San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Best Part of Christmas Is Remembering

TO me, Christmases past always seem better, happier and more promising than present ones. Either we were more innocent back then or the times were.


For us (kings, editors and identical twins get to use the first person plural when speaking of themselves) the excitement of the holidays began in late November and lasted into the coming year, and it began not with shopping riots but with our letters to “Santa Klaus,” in which we usually fudged a bit about being good and helping mom, and solemnly promised to stop calling each other stupid idiots (even if she really was one).


Though we clearly doubted the existence of that book of names with checkmarks, we weren’t taking any chances. Santa had spies everywhere. Even in Milwaukee.


After heaping praises on ourselves, we would solicit a present – two, if we felt the first part was convincing enough. A lot of thought went into what we chose, as once the letters went out, that was it. There was also the obligatory offer of milk and cookies for Santa and the elves but, as father pointed out, straw for eight reindeer just wasn’t practical in December.


We adored making Christmas cookies because we could dip into the chocolate chips, coconut, sprinkles and maraschino cherries while laboring away, and lick out the utensils later without thoughts of fat grams and cavities. Also, broken cookies had to go somewhere.


AND every day there was a race to the door when the mailman came with a fistful of Christmas cards bearing scenes of snow, the Holy Family or Christmas trees, sometimes all three together. Cards came from as far away as the old country and as close as next door, because it was embarrassing to meet your neighbors on the street if you hadn’t sent them a Christmas card. Cards were cherished, and visitors to the house had to view them all.


There were also the carols, those glorious songs of old. We sang them in school, in choir, at Brownie meetings.


They reminded us of the reason for Christmas, even if we didn’t understand all the words. Who was Harold Angel and how do you hark? And what’s to dismay, merry gentlemen?


By the time Christmas came around, so did the cold and snow. Every year we experienced the blizzard of the century, but instead of a white Christmas we had a sooty gray one from living near a coal fired power plant. The wind whipping off Lake Michigan would create dunes so high they covered half the front door. It was wonderful. We didn’t care if we had colored snowmen; we loved conquering those snow mountains.


Then came the day when father arrived home from work with the Christmas basket filled with oranges, nuts, fruitcake and other exotic things nestled in shredded cellophane. What fun to dig through the basket looking for the box of chocolates that was always hidden at the bottom! We couldn’t understand father’s griping that a raise would be better than another bushel basket.


THE day before Christmas, we had to stay “out of the way,” which meant playing under the kitchen table, where we set up a whole city with trains, cars and cutout dolls. The chairs served as buildings while the table was the station with tracks extending from one end to the other. On that afternoon the living room was off limits while father alone had the privilege of helping Santa put up the tree, though we could hear them talking and I swear that Santa Klaus spoke with the same Bavarian accent as father.


At last it was Christmas Eve, and we could barge into the living room for our presents: board games, kits for making bead jewelry, books, things to keep us occupied until the April thaw. We could hardly wait to play the games, string the beads and read the books.


Memorable, too, were the Christmas lights that threaded all the way up to the top of the tree, and how father would have to get out the stepladder to replace the upper ones that always seemed to burn out. Just as he got the ladder folded up again, someone would say, “Not a green one;the one below it is blue.” And father would make another trip up the ladder with a red or yellow light.


What a pretty tree that was, with all those colored lights.


Maybe those years weren’t so innocent after all, what with hot wars and cold wars and families separated by great distances.


The cold and snow that delighted us caused suffering for others, and perhaps we just weren’t aware of commercialism back then. Maybe ignorance was our bliss. Whatever. It just doesn’t seem the same today.


Happy holidays anyway, to all my readers.



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