Tag Archive | "Christmas"

Your Last Christmas

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For Christians, Christmas is often the happiest time of the year – particularly, for children.  With “visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads,” children eagerly await the day and Santa’s visit.  The experience of the sheer joy and love of those seasons past lives with many of us our entire lives, regardless the current destination of our life’s journey.  In youth, with little responsibility, we can’t truly appreciate the enormity of the task, albeit a pleasant one, of making the Christmas season so special.

 

As we grow into adulthood, we come to understand the debt of gratitude that those of us who have enjoyed Christmases past in blissful ignorance owe to our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and friends who have made those celebrations so special.  We also come to understand that our debts are not limited to those who have created our happy Christmas memories, but are very real.  They come in forms of illnesses, losses of loved ones, financial obligations, and other of life’s burdens than can dampen the holiday spirits of even those who have most exuded the joy of Christmas in seasons gone by.

 

If you find yourself less than merry this Christmas season, consider this.  Imagine that this is your last Christmas in this life.  What would you do this holiday season?  How would you celebrate?  With whom would you spend the season?  Then, do it.

 

And so, as I prepare to spend perhaps my last Christmas on earth and you yours, let us fill our stockings and hearts with an overabundance of joy, an excess of love, a warm heart, a well of compassion, a dose of patience, and the outstretched arms of tolerance – all the shining gifts given us by our Savior that make for Peace of Earth, Goodwill to All.

 

My Christmas List

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As children, we Christians, and many others who celebrate the secular side of the Holiday, made lists of the toys and other items that we wanted for Christmas.  For those who believed in Santa Claus, these lists were mailed, recited in person to a costumed impersonator, or both.  For those no longer believing in the legendary Christmas icon, they were presented to our parents and other significant adults in your lives.  Christmas lists, like the secular Holiday that represents a boon to retailers and major part of our economy, are all about getting what you want.  Of course, for every person who gets what he or she desires, there is a giver.  But, the development and presentation of the lists is completely me-centric.


Sometimes, however, what we really want, both individually and collectively, cannot be purchased.  And no, I’m not speaking of the Holiday’s hottest, must-have gifts, like the Apple iPad.  The desires of which I speak are far less tangible, like health, peace of mind, love, and happiness.


And so, presuming to speak for others as well as myself, I wish for the following this Christmas:


– that the homeless find shelter…

– that those in mourning be comforted…

– that the hungry find sustenance…

– that the lonely find friendship…

– that those who have little be given plenty…

– that those who have plenty be given more…

– that those who hate find love…

– that those filled with love find more outlets for its expression…

– that those in despair find hope…

– that those who feel forsaken find understanding and support…

– that we find a way to end war and violence…

– that people of every race, gender, and culture come to understand that our similarities outweigh our

   differences…

– that peace on earth, goodwill toward all becomes the mantra and reality of a new world…


We are the keepers of our brothers and sisters.  The choice is ours.


Merry Christmas. 



The Christmas Co-Conspirator

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When I was a child, my dad had a habit of conscripting me into small conspiracies that always put a smile on my face.  The fact that he always left my sister and mother out of the equation made every secret rendezvous all the more thrilling.


Before I’d entered the first grade, I’d developed a problem with one of my eyes that, if not corrected, would have required surgery.  Every Saturday morning, one of my parents took me to my appointment with a gentle ophthalmologist who, in a dark room, shone a penlight into that eye to see how it was faring.  The minute my mother had waved us off, my dad hailed a big yellow taxi and ushered me quickly into it.  My mom didn’t believe in cabs. Considering them unnecessary luxuries, we’d wait on the street to board two buses whenever it was her turn to take me to the doctor.


The ophthalmologist’s office was situated in Brooklyn, New York, toward the tail end of Flatbush Avenue — directly across the street from the Prospect Park Zoo.  After every appointment, my father would swear me to secrecy as we entered the park and walked the long incline down to the zoo.  We’d clap back at the seals honking and frolicking in their watery enclosure.  We stood back from the polar bears’ cage and eyed the huge beasts with respect, for one of them had amputated the arm of teenager foolhardy enough to stick that arm through the bars.  We munched Cracker Jack from red and blue cardboard boxes, where the prize was always buried too deep for my sticky little fingers.


