Growing up, Dad never celebrated Christmas. I think the closest his family had to anything Christmas-like was a small decorated tree in his father’s television repair shop in the Bronx which his dad called a Hanukkah bush. They usually got in the family truckster and drove to Miami to visit his grandparents during their Christmas vacation. So marrying into a family that embraced the holiday was a fun proposition for him.
I always began preparing for the holidays weeks in advance by baking cookies, which I then froze so they would not be stale by Christmas. I baked dozens upon dozens, usually at home, but a few times I went to my friend Mitzie’s house. Mitzie, her mom, our friend Lisa, and I would spend an afternoon mixing, baking, sampling, and laughing, and then bring home an assortment to share with our families. Among our favorites were spritz, peanut butter kisses, strawberry jam thumbprints, M&M’s, chocolate chips, and one I named “Ma Charlton’s Apricot filled” after Mitzie’s mother.
Dad spent his first Christmas Eve at our house, sleeping in the basement. In those days, we went to midnight mass together, which was actually held at midnight. In later years, midnight mass got moved back a few hours to around 10:00, but I seem to recall that it was still referred to as “midnight mass” for a few years. Go figure!
Christmas morning Dad was more anxious than my younger siblings to open his gifts, and the youngest was still a kid that year. (Uncle Dave was only twelve) I made sure he got lots of fun presents for his first Christmas. His pile of presents consisted of games like Monopoly, Clue, and Stratego. The next day, we went out and hit up the after Christmas sales for decorations for next year, when we would have our own place.
So Christmas of 1978 we were married and settled in our first home. For our first few Christmases, I insisted on getting a real tree. I remember Dad had difficulty getting the tree in the stand, since this was never a skill he learned from his own father. It was a particularly cold day that first Christmas when we purchased our first tree, and Dad’s frustration level was beginning to hit a breaking point. He finally turned to me and said, “What is a nice Jewish boy from New York doing in a parking lot in New Jersey trying to put a Christmas tree in a stand?” He had a point, but it had to be done.
The rest of the holiday went off without a hitch. Those were the days of vinyl albums, and, well, you all know how I love Barry Manilow. I am confident there was at least one Manilow album under our tree that year. Dad prided himself with his gift wrapping abilities, particularly his skill in not wasting a single scrap. He would wrap all his presents and leave the albums until the end. Then he would create a “wrapping paper quilt” consisting of all the pieces that I would have thrown away. He was so clever!
The next day we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and then to my cousin Nancy’s for cookies and dessert. The Christmas secession had not yet occurred.
Our First Tree- Christmas 1978