It all started when my older brother said something about Christmas being the only time of year anyone could tolerate Mitch Miller and my younger brother expressed surprise that Mitch Miller did anything other than Christmas.
Pretty soon we were tumbling down the rabbit hole of nostalgia that required copious Google searches and way more time than I had to spare a week before Christmas. Over the course of a few days, we dredged up every single kooky Christmas memory of our large, slightly- to grossly-dysfunctional family.
The strangest thing is that my brothers are not usually this sentimental. My mother’s death early in our lives has, up until now, made looking back for them extremely painful. Whenever I’d bring up a memory of our childhood, I was warned “not to go there.”
But now here I was Googling “Skittle Bowl” to send to my little brother, in memory of the gift he got one year that we set up to run “The Skittle Bowl Tournament of the World” that everyone got involved in and had my older brother posting round robin heats and statistics on the refrigerator door.
My immediate family was pretty normal, which is why at holiday time we became a magnet to the rest of the family seeking our stability. We were usually a pretty crowded household anyway, but during the holidays the traffic was phenomenal.
The result of this was that we kids never knew where we were sleeping at night until we went to bed. There was no kowtowing to fussy sleepers. We’d get a sheet, blanket, pillow and, if we were lucky, a mattress from the lawn furniture. One Christmas my older brother, a cousin and I camped out in what amounted to my mother’s closet. Another year when I was ten or eleven, I found myself sleeping in the family baby crib while my two-year-old brother slept next to me in a drawer.
We did eventually fall asleep, probably as a result of the little glass of wine or beer we were encouraged permitted to drink that evening.
Oh – and forget those touching photo ops in front of the living room fireplace in red Dr. Denton’s, reading A Visit from St. Nick. The living room was inhabited Christmas Eve by my Aunt Angelina and Aunt Theresa who slept on the fold out couch, bedecked in their curlers, baggy pajamas and requisite cigarettes dangling from their mouths. There was always a minor skirmish Christmas morning as my mother tried to get them up and out of the living room before we came down for our presents. Nonetheless, many of our Christmas morning photos feature a decidedly cranky Angelina hunched over in the background, coffee cup and cigarette in hand, usually yelling something at someone.
Angelina was also the source of the most puzzling Christmas gifts. She worked as a bookkeeper for an office supply store and on Christmas Eve she’d spend the last half hour before closing to do her “Christmas shopping.” It’s not every seven-year-old that gets a manicure set for a secretary to keep in her side drawer. My brother once got a box of carbon paper – already opened.
In my memory, food was a constant, starting Christmas Eve and all the way through New Year’s Day. There was always someone in the kitchen cooking – usually my mother and grandmother, sometimes my father, my brothers or me, and never the aunts. Others would bring food from the plethora of bakeries, delicatessens, butcher shops and specialty stores that are common in an area boasting an immigrant background.
Meals were a spontaneous combustion of whatever was done cooking at the time augmented with whatever was in one of the two fridges stuffed with edibles. Or someone would pull out some cold cuts for a sandwich and several more people would join him or her, pulling out ricotta containers (Italian Tupperware) full of leftovers.
My mother always made apple and pumpkin pies for Christmas and New Year’s Day, but really the holidays were about cookies. My mother and my Aunt Dotty (who officially lived with us) started on the day after Halloween and didn’t stop baking until Christmas week. An entire corner of our dining room was nothing but tins of cookies. But no one was permitted so much as a sample until Christmas Eve. We’d still be eating Christmas cookies in March.
I’d go on and on about my Christmas memories, but an e-mail from my older brother just came in entitled: “What was the real name of that Baby Vomit doll you got when you were eight?”
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