Story by Dave Reilly. Photos courtesy of Dave Reilly.
(Warning: Christmas spoilers are contained in this article.)
When people reminisce about Christmas when they were little, different remembrances about the holiday come to their minds. The tree, the dinner, the church, and the presents they received are all standouts.
The best thing about Christmas for me is the magicality of it for kids. When I was young I fell hook, line, and Rudolph for the whole thing. Santa Claus, the reindeer, the sleigh -- all of it. Then, when I became a dad and had little ones of my own, it brought me back to my own childhood to see the awe and wonder on their faces on Christmas morning.
My Santa-believing years were mostly spent at 26 Thomas Avenue where we lived from when I was 1 to 8 years old. My parents, especially my mom, really stoked the imaginations of my younger brother Dan and me with the fantasy aspect of Christmas.
In the days leading up to Santa's visit we were encouraged to write and mail our toy list to the North Pole, first dictating to mom and later scratching out our own missive complete with misspellings. Then, we would walk holding mom's hand to the nearby mailbox to send them off. I guess now kids would text Santa or maybe the Jolly Old Elf is on Twitter.
Putting up the tree is not a great memory though. Going to pick one out at the tree lot was fun, usually combined with stopping for hot chocolate. But, once we got it home it was my dad's responsibility.
Troublesome Tree Stands
Apparently no one had yet invented an easy to use stand and this task was rife with a lot of yelling and epithets. My dad's favorite was “Judas Kraut!” We knew things were really going badly when we heard, “Oh fall down why don't ya!” Usually we'd retreat to our room to avoid this yearly outburst.
Almost worse than erecting the tree was the putting on of lights. First, the snarled wires, which had somehow become entwined like a ball of snakes up in the attic since last year, had to be untangled. Then, those who lived back in the '50s will remember that if one bulb went out they all did. Consequently, an exhaustive and profane process had to be carried out to find the faulty offender. I was never good at science so I'm not sure of why this was electrically speaking, but it sure caused dad to give off sparks.
Once the tree was up and lit (temporarily until another bulb shorted out the whole string) it was mom's purview to decorate it. As you can see by the accompanying photos, this meant applying mounds of silver tinsel. If the old theory of improving TV reception by putting aluminum foil on the antennas was true, Christmas trees back then were capable of picking up alien signals from distant galaxies. There must have been ornaments under there somewhere but who could tell?
Keeping Score on Outdoor Decor
A week or so before Christmas, we'd all pile into the family car (probably a Pontiac) to drive around Batavia and look at people's outdoor displays. My mom would bring a pen and paper and we'd give scores and vote on whose decorations were the best.
Since it was 65 or more years ago now, I can't recall any streets or houses which stood out except for Redfield Parkway. This street is in the western part of the city by the racetrack and the Veterans Hospital and has a median down the middle. Almost every house would put a tree on their front lawn and light it up in different ways. Individually each house wasn't much to see, but taken as a whole it was impressive.
I haven't been in Batavia at Christmas for a number of years, but I think this neighborhood tradition is still going on.
Christmas Eve Day must have been a real challenge for my (and all) moms. The anticipation of Santa coming was almost too much to bear. Activities had to be found for us so we wouldn't go completely out of control. You know how your puppy gets when it's been in a crate all day waiting for you to get home from work? That was us minus the barking and jumping. Well, the barking anyway.
So the day would be spent baking and decorating cookies and getting Santa and the reindeers' snacks ready. Cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer were placed on the hearth with a note. One year mom apparently thought it would be cute for me (Dan was too young) to write a poem about Santa.
Santa Claus lives way up north,
On Christmas Eve he goes forth,
To bring presents to girls and boys,
Books and balls and lots of toys.
You better watch out,
And you better not cry,
Or Santa right by your house
If you are good,
Do not fear,
Santa will come down the chimney
OK, it didn't win a Pulitzer Prize, but it was cute, wasn't it?
The Grip of Insomnia
Like many parents ours had to struggle to get us to sleep on the Big Night. The tactic of telling us that Santa wouldn't come if we were awake only seemed to make our eyes bulge wider. My mom told us that if we were really quiet we could hear the bells of the reindeer jingling. I was positive a couple of years that I actually heard them on the roof, but when I got up and looked out the window there was nothing there but the cold dark night.
To make it even harder to drift off into dreamland my mom had a tradition, maybe from Denmark from where my grandparents emigrated, to hang our stocking on the foot of our bed instead of the hearth. Imagine trying to fall asleep when you thought Santa would imminently be standing right there in your bedroom.