Long before the problem with my eye had emerged, my dad had already introduced me to this verdant area of Brooklyn.  The front entrance to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens lay on the same side of the street as my doctor’s office.  One Easter Sunday, when my sister was four months old and I, two and a half, my father took me straight from church to the Botanical Gardens.  I hunkered down at the lily pond, my dad explaining how the plants grew in water.  I think I was more mesmerized by my reflection in the pond.  I remember the tiny white straw handbag that I carried, adorned with small faux violets.


Years later, when my sister and I were teens, my family walked the entire length of the Botanical Gardens and it was quite a walk.  Characteristically, my sister grumbled all the way and my mother muttered about the housework that was going undone as we communed with nature.  My father and I ignored them and walked on, enchanted, in particular, by a dirt trail running beside a tree-lined brook.  Here were no carefully manicured flowers or shrubs bearing small metal plaques with their Latin names.  Here was only what God had made.  And so, my father and I stepped lightly, reverently through His works.


When we broke free of the brush, we came upon an open field where cherry blossoms were in full bloom, their soft pink petals a gorgeous contrast against the rolling emerald green grass.  Just beyond them lay Eastern Parkway and the Brooklyn Museum, where my dad had tried many times in vain to stop me from ogling the 3,000-year-old mummies nestled, like Russian dolls, in their wrappings, their sarcophagi, and their glass cases.  He didn’t want his daughter exposed to death, but I’d been born on Halloween and gravitated to things that went bump in the night.


The Christmas that I was five, my dad made the mistake of dressing up as Santa Claus.  Let me amend that.  He made the mistake of smoking one of his signature White Owl cigars before donning the red suit.  Santa did not come down the chimney; he walked up from the basement … redolent of cigar smoke.  I looked up at him with his face obscured by the snowy beard and cracked, “You’re not Santa; you’re my daddy!”  “Why, little girl, what makes you think that?” Santa cried.  “You smell just like his cigars!”  If the cigars didn’t tell the tale, his laughter did.  My sister was too young to get it, but my dad never took a chance again.  That year was the first and only time that Santa deigned to pay us a visit.


A year later, on a night approaching Christmas, he whispered to me to bundle up; he said there something that he knew I’d like to see.  I don’t remember where my mother was, but I do remember sneaking quietly out of the house, for she would not have taken kindly to her child being exposed to the chill night air.  All along the avenue we walked, past our neighborhood and into my Aunt Connie’s, and then, past that.


The air was crisp and quiet; we huffed just to see the breath dance before our faces.   Little traffic passed us, for on such a night, most people were snug inside their homes.  In the dark, Christmas lights glowed within and without those homes — simple, teardrop shaped lights that burned in red, blue, green, and yellow.  In the early 1960s, elegant electric icicle lights had yet to be invented.  There were no pink or purple bulbs, no overblown plastic Santas or snow globes on front lawns, and no houses so wired up they could be seen from Mars.  All we had — all anyone had — were those simple red, blue, green, and yellow bulbs strung on pines trees and wreaths and draped around doorways.  The colors alternated along their wires and never deviated: red, blue, green, and yellow, red, blue, green, and yellow, red, blue, green, and yellow.


That night, it seemed as if my dad and I had walked for hours.  It was cold and my little legs were tired.  I don’t know how many times I demanded to know where we were going and when we were going to get there, but my dad just said patiently, “Soon, soon.”  Finally, we turned off the avenue and onto a side street.  Our destination was a house decorated, miraculously, with blue Christmas lights, just blue.  There were no red, green, or yellow lights, and the blue was a different hue than the usual bulbs.  Click the font color option in Microsoft® Word, select the brightest blue, you’ll have a notion of what that color looked like.  But even Bill Gates and all his geniuses couldn’t do that color justice.


Around the doorway and windows of the otherwise darkened house, the rich blue blazed.  And on the front lawn stood a large stone grotto with a statue of the Blessed Mother in her signature sky-blue robe.  Blue lights arced over the grotto, glowing like embers in the dark.  So unexpected, so beautiful, and so peaceful was that scene that my whining tongue stood still.  With our hands jammed into our pockets, my dad and I exchanged not a word.  Time seemed as frozen as the air.  It was he who finally asked if I were ready to go home, for I could have stood there all night, soaking in the most amazing color and the utter serenity in what was then the fourth largest city in the nation.


