. Do the marvels ever stop?  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 hovered 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 Corner in New Alexandria, PA–I think it’s a bank now, and if there was anything special about it, I couldn’t corner1tell 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 3 Is On the Way

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Thanksgiving Food…For Thought

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Way back in April, I followed a link to the awesome photo above, which itself had been taken from a twitter post by “Cleveland Frowns” and read through a few, mostly outraged, comments.  The overall tones of the discussion were understandably angry, with a strong dose of condemnation over the general disrespect and insensitivity of America’s Caucasian mainstream for our Native brothers and sisters.  The reactions varied between pity and calls for violence–if the post and comments are still available on line you can read some for yourself– as is generally the case with this discussion, which I’ve reviewed in various incarnations before.  Indeed, I’ve delved into the subject before, albeit from a more dispassionate perspective here, and then followed up here–decent posts that sum up my feelings and the road I took to get to them.

In the ensuing months, my opinion hasn’t changed–a country built on the ideals that I was taught to believe in–however idealized and romanticized those ideals might be, should not condone the continued, systematic humiliation and 741degradation of an entire race, especially given the historic, genocidal treatment of that race by the colonizing mainstream and their “Manifest Destiny.”  It’s important to remember that while Adolph Hitler and his Nazis were responsible for about 11 million non-combatant deaths (about 6 million of them Jews), the number of Native Americans killed during the period of American colonization is estimated to be as high as 80-90 million, with conservative numbers somewhere in the 50-60 million range.  And that’s no laughing matter.

Thanksgiving, the holiday during which we count our blessings, is a good time to take a deep breath and remember that there aren’t a whole lot of Native folks throwing down a turkey on the table and reminiscing about the good old days.  Many of us know that the Thanksgiving we learned about in school was pretty much invented during the Lincoln administration as a way to salve the divisions created by the civil war–a ploy to get folks to sit down and have a meal together and appreciate what we have.  Politically, it was genius–we’re still doing it today, right?  And isn’t it fun to consider that Honest Abe Lincoln is sort of the father of Black Friday?

But I digress.  More accurate–and quite fascinating, historically–accounts of the first Thanksgiving are available here and here.  You’ll note that the story wasn’t wildly changed from what we learned in school, but those changes were highly significant.  Those colonists, far from the first that the Wampanoag had encountered, were tolerated, if not enthusiastically welcomed, despite the previous visits and depredations (disease outbreaks, skirmishes, and the abduction of Natives who were pressed into slavery among them) largely because the pilgrims had women and children in their party–and it was decided that only peaceful people would travel with their women and children.  The Wampanoag held the pilgrim’s fates in their hands, and that tolerance and assistance allowed the colony to survive–but did they ever sit down and have a big, celebratory meal?  Not by native accounts.

That doesn’t mean Thanksgiving isn’t a good idea, but that we should look honestly at the truths behind our holiday as presented to us, and the solemn and violent history that has elapsed over the nearly 400 between then and now.  For many Native Americans, thanksgiving is considered a National Day of Mourning, and rightly so, but others look wistfully at the mythological incarnation of the holiday and less at the actual, depressing history and contemplate what the holiday can be, and what we as a people and as a nation could have been.   As quoted in the article cited below, Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer said, “As a concept, a heartfelt Thanksgiving is very important to me as a person. It’s important that we give thanks. For me, it’s a state of being. You want to live in a state of thanksgiving, meaning that you use the creativity that the Creator gave you. You use your talents. You find out what those are and you cultivate them and that gives thanks in action.”

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????I have to admit that I rarely give thought to pilgrims on Thanksgiving–except for those little accordion-fold paper turkey figures with the pilgrim hats and collars.  Love those.  Like most people, I’m thinking about getting together with distant family, sitting around drinking beer, scarfing shrimp cocktail and cheese and crackers, talking  whether there will be enough stuffing left over for seconds, maybe thirds (my capacity for stuffing is boundless), about apple pie, about going out to the lake to see the opening of the big Christmas Lights display, about how I wished I’d had the initiative to put up my own Christmas lights three days ago when it was warm because they’re calling for snow all week, and finally about football–and how in a short span of days–hours, really–everyone will disperse and go back to their far-flung lives, and how the holiday–any holiday that brings us together–never, ever lasts long enough.

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2012/11/23/what-really-happened-first-thanksgiving-wampanoag-side-tale-and-whats-done-today-145807
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Christmas Traditions–Part 1

Christmas With The Carters

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….

