It’s the end of July – the hottest summer on record. It’s been unusually muggy and uncomfortable. At least it has been for me. Christmas in July seems to be everywhere this month, from television sitcoms and movies to black Friday specials in my favorite stores – I just saved a bundle on a new computer, a pair of headphones, and an Ipad. And now that I’ve spent all my money, there’s little else to do but sip on some delicious homemade iced tea and watch the Hallmark Channel. Already well into the movie, I watched as two lovers skied the slippery slopes of some Vermont resort. And I’m taken back in time, to the colder months of winter. Suddenly I don’t feel so hot and uncomfortable anymore. Later, as the couple is joined with their friends and family, they all sing carols around the Christmas tree. And I’m transported further back further in time, to happy Christmases of long ago.
Growing up in my house, Christmastime was magical. The season always began when my parents took my sisters and me to see Santa Claus at the Beach Shopping Center the day after Thanksgiving. He was flown in by helicopter, which circled over the large crowd that gathered early to witness the daredevil stunt. As the chopper entered the parking lot, Santa clung onto a rope ladder that dangled beneath it. He shouted, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” And the scores of children below went wild. Once Santa was inside his igloo, which looked like the elves workshop, an elf escorted us to him, one child at a time. When it was my turn, I sat on his lap. He then asked that famous question he asks of every girl and boy: “What would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas?”
By the end of November, my mother had already made her infamous fruitcakes. They sat inside an airtight container aging until they were eaten or given as gifts. Every few days she doused them in rum. The smell was nasty. I wasn’t allowed to eat them because of the alcohol content. And for that, I was thankful. But because my father loved them, I vowed to try a piece one day. Whatever my father did, I did. Like it or not. When my father decided I was old enough, he gave me a piece. Reluctantly, I ate it. Disgusting. All those candied fruits felt like a big wad of wax in my mouth. The cacophony of flavors overwhelmed my palate. The rum wasn’t bad though.
My mother’s holiday pastries well made up for her dreadful fruitcakes. I couldn’t wait to get home from school to smell whatever aroma might be wafting throughout the house. Her cookies, cakes, and pies were scrumptious. But if she hadn’t yet done her baking, there was always fudge, brownies, or a Hershey’s chocolate bar in the refrigerator to eat. We were a family of chocoholics. Coming home to a cup of hot cocoa and a warm chocolate chip cookie during the holidays was heavenly.
In early December the Christmas cards began arriving. We got a plethora of cards in those days. And by mid-December, there was enough to create a card tree. When my parents weren’t home, my sister got the ladder out of the garage and propped it up on the stairs in the foyer. We took turns going up and taping the cards to the wall in a tree formation. The wall was two stories high, and our card tree was as large as the real tree in the living room. It was a sight to behold. We must have crafted that wall tree a dozen times or more over the years. Not once did we ever take a picture of it. What a shame, but the memory of it will live on forever.
Decorating the house was a daunting job that we loved doing. Over the years we collected ornaments that had special meaning, like pianos, cellos, and violins, which we all played. But none were as memorable as the ornaments my mother made in her ceramics class. She made four angels (representing her four children), two Christmas trees, and a gorgeous sixteen piece nativity set that took up the entire sideboard – keepsakes that we will forever treasure. When we were finished decorating, the house looked warm and inviting – it had a wonderful feeling to it.
Christmas Eve, for me, was the best day of the holiday season. Throughout the day family and friends stopped by to have a bite of food and a drink of good cheer. We played carols all day long. “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale was my family’s favorite record. We played it morning, noon, and night. As she did every holiday, my mother prepared a special meal for dinner. Most often it was roast beef, turkey, or filet mignon. But every once in a while she made my favorite – spaghetti. She wasn’t at all happy about serving spaghetti on Christmas Eve, but we kids were ecstatic.
After dinner, my parents allowed us to open one gift. But it had to be one they selected. Over the years I opened socks, underwear, and a pencil box full of No. 2 pencils and erasers for school. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was about that. But one year I opened a Slinky and was the happiest kid in town.
When my mother wanted us to go to bed, she went to the dining room window and looked up at the house on top of the hill. “Look,” she said. “Santa’s coming. He’s at the neighbor’s house now. You better go to bed. He won’t come if you’re awake.”
We ran to the window to see for ourselves, and there he was, sitting in his sleigh, holding onto the reins. The reindeer’s noses were pointed towards the sky, ready to depart for another rooftop. Believing the outdoor decoration was real; we ran down the hall and jumped into our beds. It was the only time my mother could get us all to go to bed without a fight. But we could never fall asleep. We laid there talking for hours and fantasizing about opening our presents in the morning. We weren’t allowed to go into the living room Christmas morning without my parents. So at the crack of dawn, we ran into their bedroom yelling, “Mom, dad, can we get up now?”
“No, go back to bed,” they yelled. Ten minutes later we ran back into their bedroom and asked again. They eventually told us to get our stockings, which were hanging on the wall outside the bedrooms. We couldn’t see anything in the living room from the hallway, so the gifts under the tree remained a secret. We were happy to have our stockings – at least for the time being. There were all sorts of goodies inside, like coloring books, crayons, and of course, socks. My mother was big on giving us socks. But my all-time favorite stocking stuffer was what she put in the toe – an orange. I’m kidding, of course, but I got so used to seeing an orange at the bottom of my stocking that when she replaced it with a tangerine, I protested. I never liked tangerines – too many pits!
Finally, the long anticipated moment arrived. Like the explosion of fizz escaping from the top of a shaken bottle of soda pop, we made our mad dash for the living room screaming for joy all the way. Santa never wrapped our presents or put tags on them, but we always knew which toys belonged to who – he always gave us exactly what we asked for – I loved him for that. My teacher once had my class write an essay about why we loved Santa. I wrote, “I love Santa because he never gave me socks.” I got an A.
As a kid, I believed Christmastime was as magical for everyone as it was for my family and me – and that the world was a happy and perfect place. That wasn’t true for everyone, of course. Not then, and surely not today. As I sit here and watch all the light-hearted and joyful Christmas movies on this hot and muggy day – as I do every holiday season – I pray for peace and happiness around the world. Merry Christmas in July.