It’s Christmas Eve. During the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on Christmas past. Nothing as dramatic as Scrooge. In fact for the most part my memories fall into a few comfortable traditions. Growing up, Christmas was filled with expectations. Of course for many years there was a visit to a Mill Street Santa — still have some documentary photographs. Mill street was decorated, Christmas music played on the street. My Father was busy stocking “The Store” with the latest General Electric gadget — electric mixers, electric toothbrushes, electric shoe polishers, electric carving knives. We could expect to see one at home — GE “progress was our most important product.” Then there was my Father’s jewelry section of “The Store.” As with appliances, there were new styles of costume jewelry, Timex watches, electric shavers, and whatever else Father found on Jeweler’s Row in Philadelphia. In elementary school I worked as a stock boy; by High School, I was a sometimes salesman.
Sometime in the week leading up to Christmas, Uncle Tom would stop by our Mill Street apartment with ginger ale, several bottles of whiskey, and a case of soda for the kids (this was the only time we had soda in the house). Gifts from the store. Cards were tacked to a knotty pine wall in the living room. Greens decorated the mantle on the same wall that needed but didn’t have a fireplace. Three, four, or five Christmas stockings hung from the mantle depending on the year. On a table or dining room server was a small nativity scene. Poinsettias and other plants might fill a 3/4 wall planter between the kitchen and dining room. We’d buy a tree locally but it wasn’t put up and decorated until Christmas Eve. Initially Diane and I adopted the tradition of Christmas Eve tree decorating not realizing it was probably a function of “The Store.” Father worked other nights leading up to Christmas, no time for decorating. With Jenny we began decorating a week or two before the night before.
Most years I set up my my HO trains on a platform. I was inspired by Aunt Carol who had a large, year round, evolving train platform. She even photographed her trains and wrote articles for model train magazines. Photography was her other hobby. Aunt Carol’s Christmas gifts were always the most exciting — a camera, the Invisible Man, a chemistry set, buildings for the train layout. I set up trains a few years when Jenny was young but was never pleased with the layout. My trains were lost in the 2004 flood.
Our childhood tree was decorated with colored lights, various colored balls, a few cords of garland and silver tinsel. We liked to throw the tinsel on the tree but Mother fussed a bit over tinsel placement. No throwing. Several years we strung popcorn and/or cranberries for garlands. And as with most Americans, colored lights eventually gave way to white lights. Christmas Eve dinner was always smelts –a simpler variation on the Italian Seven Fishes dinner. In 7th and 8th grades I was an alter boy at Midnight Mass. I think we all went some years. I remember St Marks Christmas decoration, including a beautiful creche surrounded by evergreen trees in front of Saint Joseph’s alter. One year Father took measurements and built a small replica manger for the house.
Being up late didn’t stop me from getting up early on Christmas Day. Santa Claus always left one gift unwrapped. One year it was a large metal fire truck (wish it was still around); another my first two wheel bicycle. No other gifts were opened until after breakfast. Anticipation. We gathered by the tree and the wrapping paper flew. Five kids (four younger sisters) and two adults. Gifts were exchanged. Somehow some were from Santa; others from parents or siblings. Not all were toys — clothes and books were common.
About eleven o’clock we headed to Grandpop Profy’s house across the street. All the boys showed up about the same time — Uncle Tom, Aunt Helen, Tommy, Connie, Elaine, and Philomena. Then Uncle Frank, Aunt Gladys and Frannie. The adults were served Manhattans; kids got ginger ale. There were cookies from Italian People’s Bakery in Trenton. This was the only food we ever got in Grandpop’s house. Grandmother Jennie didn’t cook for him or guests. Once the boys grew up, I think she hung up her apron. Everyone got an envelope with money from Grandpop. The only gift I remember giving him was a jar of Rum Baba (I suspect he got quite a few from us kids); and his closet was filled with new white shirts and neckties — gifts from the adults.
Our next visit was to Mom’s younger sister Aunt Marie and the family black sheep, Uncle George. It was always a quick visit. When we were young, George’s mother was never very pleasant, we thought of her as a mean witch. We didn’t know our cousins very well but wondered how they lived with her. For many years Aunt Marie gave me a necktie and handkerchief set; not sure of the girls gifts. Some years we drove out to Uncle Tom’s in Levittown and then Uncle Frank Profy’s on Radcliffe street.
