The Tribune has been running a series of front page articles featuring local people and their Christmas memories. Some are whimsical, some sweet and poignant. It got me thinking about my past Christmases.
It’s funny how the past is a pleasant sepia color. We filter out most unpleasant things, and only the nicer ones surface. I am no different. We used to have Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house. She would take days in preparation for the event. She would fry and fry and fry every kind of fish known to God and man. Mostly, she prepared salted cod, Baccala, two or three different ways. Some of it was deep-fried, some just boiled and topped with olive oil and loads of pepper, and with some she made a hearty stew with potatoes and vegetables.
Additionally, my grandfather’s wine and other contributed spirits flowed liberally. All my aunts and uncles and their kids showed up for the extravaganza. I don’t know how many people were crammed in that house, but the excitement and expectation were palpable. You never knew what was going to happen with all those people, excitement and alcohol. One year my father and his brother, Uncle Jack, got into a fist fight.
You were in a state of suspense about what was going to happen or what our Christmas gifts were going to be. My grandmother would buy all the grandchildren the same gift. You had to open the gifts at the same time to preserve a collective surprise. Sometimes, she would buy the girls a different gift, but most times we all got the same present. One of my most vivid memories was the year we all got drums! I’m not kidding. I swear to you, 11 or 12 kids were drumming their hearts out. Of course, there was no rhythm and the noise was doubtless insufferable. Why the adults didn’t kill my grandmother is a mystery.
When you factor in the over consumption of alcohol, it’s amazing the woman survived the night. You talk about the miracle of Christmas, my grandmother’s survival was certainly one of those miracles.
Occasionally, some not-so-pleasant thoughts drift into my mind. We never wanted for food, clothing or a roof over our heads, but never had much beyond that, We would only get one gift under a scrawny-looking tree (other than the gifts we got from my grandmother or one of our aunts.) That one gift was a treasure to be cherished for the entire year. Mercifully, we never knew how poor we were, but as I got older and went to St. Brigid’s elementary school and its diverse socioeconomic student makeup, it gradually became apparent how little I had compared to some of my classmates.
To this day, I remember telling of made-up gifts that allegedly were under my Christmas tree to hide my relative poverty. Please don’t get me wrong here. I would not exchange just one of my Christmases as a child for a different, more materially plentiful one. In retrospect, what I got was appreciated and enjoyed, and my memories are largely wonderful and beautiful. On balance, the trade-off was well worth it.
Now, as I’m in my 60s searching and yearning for the deeper meaning of Christmas, I am left with only the lovely memories of Christmases past when I and my own children were young. That is bitter-sweet. Fortunately, I have been given the gift of a grandchild and once again I can see the wonder and excitement in his eyes. I am able to bear witness to another child’s beautiful experience and, hopefully, what will become his blessed cream-colored memories. For that opportunity, I thank my God and know he is present in my life.
If you don’t have a grandchild to rekindle your belief in Christmas and its real meaning, go somewhere and give some kid a present he/she wouldn’t get and take just one minute to appreciate that wondrous sparkle of surprise in their eyes. If that doesn’t stir your humanity, nothing will.
Merry Christmas and may God bless you. If you don’t believe, may he bless you anyway.
DeSantis is a Meadville resident.