On every private outing before and since, it had been just the two of us: just my father and me.  But that particular night, we shared with a co-conspirator.  We shared a silent, spiritual moment with the soul who, in humility, ducked backstage the moment that a long-promised Savior entered the world.  We shared that moment with the woman chosen from among all the women on Earth to bring Jesus Christ to a world long awaiting peace. 

Christmas Eve in Italy (Vigilia di Natale in Italia)

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Feast of the Seven Fishes

Christmas Eve in America is celebrated with pagan rites, Santa Clause, Reindeer, Tree trimming, and last minute shopping in preparation for the birthday of Jesus the Christ.

 

In Italy it is a Holy Day, celebrating the eve of the birth of Jesus.  It is called The Vigil (La Vigilia) and is celebrated as a feast day.  The Nativity is the heralding of the newborn King in Bethlehem, Judea and the story of Christmas.

 

In Italy, particularly Southern Italy, the celebration of La Vigilia is composed of an odd number of fish dishes, 7, 11, or 13.  For more than 1000 years during fasting periods amongst Roman Catholics, meat was forbidden, as it is for certain Lenten meals.  In place of meat, fish was substituted.  Thus, Christmas Eve represented a day of abstention from meat, and the feast of the fishes became tradition.

 

During the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, many Italians immigrated to America and, with them, they brought their old world customs.  The Feast of the Seven Fishes was one of them.  The number 7 represents The Seven Sacraments, 11 represents the 12 Apostles minus Judas, and 13 represents the 12 Apostles plus Jesus.  From these computations was derived the number of courses of the meal.

 

Over the years, the number of courses has diminished to the currently-accepted 7 fishes and pasta.  Among Italian-Americans, there is no uniformity in the way in which the meal is served and individual family traditions reign supreme.  Usually, however, the first course is Pasta with garlic and oil (Aglio Olio), which signifies the purity of the virgin birth, followed by shellfish, crustacean, squid, eel, octopus, small finfish, and large finfish.  The ritual of eating in this order signifies a progression in the nature and size of the fish consumed as one moves closer to God.

 

To those who live in proximity to New York City and find they would like to celebrate Christmas Eve Italian-style without all the preparation required, try visiting Mulberry Street.  Here, you can find many old world Italian restaurants that serve traditional Holiday meals.

 

Italian-Americans who follow this tradition relive and commemorate a time when Christmas Eve meant a gathering of one’s family – including grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – to share the joy of the Eve of the birth of our Savior.

A Christmas Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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Christmas Tree in Brooklyn

Most kids anticipate Christmas with a growing sense of wonder and glee.  I wasn’t one of those kids.  Very much aware that my parents did not have much money, I dreaded the inevitable Christmas mornings when I had to appear at my friend Kim’s house to exchange presents with her, awed as her mom’s hot pink carpet was lost beneath a sea of glittery paper and ribbon (not a trace of fuscia carpeting to be found!).  I hated walking into certain sections of department stores, knowing that the gifts I’d longed and asked for would never appear under my Christmas tree.  Most of all, I nurtured a not so small horror over the thought of having to line up outside the Church the first Sunday after Christmas with my schoolmates (a mandate of the nuns), compare what we’d all received for Christmas, and get taunted for yet another year.  I’d sooner have plummeted down the proverbial hole leading to China.

 

Now that I am an adult with a so-called disposable income, I would trade nearly any one of my grown up Christmases for a single one from my childhood.  Tom Wolfe told us that we can never go home again, but I think Tom was a bit off the mark.  If memories live vividly in our hearts, we can return again.  And at this time of the year, I return often, to the modest house I shared in Brooklyn with my parents, sister, and grandparents.

 

For cleaning the entire house as best we could as children, my sister and I received a weekly allowance of 50 cents.  The sum was so paltry, I just lied to my friends, telling them that I got no allowance whatsoever.  But in those days, 50 cents saved up over the course of weeks and months bought a lot at the Five and Dime.  They bought shiny pins and earrings for my friends, greeting cards with the sweetest-faced angels (I have kept one, all these years, for her face touches me still and recalls those days of innocence).  My meager allowance also bought bright wrapping paper, glittery ribbon, and small seasonal corsages for my mother, grandmother, sister, and myself: de rigueur accessories of the day on every female’s coat.  