Next stop was the Mignonis, early on outside of Bristol in Winder Village but later on Radcliffe. Aunt Ellen (Mom’s older sister) always had food and drink available. For many years, Nanny (my Gallagher grandmother) lived with them. Another non-cooking Grandmother. Uncle Frank would take 8 mm movies — one by one we walked toward him, waving, maybe dancing. Later he would play the piano. William, Ellen and MaryJo were our closest cousins. Gifts were exchanged. I think I received clothes when I was young, later money, finally in college and married, a bottle of whiskey. When I was older I gave Aunt and Uncle some favorite food — chocolate, pistachoes.
Late afternoon. We got back to the apartment. Mom was busy getting dinner together. I guess the turkey was put in the oven before we started our visits. Most years, the Profy clan would appear at our door — Grandpop Profy (grandmother Jennie didn’t leave her house), Uncle Tom’s and Uncle Frank’s crews. We didn’t socialize much with them during the year but respect for family and tradition dictated that we visit them and they visit us on Christmas. I was always amazed that the timing worked. My father would serve drinks — probably red wine, maybe whiskey; Mom and the older girls plugged away in the kitchen. It was all very informal.
Finally dinner. Turkey with filling and gravy. Mashed potatoes and candied sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, some vegetables and salad. Pies for desert. But some years featured ham or roast beef. Turkey wasn’t sacred. My sister remembers some Christmas dinners hosted by Aunt Ellen (excellent homemade pies), when they were in high school, since Mom was busy running Cis’s Dress Shop.
New Christmas traditions formed after Diane and I married. For years on Christmas Eve we ate with my parents (still serving smelts). We had a big breakfast (I loved chipped beef, for my father it was Navy “shit on a shingle”). And then there were visits to Grandpop Profy and the Mignoni’s. By noon we said goodby and headed to Carmel, NY to have dinner with Diane’s parents, her Aunt Louella and Uncle Mackey. In the years before Jenny, it was fine. We saw both sets of parents and had a quiet break for several hours driving from Pennsylvania to New York. But the tradition lasted till Jenny was a young teen.
In the early 1970s, we rented a house in New Hope with John and Barbara Paglione. And we started a tree tradition. We would buy a live balled tree instead of what I began to call a dying/ dead tree. One year I set up the tree in my classroom at St Michael’s in Levittown. The idea was to then bring the tree to New Hope. I got sick and the transfer was left to John. After New Year, the tree went back to Levittown and my class planted it in front of the school. This past September when I was in pre-op, a guy (nurse actually) came into my room an introduced himself. He was in the 1973 class that planted the Christmas tree. Seems it was only recently cut down.
Live trees became a tradition for about 15 years. When we finally bought a house in Yardley, we transplanted about three of our Christmas trees — which had been planted in various places and we continued the live tree tradition. Eventually the yard was full of evergreens and we reverted to cut (dying) trees. About three years ago, we discovered an unusual species — Silver Tip Fir from CA or OR — at Terrain in Chester County (what I call the ultimate yuppie garden center). The color is lighter; branches thinner, and of course it’s more expensive. I realize having a tree shipped from the West coast isn’t very environmentally friendly but the Silver Tip provides a new look — smaller tree, fewer ornaments — and is fresh through February.
Ornaments. Does everybody buy a new one (or several) each year. We’ve been married nearly fifty years and buy at least one annual ornament. Initially most came from Snipes Nursery in Morrisville. They mounted a very nice Christmas display every year. Some years the ornament matched something that had happened, the year Jenny was born, the year we bought a house — the date was written on the bottom. We purchased a small music box nativity scene, small creche figures and other tasteful “German decorations” from Snipes. Now our ornaments can be wood, ceramic, glass, yarn — a few are hand made with special memories. Several boxes emerge from the attic in mid December every year and we decorate. A few years we have strung some outside lights, wreaths on the doors but our outside decorations are not elaborate.
Each year we display some Christmas books. Usually there is my 1938 edition of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” illustrated by Everett Shinnn (from my years working in Boston’s Harcourt Bindery). ” A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas (several years ago we saw it produced in Philadelphia). This year there is a 1929 edition of “Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates” by Mary Mapes Dodge ( in January we’re taking Eli and Viv to see a performance of it at the Arden.). One book I read this year is a British Christmas favorite, “The Box of Delights” by John Masefield. It’s a delightful story, filled with mystery and magic. The kind of book that deserves an annual reading.
