I think was blessed to be born in the early part of the 1960s. Technology had not come near the point where things were handed to you instantly. Fast Food restaurants did not exist yet and microwaves and cell phones were in the far-flung future. Because of this life was slower and could be savored and we did even as children.
Television was still in its infancy in the early 60s. Sure it had been around a while but it was still black and white and though color sets existed they were out of the reach of most people. We had three channels to choose from NBC, CBS, and ABC. Eventually, we would have PBS and three UHF Channels for my area they were channels 17, 29, 48. It was on these channels that the reruns of shows that had gone off the air would play as well as a plethora of old movies. That was it and I don’t think all of that was established until I was at least 6 or 7.
So what did that mean? It meant that we had to wait. There were no streaming shows when we wanted to see them. There was getting hold of the newspapers TV listings and scanning what was on that week to plan what you were going to watch. And if you missed it that was too bad. Never was this more true than at Christmas.
I was the youngest of four children and at Christmas time I became the ruler of the TV set, or at least my family let me think I was. I was born just as the great Christmas shows were being made for the first time. I was three When Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer first went up against the Abominable Snowman. Mr. Magoo had already captured the world with his version of A Christmas Carol and so many were to come. A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty The Snowman, The Year Without A Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Little Drummer Boy, and so many others. I would grab The Sunday TV supplement every week, as soon as I learned to read, scanning for these yearly events and hoping my family didn’t have to go out the night they were aired. If we did, it would be a whole year before I could see them again. I was pretty lucky. I don’t think I missed any of them except Rudolph once when I was in the hospital with an eye injury.
Anticipation, which ultimately is the theme of Advent, was in the heart of every kid I grew up with. Not anticipation for spiritual things, that comes with growth and maturity, but anticipation for the fun and joyful things of Christmas. In some ways, it was good practice for when we grew up and awaited Christmas for its true meaning.
But we didn’t wait just for kids’ shows. There were other more adult shows that we waited for. Bing Crosby’s yearly Christmas show, the same for Bob Hope, Andy Williams, and the now almost forgotten King Family. The whole family gathered around the set for these treats presented to us by the three networks.
Then there was that special night. My brother Vince would usually spot it first in the TV listings. The night the movie White Christmas would air. White Christmas was not a kids movie, it is a full musical that kids can be charmed by but also can be loved by parents. So every year until the family began to go our separate ways all six of us sat around that TV and watched this beautiful movie unfurl. That time will never come again but it is sweet to remember.
The family watching White Christmas led me to even more Christmas movies. Things that were being shown but the rest of my family had little interest in. Movies such as Holiday Inn and Meet Me in St Louis soon became more yearly favorites. When a new version of Miracle on 34th Street was shown starring Sebastion Cabot and David Hartman I was hooked and wanted to see the original. I had never heard of It’s A Wonderful Life until Marlo Thomas remade the film switching the gender roles and calling it, It Happened One Chrismas. Eventually, these made-for-TV movies made me want to back to view the original and they all became favorites. I directed a stage version of It’s a Wonderful Life in 2000 it remains a lovely memory.
Still, we had to wait every year for these treats. Watching television was not the only thing that made Christmas special. I remember going out every year to find the perfect Christmas tree. At first, it was in local lots where people were selling freshly cut trees, as we grew older my family began to drive out to Christmas tree farms where we would cut down our trees. By then my brother and sisters were married and it was a caravan that would go to these places. Stopping at Burger King for a quick lunch and then coming home to hot turkey rice soup and meatball sandwiches that mom had warming in crockpots while we were away.
Then there was the tree decorating. No one was more of a perfectionist than my father when it came to how the tree looked. It had to be straight as an arrow before one light or ornament could be placed on the branches. And the lights, this was still back in the time when if one light had blown none of the lights would come on. You then had to spend as much time as it took to find the dead bulb. There were more Christmases with dead bulbs than without.
After that, we kids generally took over looking for our favorite ornaments to hang on the tree. We had a nice variety of the delicate glass balls, homemade ornaments that my brother had done, and some store-bought figures. My favorites were Santa’s eight reindeer with Rudolph in the lead. Those needed to be spaced nicely so it looked as if they were flying around the tree. My family were tinsel people and my dad again took charge of that, Tinsel had to be placed delicately on the tree almost one strand at a time. It took forever. when I learned about garland and you only had to drape it around the tree, I thought I had been given the Holy Grail of Christmas.
Christmas was family time, but not just our immediate family. I had cousins and aunts and uncles and second and third cousins and we all got together on Christmas night, not just once but three times. My father had two sisters, My Aunt Mary and my Aunt Dolores. My grandmother, my father’s mother (My grandfather had died before I was born) would alternate between her three children where she would go on Christmas day for dinner. Where ever she was the whole family would descend on that house for dessert first. After that, we went to the two other houses for dessert making it a three dessert holiday. Actually, it was four desserts as we had dessert with dinner too. We kids had a blast because there were still gifts to be received at each of the Aunt’s houses. I liked going to my Aunt Mary’s and Uncle Steve’s best. She had a wonderful bakery at the top of her street and she always had mini Danish and coconut cream pie which was my favorite. I got it once a year as mom never made it. That is not to say Aunt Dolores didn’t outdo herself. At her house, there would be delicious stromboli and Christmas punch made with soda, juice, and a tub of sherbert.
Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve had another wonderful tradition that fascinated all the kids and most of the adults. In their basement, there was an enormous train display. It had mountains and tunnels and trees and all sorts of things to delight the mind of a child. I don’t know where the tradition originated and who was most responsible, my Uncle Steve or his eldest son Steven or if it was a yearly team effort. I do know that Steven kept up the tradition as best as possible in his own home. Trains weere a big part of Christmas. At our house there would occasionally be a set wrapped around the bottom of the tree. But nothing I have ever seen compared to that wonderful set in my aunt and uncle’s basement.
Christmas eve was a day of preparation, as a little kid I remember going to midnight Mass with my whole family. The Mass was said in Latin up until 1966 so I understood very little of it. It was, however, still beautiful to me. There was a solemness in the church that I could feel but also great joy and anticipation. In those days our church had the whole town of Bethlehem laid out in a special display, I remember filing past this to catch a glimpse of the tiny baby in his manger. I couldn’t wait for that moment. At that moment I knew Christmas had come.
I had been to see Santa and I made sure, one way or another a letter got written to him. In those early days, my family had a custom of meeting my dad in Center City Philadelphia for dinner and to see the amazing light show at Wanamaker’s a prestigious, though now gone, department store. We would take the train in town and meet Dad at the station, we would then proceed to a restaurant called The Pub and then on to Wanamakers. The light show was amazing and if I was lucky I could sit on the eagle statue’s base, which was in the middle of the hall. I am happy to say that Macy’s bought the Wanamaker’s building and keeps the light show going every year.
After the light show, it was on to Santa’s village for the walkthrough display of animated dolls in Christmas scenes, and at the end of the village was the man himself waiting to hear about my list of toys and questioning my behavior of the previous year. Like I would ever tell him I had misbehaved.
There was still a last treat for the littlest of children. Between the ages of maybe 3 and 10, you could ride the in-store monorail. This monorail took you all around the toy department and let you see from above all the things you could wish for. It was exciting because it was a ride that, after I was 5 years old, I could go alone. I think that was the first thing I could ever do for myself. I don’t think there was anything like it in any other store in the country.
Christmas morning came early, even if we did go to Midnight Mass. Little kids don’t need a lot of sleep and I’m pretty sure I was the first one awake. I shared a room with my brother Vince who was seven years older than me. He was the second one to be awake on those mornings.
I don’t remember eating breakfast on Christmas morning at all. I do remember piles of gifts for all four of us under a lovely tree. My parents were generous to us, for me, in the name of Santa. Not everything was there but there was never a reason to feel disappointed. There was enough to keep you very happy.
There wasn’t much time to play with my new treasures. Shortly after we opened the gifts and got ready for the day we got whisked off to my other grandmother’s house for another round of gift-giving and receiving. Sometimes my grandfather, who was a chef, would make apple dumplings with warm vanilla sauce and the sugar rush would begin.
And there was a sugar rush all day long. My mother was a wonderful baker and so all kinds of cookies were made and decorated. There were sugar cookies in Christmas shapes and raisin filler cookies that looked like little round ravioli, then there were butter cookies also pressed out into festive shapes and of course chocolate chip. And it wouldn’t be Christmas if my mother didn’t spend hours making the Italian Pizzelle.
At dinner, which would always be a turkey (In the early years my grandfather, my mother’s step-father, would cook the bird, but as he got older my mother took over) we also enjoyed mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce from a can, until I learned how to make it myself, green beans, apple, and pumpkin pie and then, what we now call, a Jewish apple cake. Back then it was a German apple cake. I don’t know why. The reason for the cake was that December the 25th was not only Jesus’ birthday but also my father’s and my mom did the best she could to separate the two. After dinner, we sang Happy Birthday and gave him his gifts. It was a shame that he had to do it all in one day but he took in stride and never complained.
In later years my sister’s Trish’s husband would be included in the ranks as he was born not on Christmas day but very close. Mom would always get him a large chocolate chip pan cookie with Happy Birthday written on it from the local bakery. A lot went on in the Roberto house at Christmas. For the kids it was a lot of fun, for the adults I think, it was mostly exhausting.
I think the most important thing in my Christmas memories is that from a very early age I knew what Christmas was all about. I didn’t need Linus to explain the Gospel story to me, I knew it and saw played out in church every year and every Sunday. At an early age, I connected Christmas to Easter and in the third grade, I wrote a poem about the child who waited for death so near. Even as a babe Jesus was both fully man and fully God. This is the mystery of the incarnation, how God worked it all out I will never know. I only know he did and because of Christmas and Easter, we have freedom from our slavery to sin and great joy in knowing that there is a reward waiting for us after death.
Christmas has come under scrutiny now and many want to dismiss the day. Some folks only see the non-Christian side and just decorate trees and wait for Santa without knowing what is behind these symbols of the season. This is very sad because these symbols, the tree, the holly, the wreath, Santa, the TV shows and big screen movies and everything else is pointing directly at Jesus. But it is as the saying goes, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” If you are interested in the great traditions of Christmas may I point you to the books by Ace Collns. He has done his research well and in three volumes captures just about everything you’d want to know about the holiday.
What are your Christmas memories? I’d love to hear about them. Please leave them in the comment section so everyone can share your joy in the season.