I was a sucker for Christmas when I was a kid. Hell, I still am, but when I was young - single digit young - I was the kid that they invented Christmas for. I haunted my mother to bake the cookies for Santa, and I dogged her every step, monitored her every move to make sure that everything was perfect. While the cookies baked, I would go outside and dig through the snow to come up with some little tufts of frozen, brown grass to leave for Rudolph and the other reindeer. They had their own plate on the table on Christmas Eve, right next to Santa's. Being a neurotic child, I fretted that we had no chimney, but my mother assured me that the door would be unlocked and Santa would just glide in. But, I countered, not able to give in entirely to glee - what if it didn't snow? That sled - how would Santa manage? My father convinced me that Santa kept tires for the sled for just such emergencies. Nothing could stop Christmas.
It was the highlight of the year. Not just for me, of course. My younger brother, Walt, all my cousins, my friends at school - each of us would get more frenzied the closer the day came to us. Because we went to parochial school (St. Matthew's Evangelical German Lutheran Day School, to be exact), the anticipation was built into our daily lives. Advent was celebrated every school day for the month leading up to Christmas. It all culminated in the annual Christmas pageant at the church on Christmas Eve. And the pageant was itself a precursor to the kind of family celebration that still brings up the word "magical" when we cousins reminisce about the holiday.
St. Matts was a small German parish in a mostly Catholic town. In the mid- 50s, when I was still a young child, the school and the church were one building. The church fronted on Franklin Square and the school looked back over Glen Street. I loved that church with it's rich wood interior and lush stained glass windows and frosted hanging lanterns that gave off a soft golden glow during the evening services. It was two stories high; my family always sat in the balcony to the right, midway in where my parents could still get a view of the minister in the raised pulpit.
The school was also two stories high: two classrooms on each floor, two grades to a classroom. The classrooms had an arched doorway with a huge, heavy sliding door between them, so that the rooms could be opened to one big room on each floor. First through fourth grades were on the top floor, fifth through eighth were on the main floor. You had access to the church through the prinicpal's office below, or the public bathrooms above.
Each classroom had an Advent wreath during the Christmas season. It was a circle of 28 candles: 4 red, the rest white. The red were for the four Sundays before Christmas which made up the liturgical span of Advent. Every day someone would light a candle while we had our in-class worship service; when the service was ended, the candle would be blown out. The next day that candle would be relit and the candle next to it would be added, and so on through the month. By the time Christmas came the whole wreath would be lit and the candle heights would be graduated because of the differing amounts of time that each had been lit. It was a beautiful effect.
Advent meant candles and playing with matches with our teachers' approval, and it also meant rehearsal for the annual pageant. Everyone took part; everyone had at least one line to speak plus the group hymn and carol sings. We recited from the Gospel of Luke:, starting with "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed," and taking it up to the big finish: "And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger."
On Christmas Eve we'd gather in our classrooms for last minute rehearsal and instructions. The Ladies Aide Society ladies would be on hand to deal with the little emergencies of sudden bathroom calls or ripped trousers or hems. They'd line us up at last, and we'd file into the church to take our places in the front pews, shuffling up to the steps in front of the altar as we got our cue to do our recitations or songs. The littlest kids got the easiest lines about the shepherds, and the older kids got the stuff about Caesar. The kindergarteners (whose classroom was across the church lot in the parish house) would lisp out "Yes, Jesus Loves Me" and there wouldn't be a dry eye in the house. Someone among the littler kids would always break into frantic waving on spotting their parents in the audience; someone would always call out, "Hi, mommy! Hi, daddy!" The older kids were more self-assured, having done this multiple times, but the occasional fluff would still happen: a trip on the stairs, a forgotten line, a very off-key screech. The church was filled with family who either smiled encouragingly or tried not to guffaw as the occasion called for. There were no cameras, no applause - this was, after all, a house of God.
After the pageant, we'd rush around getting our coats and picking up our little home-made gifts from the Ladies Aide Society and the Deacons of the church. (My favorite was a little wooden set of carolers; I managed to hold on to that for almost twenty years before I lost track of it in one of my many moves.) We'd meet up with our parents and then excitedly race to the car so we could hurry to get to our grandmother's house.
That was where Christmas really started.
My father had a very large family - he was the youngest of his nine (or was it ten?) surviving siblings - and while the house he grew up in was larger than my own little house, it still amazed me that so many people shared so little space. There was a entryway - a small foyer - with stairs immediately on the left leading up to the second floor and the three bedrooms and a bathroom. In the small alcove formed by the staircase was a piano. (Atop the piano was a sculpture about a foot high of a sailor, fitting since my father and most of his brothers were in the Navy during World War II. I adored that statue.) To the right of the entrance was the living room, straight ahead was a large kitchen with a pantry and another little bathroom by the back door. Connecting the living room and the kitchen was a dining room which also had a small bed for my grandmother; she had rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair. This was her house, but my Uncle Maynard and Aunt Ruth and their three children lived with her to take care of her.
Into this space would pour all our family: my nine (or was it ten? I know I'm forgetting someone) uncles and aunts and their spouses and my twenty- something cousins. There would be a tree in the living room, and the big dining room table would fill up slowly with mounds of food: salads and casseroles and slaw and baked beans and breads and condiments (horseradish!) and turkey and ham and Easter kielbasa. (I don't know why it was called that; it was a light- colored, dense, delicately spiced sausage. A family favorite.) For my parents generation there was pickled herring and ziltz (a concoction of gelatin and meat that you couldn't get any of us kids to go near, although our elders raved about it.) There were a dozen different desserts. There was whiskey and beer and kummel, which was a caraway liquor that you drank heated. We kids had cases of Avery soda to choose from, but of course our goal was to cadge a sip of some adult's drink. You never went to you father, though - you always hit up a sympathetic uncle.