IMG_2084Now, 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, 2012-08-17_002wreaths, 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 326_3480850scandalous, 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 740px-1918eatonssantaclausparadedish 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, montrealsound-christmasdiscopartyfrthis 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.

rolls
Canned Bread–a guaranteed constitutional right.

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.

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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….

Categories
Journal

Christmas Chraziness Chontinues

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The Real Santa

We’re already squeezing juice from the season.  Sunday morning we had a big old brunch: 9-grain bread french toast with maple syrup, bacon, sausage, and home fries, then we saddled up and went over the hill to the Westmoreland Mall, where THE REAL SANTA hangs out with average folks like us.  None of us are big shoppers–this is the only visit to a big mall I’ve made since last Christmas–but it’s become a tradition.

Okay, I made it a tradition. When I was a kid, living in a rural town with few retail options, my family would do the Black Friday thing, although it was a lot different 35 years ago. Namely, we didn’t go at 4am, there wasn’t a frenzy, and nobody died. Back in the day we went to the Monroeville Mall, which is sort of famous if you’re into Zombies, and reveled in the elaborate decorations (do they still have the Christmas tower clock and the animated elf workshop?  I bet not.). It was a lot of fun–I’ll be writing about it in detail for a later post, but it’s relevant now in that I love to get out in the crowds for a few hours, listen to the mall music versions of Christmas songs, see the kids visit Santa, and just enjoy the hustle and bustle–as the phrase goes–in a seasonal atmosphere.  I’m intensely nostalgia-driven, and the internet makes indulging in my holiday fetish stress-free: I don’t worry if I can’t find what I want, I can always go home and order it online. I also like being out with the kids, buying “pick-up” gifts for my wife–smaller things that weren’t on our list, spontaneous selections.

Our big score was something for my wife, acquired with the help of a complicit store clerk, we bought right under her nose, in a devious method reminiscent of Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job.  Well, maybe not that cool, but one daughter distracted my wife, I grabbed it (the last one in stock, and 30% off) off the rack, and handed it off to my other daughter, who slipped it to the clerk.  The clerk quickly scanned the item and hid it inside another item my daughter was buying, so when my wife turned around there was no hint of our trickery. (and I know you’re reading this, so all I can say is: HA!) All that remained was to slip some bills to my daughter, who passed them to the clerk.  It was a bonafide caper.  We were out of the mall in 3 hours, including my first Orange Julius since 1985, and after a quick stop at Barnes & Noble were on our way home.

Here’s a shout out the residents of Derry, PA–a dismal little town along the railroad tracks that has some of the finest Christmas displays around–and I’m not talking about those catalog-bought figurines of the “threw some money at it” variety, but old-school, out-on-the-ladder mad-minded strings of lights displays.  Kudos.

We bought our tree–a 9′ Fraser Fir we knocked back half a foot or so from Johnston’s (in the parking lot of the The Meadows ice cream stand, if you’re local) at a very reasonable $45–well shaped and fresh on Sunday night.  On the way home we stopped off at China King and gorged on some Asian diner food–way too much, in fact–then made our way home. We cranked up the Ella Fitzgerald, got the tree standing straight in it’s stand, and wired it to the wall, lest the cats become too ambitious, an excellent head start for the next day’s tree decorating.

The Monday after Thanksgiving is a holiday in Westsylvania–in case you’re unaware, it’s called Deer Day, because it’s the first day of deer hunting season.  We still get mail, and the banks stay open, but most public schools stay closed–half the kids wouldn’t come if they were opened, so why not have a long weekend.

Christmas Tree 2009
Christmas Tree 2009

We don’t hunt, preferring our meat to come as God intended: on a Styrofoam tray, wrapped in cellophane.  As avid gardeners, of course, we favor the wanton destruction of these evil creatures by whatever means necessary–rifle, shotgun, muzzle-loader, pistol, bow and arrow, knife, club, bare-handed strangulation, automobile fender, pungi-stick pit, snare, snare drum, squashed by falling space debris.  Ed Abbey referred to free-ranging livestock as “hoofed locusts”–and those cows had nothing on the deer in my yard.  Still, I don’t hunt. We have traditionally made use of this noble holy-day for the acquisition and erection of the tree.  This year, we had that head start, and headed right to the hard work of carrying all those boxes of stuff down from the attic. We decorated the tree in a concentrated blitz, and marveled at how nice it looked when were done.  I’ve only ever had one tree that I didn’t ultimately think was lovely, and this was the nicest one we’ve had in years–just about perfect.  Nothing left to do, then, but turn off the houselights, crank up the carols, watch the twinkling tree in the dark, and relax.