I’m going to begin this piece with a few funny bits I remember from a couple of late-night TV hosts.
“I was driving through LA the other day and I saw an adult book store with a sign on the door. The sign read: Open all day, Christmas day.
“Does anybody ever wake up Christmas morning and say to themselves, ‘I’d love to look at some filthy magazines today. I wonder if anything’s open?” – Jay Leno
“Remember when you first got your Christmas tree home? Don’t put the screws on the stand into the tree too tight. Put a little sugar in the water, and keep it hydrated. Then… the day after Christmas… “Get that fire trap outta here!” – Jay Leno
Okay, last one.
“What does Christmas look like at my house? I’ll tell ya. I get up really early, I get really drunk, knock the tree over, and start a small electrical fire.” – David Letterman
I love those bits!
Philadelphia, PA – 1930s
The Christmas season was always a magical time growing up in our house. When my father was a kid he loved Christmas and this carried on throughout his life. He was the architect of the best Christmases any kid could imagine.
But when he was a kid I suspect his Christmases weren’t all that bright. His father was sort of disconnected from his family. Although an honorable man of principles, he was more interested in his work and hanging at the bar with his buddies. Not a drunk, but enjoyed drinking and adult fun instead of spending time with his wife and two sons.
At Christmas, he would hand his wife money and tell her to get the boys whatever they wanted. Not a lot of money, but enough to get maybe a couple of sets of toy trains and some other various trinkets. he just wasn’t that into family or Christmas.
His son on the other hand who would eventually become a father to me and my three sisters was determined to change all of that.
Philadelphia, PA – 1950s
My parents were married for 5 years before any of the kids appeared in their lives. They made a big deal about Christmas. (There is even a home movie somewhere that he shot of them preparing and celebrating Christmas together. We should probably have those videos converted to digital files so they can live online forever.) I remember in this one home movie he shot it was my mom pulling boxes of decorations and goodies out from under a bed. He edited it so it looked like she was pulling an endless amount of stuff from under the bed. I liked how he didn’t simply document the Christmas season he made a fun little movie about it with his wife.
Philadelphia, PA – 1960s-Present
One of my earliest memories of Christmas was my sisters and I as little kids standing at the top of the steps in our pajamas. My mom would give the signal and we’d all slowly descend the steps carrying our stockings. What you couldn’t see was my father filming the whole thing in 8mm. He had a rack of really bright lights set up so he could get a quality shot. (All of the cameras and film were low lux back then)
Here we all come down the stairs squinting because the lights were so incredibly light. It was like something out of the film Close Encounters! We’d walk across the living room and try in earnest to get up on our tiptoes to hang our stockings over the fireplace on the mantle. We’d all smile and wave still squinting like mad. My mother would be holding my youngest sister in her arms and hang her little stocking for her.
This went on for years. My dad loved to document all the holidays with his trusty movie camera. I don’t think any of the other kids in the neighborhood have the massive catalog of films that my family has about family events.
(That’s me in 1966)
One of the main components of the Christmas season was putting the toy trains up. My father had a wooden platform in the basement with tracks nailed to it. He would gather some old orange crates out of the garage and set them up in the corner of the living room. The platform would sit upon it and then the Christmas tree would be placed on it in the corner.
Then he’d bring up a couple of his model trains and we’d play with them and run them around the platform. He had little houses, cars, and people to complete the village. It was great because you only got to play with these specific toys the month before Christmas. So it was a cool pre-holiday treat. My sisters and I would run the trains and play for hours with these little people in their town in the days leading up to the big day.
Christmas carols and holiday music would play throughout the house, relatives would visit and usually, my grandmom would come and stay for the week leading up to Christmas. They would give her my room and I’d sleep on a cot in my sister’s room. This was fine because this way the kids were all together as Christmas approached and we could all talk about it. What we had on our lists, stuff we hoped we’d get, and just vibe with the season.
My mother would bake these glorious butter cookies from a recipe she found in a magazine. To this day they are my favorite cookies on earth. Thankfully my middle sister has been able to replicate that recipe and make cookies that look and taste exactly like mom used to make. I love them. each year she gives me a Tupperware container full of them and it takes me three months to slowly consume them all.
I remember as we got a little older we’d help my mom make the cookies. I think my older sister would help my mother mix the batter, my middle sister would roll them out, I would cut them into shapes and my baby sister would decorate them with sprinkles. I know my youngest sister is going to read this but I’m going to say it anyway. Once when she was maybe 2 years old I remember her standing on the chair at the end of the table and decorating the cookies and she suddenly sneezed.
“Good job! You just decorated the cookies!”
Poor kid. She was just a baby and didn’t even know what she did! That story still circulates the table at annual holiday gatherings.