The adults took over the kitchen and the dining room. We had the living room and the staircase. There was one big rule on Christmas Eve. If you were a kid - you never went upstairs. Never. It was strictly verboten. It was OK by me, there was more than enough to distract me on the main floor. My cousins would group together by age: Billy and Tommy and Stevie and Mark and Carol were the eldest - grown teen-agers, and the idols of my childhood. I don't think I ever spoke a word to them, so awed was I. Georgie, know as Butchie, was on the cusp between that group and the next, who were at most five years older than I: Chuckie and Roger and Barbara and Skip and Jeannie and Donnie and Jeannette and Kurt and Dwight. I was the oldest of the younger crowd, so I would split my time between playing with Barbara and Jeannie or palling around with Janet (who was exactly one year younger and with whom I shared every birthday) and my brother and Philip(called Gus), or Curt and Lorelei and Ingrid. (Later Peggy and Richard would be added to the mix.)
There wasn't a lot of running room, so mostly we sat and gossiped about whatever was happening in school or on the westerns on TV or we played with the gifts that we'd received earlier in the pageant. Once the food preparation was well under way, Aunt Emma would sit at the piano and the carols would start. Stille Nacht. Ihr Kinderlein Kommet. O Du Froehliche. O Tannenbaum. We sang English carols, too, but it's the German ones that stand out in my memory. My aunts and uncles would sing in harmony and the effect would give me goosebumps.
Dinner would eventually be served, buffet style. The grown-ups got the kitchen table and the living room chairs and the sideboard by the sink and the stove top - all the level surfaces. The kids got the stairs and the floor, balancing plates and cups on our laps. I don't think I ever made it through a Christmas Eve without dropping something on my dress, but then I was that kind of kid anyway - nothing stayed new for long when it was mine. There was always a rip or a stain or a scuff. But on Christmas Eve it was almost to be expected, so I never worried overmuch about it. Besides, there were more important issues on my mind. Like Santa's arrival.
Dinner was always a mixed blessing - the food was great, and it was fun to eat away from the table, but we had to finish eating before Santa would come. He could have been circling up there forever waiting for my family to finish their leisurely meals. What if he grew tired of waiting and flew off? Finally the plates were collected and the faces washed and the drinks refurbished. There was an air of almost frantic anticipation among us younger ones. Oh my God. Santa.
Suddenly, one of the triumverate of aunts (Billie, Bertha, and Emma (stack them on top of each other and you'd be surprised if their combined height was over six feet) would appear among us shaking a long strip of red cloth onto which had been sewn sleigh bells. We would freeze with delight, barely breathing. The aunts and uncles and our parents would start singing "Here comes Santa Claus" and it was as if were jolted by electricity. We'd scream with joy, we'd jump up and down in our glee, eyes wide, huge grins splitting our little faces. And down the staircase would come Santa, carrying a big red sack bulging with presents.
He'd make his way through the crowd to take a seat in front of the Christmas tree. The adults would greet him warmly, and he'd laugh and perhaps pat one of my uncles on the back. It always made me so proud that my family was on such friendly terms with Santa. They'd joke with him and he'd joke back, even my older cousins got in on the familiarity. For my part, I was too overcome. I'd whisper his name to myself - Santa! - but that was the closest I could come to greeting the great man himself. Once he was settled in, having declined several offers of beer or high balls, he'd reach into his bag and start to call us up to him to get our presents.
Everyone got a present. Adult, child - everyone. When it was my turn, I'd shyly approach him and carefully take my gift from his hand, and whisper a thank you. Then I'd run to stand by my parents and show them the present. All around the room was the constant sound of paper wrapping being ripped followed by the high pitched call, "Mommy, Daddy! Look what Santa brought me!" The adults would open their presents and loudly call their thanks to the man in red. All too soon his bag was empty and he would stand to take his leave, apologizing, but explaining that he had many more stops to make that night. We'd wave him back up the stairs, as excited as munchkins seeing Dorothy off on her trip.
There were still hours more to the party, all filled with singing and food and laughter. We'd leave for home in the very early morning and rush in to the house to see that the tree had no presents under it. Santa was still making his rounds. He'd be here before morning, but we had to be asleep before he would enter. That was the deal. So my brother and I would rush to bed, convinced that we couldn't possibly fall asleep. Of course, we did, only to wake up at dawn and find that yes, Santa had returned. We'd pull our parents from their bed, and Christmas was start again.
I've always meant to thank my older cousins for never breaking it to us young ones that it was one of our uncles or our fathers underneath the Santa mask. And what a mask!
I have to be honest and say that our family Santa suit was one of the most hideous, frightening Santas you'll ever want to see. I can only guess that we were so used to seeing that ghoulish, red-cheeked mask from infancy onward that we didn't give it a second thought. The face was pinched, the eye holes were small and somewhat piggish, the smile was more of a grimace. But we loved it, and him.
Of course that was why we were never allowed upstairs on Christmas Eve; it was the dressing area for the Santa of the Night. There were stories we heard later about tipsy uncles trying to manage the stairs and the bag of presents, or the night Uncle Hank donned the suit and got locked out of the house, forgotten as everyone else continued to party.
The gifts were from our parents and our godparents; the adults were gifting their siblings and their spouses. What I remember most of all is the remarkable good humor. There was never a nudge, nudge aspect to it, never anything that might tip the game to the little kids present. They just genuinely found each other funny. On the dwindling occasions when all the cousins manage to get together now, we still reminisce about our Christmas Eve celebration. The one word that keeps coming up is "magical." It was at that. Magic.