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Larry Racioppo
December 4, 2019

When I was a boy growing up in South Brooklyn, no one was concerned about keeping Christ in Christmas. That was a given. Even my uncles who never set foot in church went to the standing room only midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

Midnight Mass, St. Michael the Archangel 4th Avenue 1974
Midnight Mass, St. Michael the Archangel on 4th Avenue. 1974

Only Easter Sunday rivaled Christmas in importance. Both were Holy Days of Obligation, which required attendance at mass, and each was good for a week off from Catholic school.

But for me, and my 30 first cousins, it was no contest. The Easter Bunny was cool, and we liked the straw baskets filled with candy, but Christmas meant SANTA CLAUS. He brought the serious stuff – bicycles, electric trains, tea sets, Madame Alexander dolls, Flexible Flyer sleds and toy guns with leather holsters.

Yeah, you had to wear a tie and visit both sets of grandparents on the same day, but they too had presents or envelopes with cash for you!

My mother showing me our Christmas tree
My mother showing me our Christmas tree, 40th Street. Circa 1950

 

My cousins in front of their Christmas tree
My cousins in front of their Christmas tree, 12th Street. Circa 1960

 

Ronnie and Uncle Chuck opening presents
Ronnie and Uncle Chuck opening presents, 21st Street. Circa 1957

 

My brother and me with presents
My brother and me with presents, 40th Street. Circa 1957

 

My cousins with Santa
My cousins with Santa, 18th Street. Circa. 1960

 

My Uncle Chuck and Aunt Anna
My Uncle Chuck and Aunt Anna, 21st Street. Circa 1957

Looking back now, I remember how excited everyone in the neighborhood was as Christmas approached.

High above the traffic local businesses suspended strings of holiday lights with a large central star from lampposts on both sides of Fifth Avenue, the main shopping area.

 

Fifth Avenue Christmas Lights
Fifth Avenue Christmas Lights, Sunset Park. 1971

Both adults and children had lots to do:

We made lists for Santa, and sold Christmas cards to raise money for our Catholic grammar schools.

Parents cleaned house, began preparations for the Christmas feast and searched closets for the boxes that held tree ornaments, lights, our Christmas crèche and figurines.

Box of Christmas stuff
Box of Christmas stuff, my studio. 2009

 

Angel tree topper
Angel tree topper, my studio. 1983

 

Barbara’s tree ornaments
Barbara’s tree ornaments, my studio. 2011

E.E. Cummings captures this combination of happiness and anticipation far better than I can in his poem little tree.        

Buying a Christmas tree was a family outing. My brother and I watched my father tie the tree – usually about seven feet tall - to the roof of our car, and when we were big enough helped him bring it up to our second floor apartment. The fresh pine smell came with us, but the scraped off needles remained behind on the stairs.

Inside, we removed our coats and began the ritual drama of setting our tree upright in a small metal stand with three screws to hold the tree in place. This device also held about a quart of water that required frequent refilling so the tree would not dry out.

My mother covered the base with a sheet of cotton that looked like snow. My brother and I tossed aluminum “icicles” across the tree’s branches. My father hung the electric lights.

Although the ceiling-height Christmas trees of my childhood were replaced by smaller and smaller trees over time, my parents put up a real tree until they were in their late ‘60’s.

My Aunt Angie’s Christmas tree
My Aunt Angie’s Christmas tree, 18th Street. Circa 1977

But perhaps more important than our Christmas tree was our family crèche, a diminutive descendent of the traditional old world presepios. My mother and her sisters had similar crèches, which they unpacked and set up every year. They moved the crèches around the house  – sometimes under the tree, other times on top the TV or on a side table.

Our creche on the TV
Our crèche on the TV, 40th Street. 1971

 

Our crèche and a small tree
Our crèche and a small tree, 40th Street. 1979

 

Our crèche and New Year’s Eve horns
Our crèche and New Year’s Eve horns, 18th Street. 1982

 

My Aunt Kitty’s crèche
My Aunt Kitty’s crèche, 6th Avenue. 1973

Our local church, St. John the Evangelist, displayed a larger version in a plexiglass case near its entrance. But as I learned years later, even this  crèche paled in comparison to others in homes and churches throughout Brooklyn.

St. John’s Nativity Display
St. John’s Nativity Display, 21st Street. 1974

 

DeBernardo Family Presepio
DeBernardo Family Presepio, Kensington. 2003

In 2014 Sarah Stanbury wrote about these nativity scenes.

In 2016 onemorefoldedsunset examined Brooklyn expressions of this Neapolitan tradition.

