I was thinking about how Christmas was when I was growing up. I come from a secular family, although my mother identified somewhat with the Episcopal church. We’d sometimes go to their midnight Christmas service, which I thought was very peaceful and beautiful. But Christmas for my sister Bertie and me was all about wondering what presents Ma had bought us (my Pop was in and out of the picture, mostly out), and where she had hidden them. And whether we should try to find them and peek, or would that spoil everything!
Ma loved Christmas—everything about it. The shopping, the wrapping of presents, the cooking. I can remember her clearing everyone out of our downstairs dining room on the day before Christmas so she could spread our dining room table with presents, wrapping paper, gift tags, ribbon, and tape. By this time, Bertie and I were practically quivering with anticipation.
It was our tradition to open one gift on Christmas eve, which Ma would often choose, especially if she had bought the same thing for me and Bertie. One year it was little Brownie cameras, and what a thrill that was!
When we were little and still believed in Santa Claus, we used to leave a plate of cookies and milk and sometimes a little gift for him on the sideboard in the living room. The next morning it would all be gone except the plate and glass, of course! I remember in school, when I was at the age where some kids were doubting the existence of Santa Claus (including me). There was a boy in my class who hushed everyone up by saying, “I know Santa is real, because I went up on our roof and saw the reindeer hoof prints in the snow!” We all held on to our belief after that, at least for that year.
Speaking of snow, Bertie and I wished every year that it would snow in time for Christmas. Unfortunately, back in those days (late 40s and 50s), it didn’t usually start snowing until January. After that it was non-stop snow, with two and three-foot drifts until the spring thaw.
When Pop was around for Christmas, we’d trudge out into the woods with him and cut down a fresh cedar tree. Once we got it into the house, it filled the room with that wonderful fragrance—if I close my eyes I can still smell it. Bertie and I would help Ma decorate the tree with ornaments we had saved over the years. Ma liked blue lights, so that’s what we usually had. Then we’d argue about whether we’d trim the tree with icicles or not. I’d fight for them, because I loved how they reflected off the lights, but Ma said they made too much mess, so we didn’t usually have them.
We grew up in Newtown, Connecticut, so since New York City wasn’t that far away, we’d often make a trip to see the Rockefeller tree and the decorations in the stores on Fifth Avenue. That was one of the most festive parts of the season.
But Christmas morning was best. Bertie and I would wake up and run into the living room in our pajamas, not bothering to get dressed or have breakfast. Then we’d all sit around and open our presents, with paper flying everywhere. There’s nothing quite as magical as a Christmas gift wrapped in pretty paper—you wonder what’s inside, you try to guess, and then you rip it open to see your surprise. Bertie and I always loved our presents, and we liked buying them for Ma, Pop, and each other, too. Sometimes we’d make hand-made gifts, which were always appreciated, even if they weren’t all that exciting…like an unevenly stitched potholder or a lopsided clay ashtray.
We didn’t think about the religious significance of Christmas, even though we sang carols about the birth of Jesus. But I like to think that the spirit of love that Jesus taught and lived visited our home anyway.