Of course there is a children’s book corner. This year it includes, “On Hannkkah,” “Christmas Tapestry” by Patricia Polacco,” “The Legend of Old Befana,” by Tomie DePaola (somewhere there is a Befana doll on her broom, purchased in Rome), “How the Grinch Stole Christmas by (you know), Tasha Tudor’s beautifully illustrated “Corgville Christmas,” Jan Brett’s “The Three Bears,” and of course “The Night Before Christmas” including a Peter, Paul and Mary CD.
Each year we pull out a collection of Christmas music. Previously it was tapes and before that LPs, now CDs. Of course there is “The Nutcracker,” and Handel’s “Messiah.” This year I am also listening to Christmas albums by Ottmar Liebert, Yo Yo Ma, Ella Fitzgerald, and Paul Winter. Windham Hill’s “A Winter Solstice,” Chanteurs a la Croix de Bois and “A New World Christmas.” We even have local musicians, “Season’s Greetings, Lambertville 2013.” Next year I want to play Christmas vinyl.
Then there are Christmas movies. We still watch several on VHS — “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Scrooge” (the 1970 musical with Albert Finney), and the never to be missed, “The Lion in Winter.” Henry II (Peter O’Toole) brings Eleanor of Aquitane (Katherine Hepburn) from her prison to Chinon (his residence) for Christmas. Their sons, Richard, John and Geoffrey compete for succession to the throne. Eleanor and Henry spar for control. In the end Eleanor leaves Chinon in her barge to await another Christmas reprieve. This year we have “The Homecoming: a Christmas Story” (1971), a purchase related to our visit last year to the Walton Museum in VA. It’s the pilot for 1970s depression family series The Walton’s.
Most years we attend some live performance. We have seen the Rockettes in Carnegie Hall; “The Nutcracker” in New York and Philadelphia. We have enjoyed “A Christmas Carol” many times at McCarter in Princeton — need to take Eli and Viv next year. Several years we went to Saint John the Devine’s Paul Winter Solstice Concert in NYC. An amazing show. This year we saw “It’s a Wonderful Life: a radio play” at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope. A fantastic production. In January, we will see ” Hans Brinker” with the kids.
We grew up living, working and shopping on a small town Main Street (Bristol and Carmel). So we don’t shop much if at all in Malls. Most years we spend an afternoon shopping and enjoying the holiday spirit in Princeton. We might make a trip to Philadelphia or Peddler’s Village. Gifts are often bought at craft fairs and speciality shops. This year we missed the Philadelphia Museum of Art craft fair but attended Tinicum in the summer, Prawlesville, NJ several weeks ago.
Family gifts usually include books and music. Years ago I always purchased clothes and jewelry for Diane and Jenny. I enjoyed the challenge but knew when I liked something but I buy fewer clothes now. Kitchen gadgets have been another favorite. In recent years I’ve turned to gift certificates, theatre tickets, this year, classes in cooking and knitting. There are always crafts and art.
Christmas Eve for us is usually spent at home. Sometimes we get together with Taylor’s or Pagliones if they are visiting the area. For many years Christmas breakfast was at my parents house. My sisters kept up the tradition for several years after Mom died but now we are more likely to visit family in the days after Christmas.
In recent years we have hosted Jenny, Rob, Eli and Viv. Some years, Diane’s brother Hawley joins us. Our food traditions are limited. For years (Jenny was a vegetarian), we had salmon for Christmas dinner. Now it’s typically turkey, a bread filling, homemade cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, some green vegetables, salad. There may be turnips and parsnips — always found on the Smith’s Christmas table. Maybe homemade breads. Deserts are usually homemade, pies — pumpkin or mincemeat are common.
Tomorrow morning, Diane and I will exchange gifts. Then we will be in the kitchen. Usually I build a fire but the temperature may be near 70. About 2 the Kwaits and Hawley will arrive. More gift exchange. Wine and cheese. We’ll share some of the books, music and stories with the kids. Just as we inherited some traditions from our parents, we will pass some of ours to Eli and Viv. Yes tradition.