 

I always got a little frisson of fear whenever I bought a new corsage, for the very first corsage that I remember met a most untimely end.   My mother had bundled little three year old me into her winter coat and had pinned the corsage to it, explaining what it was and wishing me a good time.  My dad took me by the hand and we walked around the corner to the Lutheran Church, for the Lutherans were either richer or more resourceful than we Catholics.  Every Christmas, they hosted a live manger scene outdoors, replete with animals such as goats and sheep.  One of the goats thought my corsage looked like a tasty little morsel and as I bent over the fence from my orange crate to pet him, he plucked the thing right off my coat and crunched it down his gullet!  I wept piteously, wondering how I might explain its loss to my mother, for it had been a gift, while my father laughed so hard and so quietly, tears coursed down his own face as well.

 

Snow of any significant depth heralded not a day off from school but an afternoon of work.  My sister and I were pressed into service to shovel the snow, along with any and all handy adults, and we were expected to do it right, so that the sidewalk was clean after our handiwork.  We actually enjoyed this chore and oh, the follies of youth!   One year, my sister, who was deemed the non-creative kid, built a solid and freestanding little igloo and invited me in.  I thought it an architectural marvel.    After what seemed hours of shoveling, my dad would brew us up a special hot cocoa and pour it into the little mugs my aunt had given us, bought from John’s Bargain Store on the avenue.  The cocoa was special because it was decorated with colored marshmallows or little candy canes, the latter of which turned the chocolate all minty.   We’d stare at the candy canes, watching in fascination as the red stripes disappeared magically into the hot milk.

 

The only real Christmas tree I remember was in my very early childhood.  It smelled wonderful but dropped pines all over the place so that my mother, the neat freak, found herself vacuuming daily.  Most years, we had an artificial tree, but it was a nice one as were the decorations lifted carefully and lovingly out of their compartmentalized boxes.  My parents had met in a fine department store, where they had both been sales clerks, and with their employee discounts had purchased beautiful ornaments made in Germany.  There were the Seven Dwarves, angels with pastel wings and stiff, golden lace skirts, and my favorite, the gold-glitter ball that screwed open to hold some small surprise that my sister and I took turns finding and secreting there.

 

The baking that took place under my roof bore no resemblance to Betty Crocker or even Fanny Farmer.  It came straight from the boot of Italy, on recipes brought over by my grandmother and recorded nowhere but in her heart and head.  As she and my grandfather had embraced Equal Opportunity long before our government adopted that term, we all pitched in, “all” being my reluctant mother and sister, who detested the kitchen, yours truly, who grew to love it, and my grandparents.  Heaven cannot possibly smell better than my house did just before Christmas when we made struffola and creamy semolina grain pies from scratch.  The struffola had to be made production line style, for hundreds of them were made.  They starred at our table on Christmas Eve, mounded like small golden Christmas trees.  Each of my mom’s three siblings and families took home their own tower of these confections, along with the cream pies, as did my family, to our apartment above my grandparents’.

 

Stuffola are small, light balls of dough deep fried, then drizzled with honey infused with lemon and orange peel, and decorated with almonds, colored jimmies, candied cherries, and citron.  I got the job of rolling out the dough, and from my grandfather’s exhortations against overworking it, learned early on the secret to making a tender dough.

 

As I rolled out the long strands of raw dough, using my hands as a rolling pin, I’d watch my grandparents at the stove, moving in an un-choreographed ballet, their backs to me, my grandmother in her faded printed apron, my grandfather ever proper in his trousers and long sleeved shirt rolled up to the elbows.  There was no bickering between them; indeed, there was a rustic kind of precision, as well as a rhythm and a quiet joy.  The snow was falling softly outside and the wind blew cold. Inside that small kitchen in Brooklyn, the oil bubbled and the honey steamed fragrant upon the stove besides pots of chocolate and vanilla cream born of dark chocolate chunks, long black vanilla beans, and a drop or two of rose water from its little cobalt blue bottle.   If anyone could bottle that scent, they’d have a best selling perfume on their hands.       