As usual, I was a disaster in school. So my dad had taken it upon himself to sort of home school me during the early 70s. I still went to school, but he would give me books and make me read them and then test me on the subjects. It was torture for me back then, but I learned so much about so many aspects of the world that many of my peers don’t know even to this day. He even would assign me poetry to memorize and recite to him after I’d learn it. You’d think verse would be a little easier for me to memorize word for word but try to read, and understand, The Tyger by William Blake!
One Christmas one of his assignments was for me to read and memorize “A Vist from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, and I did it! I memorized the whole thing and recited it word for word for him. Even though this felt like some sort of extended punishment from my everyday life, it wasn’t. He was exposing me to great literary works and building the neurons in my brain for better recall. He knew I had a good mind, he just didn’t want me to waste it.
Anyway, Christmas was always a magical time in our home each year. The anticipation was nearly unbearable. My middle sister and I would conspire to figure out ways to sneak downstairs early Christmas morning with a flashlight and take a look at what Santa had left for us. This was always met with inquiries from my other sister, “Well, what did you see down there?”
My father and sisters and I would trim the tree and my mom would sit in her chair and direct us as to where each ornament should go. My grandmom would be there giggling and sipping eggnog.
When some of us were old enough to realize the truth about Santa Claus we took it upon themselves to do something my father referred to as “rooting”. This was when one of the kids would look under the pool table or in a closet for potential future Christmas presents. My dad quickly caught on to this practice and make sure everything was gift-wrapped immediately upon acquisition of the gift.
Once he even stuck a little postcard between the door of a closet and the molding near the upper hinge of the door. If anyone opened the door, the card would fall and he would know some little elf was “rooting”. So he would simply move the presents to another secret location.
Watching all the great Christmas shows on TV only added to the excitement of the season. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is coming to town were all wonderful, just to name a few!
Christmas morning would finally arrive and we’d all head downstairs to see the bounty of gifts that old St. Nick had dropped off. Each child had a designated area for their presents around the living room. Each kid went to their spot and started to rip into the wrapping paper. My parents would sit back, sip their coffee, and just smile.
You had to take a break after the main presents and stop and eat breakfast before ripping into your stocking. There were more goodies in each one of those! Sometimes something wonderful, like a watch or a piece of jewelry for the girls.
What set my parents apart from many families is, they shopped for Christmas all year round. So they never had to stress about the hustle and bustle associated with any last-minute shopping issues. They were done and wrapped months before Christmas day ever arrived. They were so organized and such great planners.
Thanks to my mom and dad every Christmas was unique and incredible in its own right. There were always some special gifts that you really wanted and some unexpected delights that appeared each year. This family tradition continued on into our twenties down the shore in Wildwood, NJ when we moved there in 1979.
Christmas was bigger and better than ever. He had not one but two completely decorated trees in the house. One downstairs in the dining room and the other one upstairs in the front window of the house. The trees always had to be Fraser firs because they were the bushiest and smelliest trees money could buy. (No dropped needles on the floor!)
My father would have mini lights running along the ceiling down the hallway just to keep the Christmas vibe going throughout the house.
It would be a couple of days before Christmas and he’d suddenly make this statement each year. “You know what today is?”
“It’s the eve… of Christmas Eve.”
This became part of our mythology through the years and someone would always say, about a week before Christmas… “You know what today is?”
“It’s the eve, of the eve, of the eve, of the eve, of the eve, of the eve of Christmas Eve!”
Yea…we’re a Christmas crazy family.
We would exchange gifts between the kids and my parents on Christmas eve. I don’t remember when this started, but it added to the holiday energy because you got that extra night of opening presents even before the main Christmas day event! We would stack them on a card table in the living room and sometimes one of the kids would be sniffing around them wondering what was in them.
My mom put up a sign and rested a whiffle ball bat against the table. The sign stated that if you were caught touching the presents on the table you’d get “the bat”. (This was all in fun, but we had that thing there every year)
Even though by then my dad was into his 60s, he’d be sitting on the sofa next to me with his finger under the wrapping paper on one of his gifts. “Is it my turn yet?” he’d exclaim. He loved Christmas so much!
My first sister picked up the torch of the Christmas spirit in the 90s. She still hosts a holiday party every December at her house and it’s wonderful! The food is great and the company is always amazing. I remember going to her house back in the 90s and my parents were still alive and there could be a few uncles and aunts there, and the rest of us. They were the oldest people in the room. The senior members of our tribe. But as time has passed, I looked around the room and saw my daughter and all the nephews and nieces, and now my sisters and I are the old people in the room!
Time slips away so fast.
This is another one of those instances where it’s difficult to put into words what our Christmases were really like. It was more of a feeling.
You just had to be there.
My mother and father have been gone for many years, but Christmas continues to live on in the hearts of my sisters and me. My first sister has continued to have her annual holiday party every year for decades and we are all so grateful for her.
Here we all are now!
Merry Christmas, Everyone!
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