Although I am mostly a forward-looking person, at Christmas I enjoy indulging in a bit of nostalgia. As a writer, I have always appreciated the Christmas vignettes of well-known authors, such as Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and the poet Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” In that spirit, I’d like to reminisce about my own childhood Christmases in a family of 13.
Christmas Eve seemed to take forever to arrive. After weeks of thumbing through the dog-eared pages of the Sears Roebuck & Company Christmas wish book, we kids were beside ourselves anticipating Santa’s visit and the toys we were dreaming of being placed magically under our Christmas tree.
Just a few days earlier, my father had bought a real balsam fir from the local tree lot and set it up in our basement. He’d wound the colored lights around the tree with the patience of Job. Then began our painstaking job of hanging the tinsel. Strand by strand, we hung each piece just so on the branches until the tree shimmered. Finally, we were allowed to hang the ornaments, many of them homemade by us and Dad, who loved art projects, paint by numbers, model airplanes and the like. I still have a couple of the sorry looking satin ball ornaments I decorated years ago with the bare minimum of flourishes. Art was never my strong suit.
But baking was. My favorite Christmas activity was baking cookies with my mother and sisters. Our table was covered with cookie pans, colored decorations, flour and the cookie press, which made adorable and delicious little spritz cookies that looked like trees and stars. My mother would color some of the dough green and red for an added festive touch. While we rolled and decorated and baked, we listened to Christmas songs on the hi-fi and sang along, attempting harmonies we’d learned in chorus class.
In school we cut out snowflakes and made cards with a lot of glitter and thick white paste from a jar with a plastic stick. We visited the Nativity scene at church and noticed that the manger was empty, awaiting the baby Jesus’ birth on Christmas. We sang the traditional carols of the season and lit the Advent candles each week – first one, then two, then the pink one, and finally all four in a circle, the four Sundays of waiting for Emmanuel.
In our big Catholic family, religion was central to our identity and to Christmas. Before we were even allowed to peek at what Santa had brought us on Christmas morning, we would bundle off to Christmas Mass. It was so hard to sit through an hour of prayers and songs, kneeling, standing, and sitting. All I could think about was my present under the tree. Even the arrival of baby Jesus in the manger couldn’t distract me.
The night before, Christmas Eve, I had found it so hard to sleep. I lay snug in my bed near the hissing radiator and strained to hear reindeer hoofbeats on our roof. I was sure I’d never fall asleep until, all at once, a filtered light shone through the curtains and onto the snow-ladened yard, and I knew Christmas had come at last.
All eleven of us kids sat at the long table in our breakfast room and choked down food, scarcely noticing what it was. We dressed in our red velvet jumpers, each of them painstakingly sewn by Mom. Our hair was brushed, and our patent leather shoes shone, and we passed the closed basement door longingly, knowing that Santa had come last night and deposited the mother lode down there under our tree. Into our galoshes, our coats, and our mittens, which were attached by a clip to our coats so that they wouldn’t get lost, we ventured into the cold and piled into our station wagon.
After Mass and the riot of 13 people removing all their winter outerwear (and, of course, hanging it up neatly), it was finally time. We lined up in the kitchen from youngest to oldest. My dad opened the door and went down the basement stairs with his camera so that he could film us coming down. Then pandemonium. We galloped down the stairs with shrieks of glee and ran to our spots around the tree.
The mountain of gifts seemed enormous. In reality, we each received two or three things. Our excited chatter filled the room, and my parents wearily watched us from a couple of easy chairs. Dolls, toy cars, games, soft and cozy pajamas. One year my younger sister and I received a joint gift – a beautiful dollhouse with tiny furniture and a little family. I still remember my favorite piece from that dollhouse: a red velvet chaise longue. It seemed so elegant, as if a rich family resided in that toy mansion. After sufficient oohing and ahhing over our gifts, we checked the socks we had hung by the fireplace. Invariably, there would be plenty of hard candy stuffed inside and, at the bottom, a perfectly round tangerine.
Later on, we would have an early Christmas dinner in our dining room and then visit relatives. After a long, full day, we would go to bed and sleep heavily, our days of waiting and longing finally fulfilled. And in the morning, if we were lucky, there would be snow to play in. And I could start dreaming – of my January birthday!