 

One Christmas season when I had just begun high school, and had long since begun my perspective as a cynic, I came down with a very bad case of bronchitis.  I’d been sent home from school.  Too weak to change out of my Catholic school uniform, I had collapsed on the couch in our living room, which opened directly onto our dining room.   Medicated to the gills with some lovely codeine-based elixir sent over by the pharmacist, I’d fallen into a deep sleep from which I roused myself groggily at the sound of a sweet, strange voice.

 

Rolling over, I spied a beautiful young woman at my dining room table, a girl a few years older than myself and totally unfamiliar to me.   Drugged, I murmured a “Hello, and who are you?”  I sensed that she was truly a stranger, for her manner was refined and her voice bore not a New York accent but the barest trace of the South.   “I’m Lindsay,” she explained.  “I’m in my first year of college and am selling magazine subscriptions to earn my tuition. I’m from Maryland,” she added brightly, thus solidifying the fact she was indeed a stranger in a strange land.   Scornfully, I laughed, “Forget it, Lindsay; my mom’s not buying any.”

 

And so, my mom did not.  We did not have money for such frivolities, and Lindsay badly needed the sale, for she had gone door to door all day long without a single subscription sold. But perhaps my mother had given Lindsay something better that Christmas, as she did me, when I realized what had happened.

 

Our little Brooklyn neighborhood was besieged that day by a nasty winter storm.   I’d gotten pelted with hail and soaked by a thick wet snow, just walking the four blocks home. Lindsay had rung the bell during my stupor, peddling her magazines that no one wanted and no one could afford, so close to Christmas.  My mother had taken one look at that girl and ordered her to get upstairs, as she’d catch her death of cold.  My mom had then brewed the girl a cup of tea, placed some cookies in front of her, and had draped her wet coat atop one of our warm radiators.   Beside the radiator she’d laid Lindsay’s boots, as they had gotten water-logged in the storm.

 

And then my mother, the anal-retentive woman who had a part time job, two kids, a husband, and never enough hours in her day, sat with this strange girl and spoke with her about what she was studying in college (nursing, I recall), allowing the girl to share her dreams aloud.   Lindsay left bereft of a sale but a lot warmer than when she’d crossed our threshold.  When I think of Christmases past, I am reminded again of my mother’s small kindness and what it must have meant to a kid peddling subscriptions nobody wanted, door to door to door, as Old Man Winter raged outside.  Along with the tea and cookies, my mother had given this girl, whom we never saw again, a little hope.  A ray of light in the cold and darkness.

 

And that, after all, is what Christmas is really all about.

A Christmas Reminiscence

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Christmas Reminiscence

In today’s fast-paced, rapidly changing world, the Holiday Season is upon us and gone before we know it.  As I consider my own Christmases past, I think about the simpler and yet – in many ways – more joyful Holidays of my youth.

 

Growing up in an Italian-American family in South Philadelphia, I viewed the Holiday Season as the most wonderful time of the year.  And, for those uninitiated in Italian-American culture, any Holiday was an occasion for a sumptuous feast fit for a King.  

 

Despite growing up during the Great Depression, I experienced no want in my family’s Holiday celebrations.  My maternal grandfather owned and operated a Barber Shop and, for these happy occasions, he would set up a long banquet table in his Shop.  There, the entire family would gather for a multi-course food fest.

 

With Thanksgiving ushering in this most joyous season of the year, we celebrated in grand style.  Our feast would begin with Meatball Soup, a soup created from chicken stock with tiny meatballs.  Next, was a pasta course comprised of homemade ravioli and gravy meats including meatballs, sausage, and braciole.  A short time thereafter the turkey would appear with all the trimmings.  For dessert, we enjoyed a wide variety of homemade pies and cookies, as well as fresh fruit and ice cream.  And, the best part was the thought that we would do it all over again the following month for Christmas!

 

After Thanksgiving, my parents would take my brothers and me to Center City where we would tour the decorated department stores and look at gifts for Christmas.  We were each allowed one small gift and the highlight of the evening was to eat at Horn & Hardart’s Automat restaurant.