One very particular tradition for me and many of my cousins was having our picture taken with Santa. In South Brooklyn this meant a family trip to Germains’ Department store on the corner of 15th Street and 5th Avenue. Our parents jostled us through the brightly lit and crowded store to an interior staircase, then up several flights of stairs to Santa’s lair. We waited on line, and eventually were placed on or near Santa for a moment. We were handed a present, a bright flash went off, and suddenly we were ushered outside onto a small fire escape landing several stories above the ground!

We descended gingerly down an enclosed metal staircase to the street where somehow our parents were waiting.

 

My Cousin Joe and Santa
My Cousin Joe and Santa, 15th Street. Circa 1951

Given today’s infinite entertainment options via cable and the internet, it seems unreal that in New York City there were only 3 television networks and a few local stations broadcasting in the 1950’s. WOR-TV’s show The Million Dollar Movie aired the same movie several times a day, every day for at least a week. This is how watching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – with Alistair Sim as Scrooge - became a family tradition. This powerful adaptation was one of the first hints of mortality I encountered.

Scrooge meets a Christmas Spirit
Scrooge meets a Christmas spirit, my TV screen. 2019

Of course, we were too young to appreciate the sadness and sense of loss that some people experience at Christmas. Fortunately, that comes later.

My cousin Kathy’s family memorial candles
My cousin Kathy’s family memorial candles, Staten Island. 2016

 

“Christmas in Heaven” casket
“Christmas in Heaven” casket, Green- Wood Cemetery. 1982

Older, hopefully wiser, I enjoy the holidays very differently now. For me and my wife Barbara, the greatest pleasure is seeing our grandchildren toss wrapping paper around as they excitedly open presents.

My former grammar school on 18th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues is now our oldest grandson’s middle school. I photographed there in the 1970’s.

“Merry Christmas to All”
“Merry Christmas to All”, 18th Street. 1977

Special thanks to my late Uncle Chuck Ardito who took most of the above family Christmas photos. His loving creative spirit lives on in his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Comments / 7 comments

Spent my early years in Brooklyn! Born in the blizzard of Dec 1947! The whole neighborhood was trying to get mom to the hospital on the 26th I was told, shoveling streets! Christmas in my early years 1948-54 were spent on 64th and Ave. U....we lived, along with my grandparents in the old Schenck house which is now in Brooklyn Museum. The entire family would come back to Brooklyn and spend Christmas in the old house. Funny...one of the last photos I have before the dismantled the house, was the old oak dinning room table, above it hung a red paper Christmas bell.
December 13, 2019, 10:53 am  
How blessed you are to have all those photos! Our Brooklyn family is of Irish descent but our Christmas was very similar to yours. Church-centered but the creche, which we called the crib, the big tree--always live--and the big family were the same. I have 26 first cousins and was fortunate to have all four grandparents alive til my adulthood. The time came when they came to us for Christmas, not the reverse. I remember the trips to the department store Santa and watching 'A Christmas Carol' over and over on the Million Dollar Movie. I still watch it every year--brilliant. Thanks for sharing your great photos and bringing back so many wonderful memories.
December 13, 2019, 2:13 pm  
Being a former Brooklynite, I really enjoyed your photos and story. My husband was from Bay Ridge and I, Marine Park, but no matter in Brooklyn we all probably have similar memories of family and photos. One of the things I miss most about Brooklyn is the feeling you get during the holidays. I wouldn’t trade my Brooklyn roots for anything. Thank you for sharing.
December 13, 2019, 2:54 pm  
Dear Larry. First, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours. I've never been a person to react or respond to things on the internet, But I just had to thank you for your delightful post. Seeing all your wonderful photos and reading about your memories was like reliving my own South Brooklyn Xmases. I even lived on 12th St and 39th Street growing up. I especially remember shopping weekly at Germain's with my parents. I have great memories running around there while they shopped. Thank you once again. Sincerely Yours, Matt Becker
December 14, 2019, 4:43 pm  
Loved every image & fantastic words added to bring it all to life! BRAVO LARRY! MERRY CHR ISTMAS!!
December 14, 2019, 10:34 pm  
Marvelous written & visual memories and a beautiful portrait of Christmas in Brooklyn, and I love the cummings poem!
December 17, 2019, 1:12 pm  
Just came across this post and it brought back many memories. I too was born in 1948 but I lived on the other side of the park (42nd street between 8th and 9th) from 1948 to 1970. I remember Germains as that was the place we usually went to see Santa. Once again I thank you.
June 11, 2020, 6:12 pm  

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