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