 

The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas was a time of wonder and anticipation for a young boy.  When December 24th arrived, we celebrated with the traditional Italian Christmas Eve fish dinner.  Then, we decorated our Christmas tree with tinsel and put the star atop the tree and the Nativity Scene beneath it.  Listening to the radio and hearing Silent Night, Adeste Fideles, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Jingle Bells brought a feeling of peace and serenity.

 

Christmas in our family was a Holy Day and so, we went to church before enjoying the family feast at grandpa’s.  When grandpa passed away, the duty of family gatherings was passed on to my parents.  Yet, I will never forget those wonderful Holidays of my youth with grandpa at his Barber Shop.

 

As I reminisce Christmases past, I also think about my service during World War II, when the Holidays found me half a world away from family and friends.  The song I’ll Be Home for Christmas still rings in my ears.  And, as I consider Christmas present, my thoughts turn to our troops manning the lonely outposts of the world during this Christmas season.  May the joy of Christmas lift their spirits and may “Peace on Earth, good will towards men” lead us to a better tomorrow.

The Hope Still Lives

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Christmas Peace

“In the background of the consciousness of the world, waiting as silence and moonlight wait above the flairs and shouts, the hurdy-gurdys and quarrels of a village fair, is the knowledge that all mankind is one brotherhood, that God is universal and impartial, Father of mankind, and that only in that universal service can mankind find peace, or peace be found for the troubles of the individual soul.”  H.G. Wells, Outline of History (1920)

 

The Christmas season has always held the promise of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”  For Christians and others who immerse themselves in the Season’s Spirit, we become a little friendlier, a little more thankful, and a little more considerate of others at this time of year.  Oft expressed is the hope that we can carry forward and live the “Christmas Spirit” each and every day.

 

Of course, we cannot.  Unfortunately, the world, on the whole, is not a friendly, grateful, or considerate place.  People, by their very nature, are egocentric and guided by self-interest.   The marketplace of ideas – religious, philosophical, political, cultural, and social – is highly competitive at best and utterly ruthless at worst.  And, the purveyors of ideas often seek victory not merely in that realm, but in the physical world as well.

 

Organized religions and governments have long understood the importance of ingraining particular concepts and ideas in the minds of their adherents and subjects.  Control over thought spreads to control over discourse and ultimately to control over mind, body, and soul.  With every side convinced of the rectitude of its position, the clash between people of opposing ideas becomes a battle for global domination.  A primary source of discord in our world, its progeny include hatred, terrorism, and war.

 

This scenario, however, need not be the model for our world.  If we only admit to the premise that God is impartial and that, in human affairs, there are no absolutes, then we can become more accepting of different cultures, philosophies, races, and religions.  With acceptance comes a subtle, and yet very important, shift in perception.  Rather than viewing an individual as a member of a particular group, we can see him clearly for what he truly is, a member of the human race, the brotherhood of mankind.

 

And, who is it that is greatest among mankind’s brotherhood?  Almost two thousand years ago, Jesus provided the following answer to that question:  “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35).  Whether you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, a prophet, or an ordinary person, the model of service to one another that he advocates is our best hope for peace in our world as well as our own personal lives.  And so, this Holiday Season, keep the hope and spirit alive, serve others.

The 25th of December

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Christmas Shoppers

On the 25th day of December, Christians around the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  His is the story that began in a manger in Bethlehem and ended on a cross in Calvary.  The story tells of a star that appeared in the heavens, serving as a guide to three kings (the Wise Men) who journeyed to that stable in Bethlehem.  There, they found an infant in swaddling clothes warmed by the breath of animals.  To honor the child long promised to mankind as The Light of the World, the royals offered the greatest riches of the times: sweet spices and gold.  From his humble beginnings in a manger, Jesus the Christ grew to establish one of the greatest religions of the world: Christianity.

 

The religion based upon the tenet, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” now has many arms.  Roman Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Mormons, et al may differ to some degree in the way that they have structured their religions, but all branches of Christianity embrace Jesus as their savior.   From sea to shining sea, Christianity is the religion practiced by the majority of U.S citizens.   For many years, people in this country have celebrated December 25th as Jesus’ birthday.  We’ve reflected upon Jesus’ sacrifices in giving up his mortal life so that the souls of all too human sinners might find eternal life.  In carrying on the tradition of gift giving as per the Three Wise Men, we give presents to our family, friends, and neighbors.  We donate toys, clothing, food, and gifts of money to worthy charities.  We worship at Midnight Mass, singing hymns of glory to the Son of God and finding a brief respite from the rigors of daily life in contemplation of what is truly valuable in this life.

