I talked earlier about our Christmases but think it’s worth revisiting since Mick and Ted and I are all older and we have a young sister, Mary Lou. In December of 1964 I was officially a teenager, thirteen. Mick was eleven and a half and Ted seven and a half. Mick and I were hip to Santa being our parents but Ted and Mary Lou still believed. Ted had serious doubts but Ted worked hard at holding onto the good things in his childhood and didn’t want to let Santa go.
Our Christmas ritual was to put up the lights outside on Thanksgiving weekend. This effort took about half a day and Mick and I “helped” our Dad. Our help was limited since we were inept but we were able to untangle the lights and hand my Dad various tools. We had a wrap around porch surrounded by bushes so the bushes and doors were ringed with lights.
After my birthday and my father’s birthday (14th & 15th) Dad would buy the tree. The tree was always, always, gigantic. We had twelve foot ceilings so we’d get a twelve foot tree. The tree sat outside in a bucket filled with water in an alcove off the front porch. It would not be put up till Christmas Eve morn.
We might also go to Gaudio’s to see the light displays and pick out ornaments. Gaudio’s was a garden center in Woodbury, long vanished, that had a huge selection of Christmas decorations to supplement their gardening business. If we went to visit our Grandmother Glading in Pennsylvania we’d drive back admiring the various light displays. Not as elaborate as todays but to us, astounding. I’m telling you this because really and truly none of us cared that much about anything except Christmas morning and that never came fast enough.
Finally it would be Christmas Eve! My mother would spend the day baking cookies and making stuffing for the turkey. My father and Mick and I would lug in the tree and set it in the stand my parent’s had owned since I was a baby. Christmas tree stands pretty much sucked back then so we’d use wire to keep the tree from falling. My Dad would stand on a chair and nail one end into the wall then wrap it around the tree and repeat the process till the tree was stable and straight. Or kind of straight. Then it would sit all day, unadorned, till after dinner so its branches could fall.
Mick and I would go to our rooms in the afternoon and attempt to wrap the presents we’d purchased for our parent’s and our brothers and sister. I mangled package after package. Then dinner, hopefully pizza or cheesesteaks, and then we’d trim the tree. My Dad had a system and Mick and I learned it well. Large balls at the bottom, medium balls in the middle, and small ones at the top. We’d alternate between tinsel and garlands depending on my mother’s moods. Then we’d hang our stockings in the 2nd living room on the bookshelf and sit down together in the living room. My mother would sit with Ted and Mary Lou on either side and read, first the Christmas Story, about the birth of Christ and second, Twas the Night Before Christmas. It was wonderful. Cheesy but wonderful.
Finally we’d place our gifts beneath the tree, set out Santa’s cookies and milk and then it was off to bed. Mick and I had recently been relegated to the attic for a bedroom and we went up and tried to sleep. The night passed. Slowly. Santa’s reindeer landed, somehow found a way to get him in our house, and left to spread more Christmas cheer. We tried to sleep. We played chess. We tried to sleep.
Then it’s 6am and Christmas morning and we all run to our parents room to wake them up. It’s the house rules that you can’t go downstairs Christmas morning until Dad checked to make sure Santa wasn’t there. Once we’d get the all clear we hurtled down the stairs to see the heaps and heaps of presents. Mom and Dad would pass them out from piles they’d set up the night before (or rather Santa had set up the night before) and we’d tear them to pieces.
After we’d finished with the presents we’d empty our stockings. Our stocking stuffers were a kind of weird mix of the 1930’s and the present. We’d get little toys or funny things but also, always, a tangerine. A tangerine? I never understood this until I realized late in life that this would have been a rare treat for a child in an America still stuck in the Great Depression. For us though it was just a piece of fruit. Admittedly we didn’t often have tangerines in the Wiler house. Most of our experience with actual fruit, not canned fruit, was limited to apples, sometimes grapes, bananas, and in the summer peaches and blueberries. Oranges and Tangerines would only show up once in awhile…too expensive I think.
After opening the presents Mom and Dad sat on the couch and watched us play with our new gifts. They always seemed very happy. Mick and I would then go to our friends houses to see what they’d gotten and Dad would be left to pick up the mess with Mom. When we returned we’d walk up the block to visit our Grandmother Wiler and get gifts from her. Finally we’d sit down to turkey dinner. Sometimes relatives would drop by with relative gifts. My fathers Uncle John and Aunt Eleanor or our Grandmother Glading and our Aunt Gersh all might stop by to share the day.
It was and is my favorite holiday. I don’t look at it with cynicism or dread. Tonight Johanna and I will be joined by her mother and sister and nephews and our dear friends. We’ll eat and drink and sing and laugh. It’s Christmas! In the words of Tiny Tim, “God Bless Us, Everyone!”