Focus Column: Looking back upon Christmases past

Looking back on the early years of my life I find it harder and harder to recall Christmases of long ago. Yet there are some that will always linger in my mind, and as I look back, I hope I will stir up some of your special Christmas memories as well.

The first Christmas I can remember was when my family lived upstairs in a small two-family house in Richmond Hill. The most memorable part of one Christmas morning then was when my sister and I looked out our bedroom window to the street below, and there in the early-morning light we could see what we just knew were the fresh tracks of Santa’s sleigh in the snow. It took a few years before we learned those tracks were actually the tracks of the wagon that delivered our milk.

The early Christmases of my life were during the Great Depression. Money and jobs were tight and little was spent on gifts, so family happenings were what we remember most. We always had a Christmas tree and we hung our stockings on the foot of our beds.

In the morning we would find Santa had put an orange in the toe of each stocking, along with a candy cane, nuts and sometimes a small toy.

My dad was a great one for decorating the house with evergreens and holly. To this day I can remember that wonderful evergreen smell all through the house. One Christmas, my dad was unemployed and needed to find some way to make a few dollars, so he decided to make some decorations to sell. He cut small stars out of cardboard and shellacked them. When the shellac got tacky he would sprinkle them with glitter and let them dry. Then he would use a needle and pull a length of black sewing thread through each one. Once on the tree, they would turn with the slightest movement and sparkle from the lights on the tree.

Once the stars were completed, it was our job as kids to take them and peddle them through the neighborhood. I remember how scared I was, with my older sister knocking on the doors trying to sell our dad’s decorations.

When we finished going door to door, our family used the stars that were left over. As years went by, some would need to be renewed, so another coating of shellac and glitter was added. Many in the family today can remember the stars we’ve had on our tree made by “Grandpoppy” many years ago, when times were hard.

During those trying times we would go to my Auntie Jean’s big home in Rosedale to spend Christmas with the whole family. They also felt the Depression; so tight it was they couldn’t even afford a Christmas tree. No one knew if it was too much eggnog or what, but Uncle Henry was going to have a Christmas tree. Out of the house he went, and he soon came back with a beautiful Christmas tree. Everyone asked, “Where did you get such a lovely tree, Uncle Henry?” He replied, “Right out in the front yard!”
It might not have been that same year, but I do remember a cherished gift from Auntie Jean. It was a Boy Scout hatchet that can be found today in our wood shed at home, where it is still used for cutting kindling wood.

As time went on, things became a little better as far as the country’s economy went. One Christmas I remember my big gift was a pair of high cuts (knee-high boots) that had a special holder on the side for a knife. I especially appreciated these high cuts because when we acted up in West Cutchogue School, our teacher would take a rubber hose across our legs and with the high cuts’ extra protection, that rubber hose didn’t hurt so much.

During the Christmas holidays we would visit my Aunt Alice and Uncle Bert’s beautiful home. They had more money than anyone else in the whole family. One Christmas dinner there I’ll always remember — when you went into their dining room, everything was just perfect. The polished silverware on the table and the silver candlestick centerpiece all caught my eye, but most of all, at each place setting there was a small candle burning in a solid brass candle holder. I thought then that nothing could ever beat that Christmas. I still have that little candle holder.

Later, when we were living in Cutchogue and I was going to Southold High School, I can remember a Christmas when I got ice skates. It was a time when the creek was frozen with eight inches of ice. My sister, Marg, and I would skate all around the creek and even sometimes out into the bay.

By the time I graduated, World War II was going full tilt. That fall, when many of my friends were joining the service, I enlisted in the Coast Guard. Things in the country were better economically and my father had gotten a job in the city. When I went home for Christmas I brought my good friend Guns with me. He lived in California and couldn’t make it home, so he spent Christmas with us. We had a wonderful time. That was one of the best holidays that I can remember.

It takes a little time to remember these old Christmases but given a chance the memories do come back.