 

Down through the years, December 25th — Christmas — has also been synonymous with entities that have no religious connotations.  Lawn figures of Santa and Mrs. Claus, Kris Kringle, Santa’s elves, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and other seasonal symbols such as Yule logs, fir trees, wreaths, ribbons, and lights precede the birthday of Jesus, because it is good for business.  Across the nation, cash registers in retail stores ca-ching like jingle bells while online, PayPal takes hits in the most profitable way.

 

Now, Political Correctness, A.K.A. Separation of Church and State ensures that we can no longer display in public places any evidence of a religious holiday. As a result, Christmas is now referred to as Winter Solstice (that moment in time when the sun is the closest to the Earth), Winter Break (when we close the schools to give the teachers a break) or just “The Holidays,” thus relegating Christianity to the closet.

 

Beginning as early as the end of summer, enterprising retailers begin heralding the Son of God by offering special money-saving sales on gift items. They do not advertise them as Jesus’ Birthday sales, Pre-Christmas sales, or Christian Holiday sales, but conveniently name them “Holiday Season Sales.” Given today’s economic woes, many emporiums are pinched by the lack of consumer participation.  From sea to shining sea, abandoned storefronts now stand in place of once-thriving retail enterprises.  To encourage sales, why not appeal to the majority of Americans — the Christian community — by reinstating old clichés like “Merry Christmas” and playing those old favorites, such as “Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing” and “Silent Night” to loosen the purse strings of Christian buyers?   It’s good for business!

 

Once the dust settles on December 26th, we will find out whether store owners will be dancing around their cash registers to a rousing chorus of, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” or glumly singing that old Depression song, “No More Money in the Bank.” 

An Old Fashioned Christmas

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Christmas in the 1950's

As Christmas is fast approaching, it inspires memories of some of the simpler holidays that I spent as a child.  With our economy currently at a stand still, you and your family may really enjoy some of the stories of past Christmases that I am going to share with you, as this is how my family used to celebrate Christmas on a shoestring budget.  It was actually fun, too!   It seems that  Christmas  has become so commercialized, we now expect more expensive presents and forget that it is really Jesus whose birthday we are celebrating.

 

When my siblings and I were younger, our dad used to go out to the woods and chop down our Christmas special tree.  With our excitement mounting, we would watch by the window and wait until he came down the path toward the house, dragging the tree behind him.  With a whoosh of cool air and the aroma of fragrant pine, Dad came through the door.  None of the decorating could commence until the tree was placed firmly in the floor stand.  A bit of cursing went on until it was positioned just so and standing proudly without too much of a lean.

 

Gathering around the tree, we then began deciding how it could become more beautiful.

 

Mom used to pop a big bowl of wonderful smelling popcorn.  She got out some needles and thread to make popcorn chains with which to adorn our tree. While we children ate popcorn and threw some at each other, it certainly took us awhile to make the natural garlands remotely long enough to be draped around the tree. Patience certainly is a virtue, because afterwards, our fingers were sore from being poked with the needle; by that time, we were ready to move on to something else.

 

Getting mom’s cookie cutters from the kitchen and assorted crayons, pencils, glue, and aluminum foil along with scissors, we were ready for our next stage of creation.  We traced the cutters around heavy cardboard and construction paper, we made bells, reindeer, stars, fir trees, gingerbread men, and good ole St. Nick.  We cut, glued, colored and wrapped some of our decorations in foil.  We got to go through mom’s sewing box, pressing into service odd scraps of cloth and homeless buttons.  Our ornaments were all homemade.  I can’t remember store-bought ones until much later in my childhood.

 

We also enjoyed making paper chains out of construction paper.  For our tinsel, we chopped up foil and tossed it about onto the tree, using bits of cotton to mimic snow.  Mom even let us use some sugar cookies to hang on the tree.