I swore that I never closed my eyes, but all of a sudden at 3 or 4 in the morning I would check my stocking for seemingly the 20th time and it would be full! Talk about magic! Then I had to restrain myself from looking through everything until morning.
One thing I could count on being in there once I learned to read was a Hardy Boys book. I loved them and for my parents' benefit it served the purpose of keeping me busy all day. I would usually have read the whole book by bedtime on Christmas night. Besides the book and maybe a small toy, the rest of the stocking was filled with nuts and tangerines. We weren't wealthy by any means.
Sneaking a Peek
One Christmas Eve, or more accurately early in the morning, I couldn't restrain myself and decided that I just had to see Santa. I tiptoed, probably in my slipper socks, to the stairs and positioned myself where I could see the tree.
I'm not sure how long I sat there, but at some point my dad discovered me and shooed me back to bed. He probably admonished me that if Santa had seen me he would have gone back up the chimney without leaving any presents. Dads are well known to be more blunt than moms about such things.
After all that anticipation, Christmas morning was almost anticlimactic.
The Big Bonanza
Nonetheless, we kids were up at the crack of dawn dragging a half-asleep mom and dad behind us down the stairs. Like in most every other household there ensued a hullabaloo of torn wrapping paper, opened boxes, and Oohs!, Aahs!, and Oh Boys! galore.
Presents for little boys in those days would certainly include cowboy gear, including the dreaded cap pistols with mom's admonishment, “Those are for outdoors only!” Also in the Santa bonanza would be baseball mitts and/or bats and footballs and equipment, including one year my prized red helmet, which I reminisced about in a previous story.
If you look carefully at one of the accompanying photos you can make out a toy gas station. Today it would possibly be an electric charging station for the kids' toy Prius or Tesla.
My parents' gift from me consisted of a construction paper covered packet in the shape of an angel or a bell made at school. Inside I would promise them a bunch of rosaries and prayers (pretty sure I never paid up) with a message that the nun would have us copy from the blackboard: "Dear Mom and Dad, Thank you for all you do for me. Your son, David Reilly.” (Good thing I put my last name so mom and dad wouldn't think some other kid named David made it.)
Round Two -- Cedar Street
After mom calmed us down enough to eat some breakfast, we were lucky enough to embark on a second round of gifts at our Aunt Kate and Peg's house. My dad had two sisters who never married and lived together in the family home at 27 Cedar Street (previously mentioned in "The Blizzard of '66") where they grew up. They doted on Dan and I (they embarrassingly referred to us as “Honey Boys”) and somehow persuaded Santa to make a stop at their place, too. So, the ripping and tearing and opening and shouts of “Yippee!” took place all over again.
Later in the afternoon, usually at our house because mom was the only family member who could cook, we'd sit down to Christmas dinner. This was somewhat of an adventure in itself.
Our Uncle George was a plumber and to be blunt, he kind of smelled like it. So Dan and I would jockey for position at the table so as not to sit by him. His wife, Aunt Helen, apparently had a food issue and while we ate turkey with all the trimmings, mom had to fix her what seemed to be a shriveled piece of some kind of meat. When we got a little older Dan and I would joke that we needed to get it analyzed by a laboratory to see what it actually was.
Once every few years my aunts would cajole everyone to have the dinner at their house. This announcement always led to loud protesting and whining including by my dad and they were his sisters.
They were raised in the Irish style of cooking, which meant boiling everything in water. This included the ham. Just the odor would make us gag. I think there were a couple of years when all I actually ate was those little gherkins that came in a jar. At least they weren't boiled.
Finally, as Christmas night arrived, the big day began to wind down. Uncle George and Aunt Helen headed home in the plumbing truck and my dad had to drive aunts Kate and Peg to their house as they both lived to old age without ever learning to drive.
Little brother Dan conked out somewhere and would eventually be carried up to bed. I would be curled up in a quiet spot absorbed in whether Frank and Joe Hardy would solve the case of “The Sinister Sign Post.” I assume that our parents were relaxing, too, and breathing a sigh of relief that it was over for another year.
Between the ages of 8 and 10 we lived for a couple years on Ellicott Avenue and then when I was 10 we moved across town to 122 North Spruce Street. Of course, Christmases continued on with many of the same people and traditions.
But at some point, like all kids, I realized the truth, and the magic of Santa vanished. Thankfully, the enchantment returned in the 1980s when my children were born and I got to again suspend reality for several years through their wide and happy eyes.