Lea Wait, here, who will admit without hesitation to being a Christmas junkie. It’s probably a genetic affliction, inherited from my mother, who planned her entire year around two events: Christmas, and spending the summer in Maine.
Beginning in late October of each year our home in New Jersey was filled with angel mobiles dangling from our high Victorian ceiling and gift-wrapped match boxes in small cardboard sleighs on tabletops and mantles. Despite our large house (6 bedroom, filled with my parents, sisters and grandparents – although only one bathroom) we didn’t have tons of money to spend on Christmas gifts, but my grandmother sewed, and my mother painted (one year she painted tiny Japanese scenes under a large magnifying glass on earrings and bracelets for the adults she gave gifts to.) And to ensure there were many gifts under the tree, underwear and socks for everyone, pipe cleaners and tobacco for my pipe-smoking grandfather, handkerchiefs for my father, and lavender-scented soap for my grandmother (who put it in her scarf drawer) were always under the tree.
When I was about five I wrote a letter to Santa asking him for a “fish game” — a game I’d played at a friend’s house in which you “caught” fish by dangling a line equipped with a magnet over fish in a “pond”. I didn’t tell anyone what I’d asked for. Stubbornly, I insisted that Santa knew; I’d written him a letter and dropped it in the mailbox at the corner.
Of course, I didn’t get my fish game. After that, I didn’t ask for anything for Christmas. But I remember one year my younger sister Nancy asked for a doll named Roxanne. I was very worried that she’d be disappointed. Christmas night I woke up after everyone had gone to bed, crept down our big staircase, and saw that Santa had already been … there were gifts under the tree. It was dark and scary downstairs, but I kept going … just far enough to see that Roxanne was there, right in front of all the other presents, under the tree. Relieved, I turned around and went back to bed. Nancy’s Christmas was saved. I never told anyone I’d broken all the Christmas rules and gone downstairs.
When, years later, I had my first full-time job, I also took on the job of being a Santa. My very first charge card purchase (a card at now long-gone Best & Company) was a silk slip for my mother for Christmas. That year my sister Nancy was told she was seriously diabetic. We were all able to laugh about it when she found I’d wrapped (separately) a dozen large bottle of Tab (does anyone else even remember that diet soft drink?) under the tree for her. And my youngest sister, Doris, got new clothes, instead of hand-me-downs. I loved playing Santa.
When my parents left their home in New Jersey, and everyone moved in different directions, there were several years before we settled in to new ways of celebrating Christmas. Although some of us were together some years, for me, our Christmas was lost until I became a parent myself.
And, not surprisingly, I went overboard. I’d been collecting cookie cutters and Christmas ornaments for years. Waiting. And none of my daughters, all of whom were born in Asia, had celebrated Christmas until they came home to live with me. Two of them knew about Christmas, but only in theoretical terms. To the other two, Christmas was a totally new experience.
Ali, who’d come from Thailand, clearly thought my mother and I were crazy as she watched us bring a tree into the house. (She kept looking puzzled and pointing at it, and then outdoors.) But when we proceeded to put lights on it, and decorations … she joined in, much as someone from the United States might, observing some strange, totally unfathomable ritual in another land. I explained about Santa Claus, and she nodded patiently. Another strange story.
Until Christmas morning. When she saw the tree, with all the packages, and suddenly realized the packages were for her. “Santa story … true?” It was a beautiful day.
And the next year she was happy to share this strange custom with her new older sister. Caroline was quiet, and had heard of Christmas in Korea, although she’d never celebrated it. She, also, was overwhelmed Christmas morning. After all the gifts had been opened and the girls sat, exhausted and happy, my mother asked her one of those questions you should never ask: “What do you like best about America, Caroline?” expecting, of course, to hear that Christmas was the best of all. But she got an even better answer. “In America, you don’t have to go outside to go to the bathroom.”
What better, more honest, answer can you get on Christmas?
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone, from my family to yours!
Love this post, Lea! I remember so many of the things you mention from my grandmother’s house… the matchboxes wrapped in shiny paper and in little sleighs (except my grandparents had ceramic ones thanks to the classes my grandmother and greataunt took “down to the Senior Citizens Center.”)
What an amazing experience to introduce your daughters to Christmas. Were the religious aspects explained as well? The real Christmas story still gives me goosebumps.
My son Nate was teasing my mother this year about her use of the term “down cellar” instead of basement, and that conjured up all kinds of stories for us. Christmas is that kind of holiday — a good time for memories!
One of my best friends still drinks TAB…Dee
Vicki, It took me a while to find a church in our suburban community which I felt welcomed a single parent with an inter-racial family. (I hope the world has changed since then!) For my first couple of years as a parent I home-schooled the Christmas story, and we sang Christmas carols (badly) that I played on the 19th century pump organ I’d bought from a Maine church that was upgrading to an electric one. Integrating stories of the birth of Jesus with those about Santa is even harder to explain than deaing with one of the stories on its own … both require faith! But by my third Christmas as a parent we had found the right church and were active members of a congregation that included several other adoptive families and took a liberal, international view of religion. And the girls were taking American Christmas well in stride.
My mom used to buy clothes for me from the Best and Co. catalog, Lea. And of course I remember Tab! Good God. I’m really old!
Not old, Maddy! Just … seasoned!
I had my haircut at Best & Co. when I was a child. My mother worshipped that store, and of course, I drank Tab. I love your story about your family, both old and new.
I loved Best & Co., too. The store in New York City … and the branch in East Orange, New Jersey, which was close to our home. A lot of shopping took place in both stores over the years. Very sad day when they closed.
Enjoyed your Christmas stories. And yes I remember a soft drink called Tab. Since our adoptions took place in the early 70’s I guess we’re getting up there. I also remember that Woman’s Day and Family Circle plus a few other magazines always had a number of short Christmas stories in their holiday issue. As a special treat I would buy the December issue of the ones that were most tempting and put them under the bed to be read only after all the Christmas Day festivities. I still peek at the magazines but won’t buy them. No Christmas stories! Found an especially good story in a religious bookstore this year. It’s called, The Judge Who Stole Christmas. Not preachy, just nice. Thanks for llistening. Happy New Year.