 

Our little neighbor friends used to make fun of our tree because they had store bought items.  In our hearts, though, our tree was more beautiful because we were truly showering it with our love.  The act of creating our tree each year brought the family closer as we sat together laughing and working toward the same goal.

 

My mom used to really love Christmas.  Since she and my father had six children, she could not do all of her shopping at once . Sometimes she forgot where she had hidden some gifts, so if she missed something we might have received it late when she could finally locate it.  Her wrapping paper could be very inventive: anything from paper bags to the comic pages or newspaper.   Like the curious little kids that we were, we were always hunting for her hiding places.  I remember one year, my two sisters and I discovered her secret stash of goodies.  I think we managed to devour most of it before we were discovered.  I have forgotten what kind of trouble we got into, but certainly our parents were not too happy with us.

 

The gifts we got were not always very expensive, but our parents tried to treat us equally with the amount of gifts that each child received..  Practical gifts were always given as well, such as new socks, underwear, and handkerchiefs.  I remember one Christmas, though, when my dad bought my brother a Red Ryder BB gun.  He was not old enough for such a present, but Dad was just so excited to have a boy to buy for, since three girls preceded his son.   My parents liked to buy gifts that all of their children could share, like sleds and the little red wagon.  I do remember that one year, I was so happy to get a Gretel doll that I would only have to share with my sisters.

 

Mom always tried to treat us to something special in our Christmas sock, such as our favorite candy or snack.  I always loved peanut brittle.  My sister loved chocolate covered cherries, and my brother always loved peanuts in a shell.

 

Such treats when we were younger were limited to special holidays and birthdays, so we were always happy to indulge in homemade goodies.  Mom would save some extra money so she could get the special fixings for cookies.  Having a walnut tree on our property, we kids also had the chore of hulling the nuts and drying them in the fall, a process that turned our hands a sickly yellowish color.  Trying to crack enough to make a batch of fudge was truly a pain, but it was well worth it, once we savored the wonderful flavor. Our fingers and thumbs were smashed a lot with the shelling, and more than a few shells ended up in the mix but we all survived nicely, thank you.

 

The Christmas baking was wonderful.  More of a pastime than a chore, we kids still bickered about whose turn it was to stir, crack eggs, or cut out the dough.. And, it was so much fun to roll out sugar cookies and get dusted with flour.  I remember the  wonderful smell coming from the kitchen and trying to outdo my siblings’ decorating skills.  Eating that first cookie fresh from the oven, almost before it hit the counter, was a superb treat!  We tasted the warm fresh goodness, savoring the sweetness.  Although mom did have to put her foot down so some cookies would be stored for the actual holiday.

 

For dinner, we may not have always had the traditional turkey or ham but our stomachs were full and we were happy.  Once we had meatloaf, which was okay, but least we had something to eat; not every family across America was as lucky.  During the summer, my dad always grew a big garden, so we always had plenty of potatoes to last through the winter, and mom canned vegetables from our garden.  So, we had mashed potatoes with gravy and stuffing with vegetables. For dessert, we might  have banana pudding with our homemade cookies or a special cake.

 

If there was fresh snow, my dad would make us some snow ice-cream.  With all the pollution now I’m not sure how many would venture to try this, but it was a special treat for us.  Here’s the recipe.  Take a big bowl of snow, add some sugar and vanilla and slowly mix up some milk and eat it immediately.

 

After our Christmas meal, we would play some board games or watch a Christmas show on TV together.  This was one of those days where we all stayed  close together enjoying the day.  In general, this was a fairly peaceful day for us.  We kids tried to tone down some of our normal, everyday squabbling in honor of Christ’s birthday.  We sure hated to see the day end.

 

I think this is what Christmas is all about, being with the family and really feeling the spirit of the holiday.  So, this holiday season, you may want to take a few tips from my childhood.  Instead of putting yourself into debt, put a touch of the old fashioned into the season.  It may take longer to make homemade cookies but it brings the family together and the kitchen sure smells great.   With a little ingenuity, you can find some good gifts to give to your friends, and I’ll bet they’ll cherish a homemade gift crafted with love more than they will a store-bought one. 

 

Enjoy your Christmas holidays and your Chanukah and Kwanzaa ones as well!

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