Christmas Memories

Chinese Food and a Movie

By: - Dec 23, 2015

Mark Mark Mark

I grew up in a Southern community that was heavily Christian. So celebrating Jesus’ birthday was a really big deal to most folks.

My family did not and does not celebrate Christmas. But that does not mean that I don’t have fond memories of the celebration. They are just different ones than most of my friends and acquaintances.

I have always felt a bit disconnected from the holiday, but somehow it is part of me as well.

My first memories were more audial than visual. Silent Night, White Christmas and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer were poured into my memory. Cowboy crooner Gene Autry recorded Rudolph in 1949. I was two years old. This is around the time that my family got a small Philco television that had a tiny screen. Maybe there were Christmas shows on TV. I certainly heard the song on radio.

I really don’t remember if Howdy Doody had Christmas shows.

Trips downtown during the runup to the holiday are my next memories. These memories were both visual as well as audial. The department stores had Christmas scenes in their windows. Some were themed old fashioned and others were more contemporary. I remember them as quite beautiful.

Gold, silver, red and green décor was hung inside and out. Crowds of customers (mostly mothers, grandmothers and children) were shopping and buying gifts. Nifty electric trains were running above and through the stores and their windows. Secretly, I always wanted one. 

It was exciting for a 4 or 5-year-old. Hell, it would have been exciting for a 60-yea old! 

We, of course, did not have a tree but on many years various friends or neighbors would invite our family over either during their tree decorating or for a glass of eggnog (from undrinkable to refreshingly tasty). We watched the star set on the tree top with striped candy canes and decorated sugar cookies. The tree trimming ran from good to grand, simple to ornate. I loved Christmas ornaments and tinsel. Though never owning one, all Christmas trees seemed nice to me.

Though I only vaguely remember this, my older sister mainly remembers going to the Jones's (my parents' best friends from high school) to decorate their tree and have dinner on Christmas Eve. 

Visually, the Christmas lights are one of my biggest memories. Sometimes twinkling, but always striking, the lights transformed simple neighborhood houses into ornate colors and forms with facades that lasted from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. I looked forward to when our family would judge them like the Westminister Dog Show from the best to the least lovely. We awarded conceptual ribbons to the winners.

Each year in elementary school, my class was always learning Christmas carols, making decorations (not surprisingly I excelled at this) with rounded point scissors and paste (not glue). Annually there was a major auditorium program with either a holiday play or a series of the school’s best singers (I wasn’t a very good singer) performing.

There was always a class Christmas party with kids bringing cookies and candy to school. This would not be very PC today. I really don’t remember much more about this time (probably repressed it), only that I didn’t look forward to pre-holiday festivities.

Most of the class brought token gifts to the teacher for Christmas. In retrospect, for a lot of the unmarried ones, this might have been the high point of their dreary holidays. 

Even though Chanukah was then something of a much minor substitute, the runup to Christmas for my friends and neighbors was always exciting for them though not for me. 

Because of the vagaries of the Hebrew calendar, our holiday did not always overlap with Christmas. Occasionally it does actually coincide. Traditionally, it had been a nice holiday celebrated for and by children allowing parents and grandparents to bestow gifts on them. But sort of like 24 hour news cycles making story mountains out of note molehills, a minor holiday has been inflated into a much more meaningful seasonal event.

Sometime in the mid-1950s, my mother bought a plug-in electric Menorah (an eight light candelabra) that I guess came from  our synagogue’s gift shop. It was placed in our front window during the eight days of Chanukah. It was her own little Festival of Lights.

Every so often, some of our more clueless, busybody neighbors would point out to my mother that her lights were not on for Christmas. She enjoyed explaining to them the story of the eight nights of Chanukah. 

There are really no good Chanukah songs. For the holiday season, Christmas songs were supreme. Many years later, I learned that oddly a great number of Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers and lyricists including White Christmas and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Go figure.

As I got older, my father and I would make a game of Christmas eve and Christmas morning. I would tape a sock to the fireplace mantle. The next morning I would get either a piece of coal (our house’s heating was done with coal) or a tangerine or, more often, nothing at all. Usually there was a short note explaining that it was inappropriate for me to have a Christmas stocking. My dad thought this was quite amusing.

By the way, my dad worked 42 years for the Post Office. He started during the Depression as a substitute mail carrier and worked his way up to Regional Superintendent of Parcel Post. His career predated most of UPS and Fed Ex expansion. Then, the US Post Office carried the bulk of the Christmas packages and mail.

Christmas and the US Post Office were interlinked since all of Santa Claus’s letters were delivered to Kris Krinkle in Miracle on 42nd Street. This was a much more benign time, before the notion of going postal.

So my dad’s Christmas holidays were a series of long hours and angry calls from waiting package recipients. While in college, he encouraged me to take the test for temporary mail clerk to be employed during the Post Office’s Christmas Rush.

I always got high marks on the test. Instead of doing something a little more cerebral like sorting packages, my father had me assigned to unloading trucks. Usually I was handling 65 pound (the limit allowed) sacks of newly minted Sears catalogues. They were to be delivered the week after Christmas. To get more college expense money for overtime, I would work from 8 pm until 8 am.

In those days, I was in very good shape, but not used to unloading trucks. Therefore, the four nights proceeding Christmas were backbreaking near exhausting ordeals. I usually slept through all of Christmas Day. No eggnog for me that day.

Then I went away to graduate school and soon into the Army. It was the time of the Viet Nam War. Nobody sent me any Christmas baskets or boxes. I think that I mostly watched television Christmas Day and ate Army turkey dinner. I remember that there was always too much thick sweet gravy.

I have repressed all of the various intermittent girlfriends and my presents to them. Few of the relationships seemed to end well or gracefully. I guess this is too painful to conjure up. Christmas crises of the heart.

Over the years, I have enjoyed the plethora of Christmas movies. Some of them I have watched many times. They range from silly and funny to poignant and sad. These have been my moods as well during the holiday season.

Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley's Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's always brought a tear. When Harry Met Sally (actually a New Year's Eve film) is one of the best. I am a bit sick of Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart's It's A Wonderful Life especially Clarence and his clueless uncle. However, I love the 1940s story of Ralphie and the Red Ryder BB gun ("You'll shoot your eye out"), his overdressed for winter little brother and his father's obsessions in Jean Shepherd's 1983 A Christmas Story. I watch it again and again. I love the Grinch as well.

Though I tend to hate stereotypes of any kind, after finishing graduate school and starting to work, I got into the habit of the stereotypical Jewish Christmas day practice of sleeping late on Christmas morning, going to an afternoon movie and then eating Chinese food for dinner. Actually not a bad habitual practice.

Perhaps a better and more admirable Jewish tradition is for Jewish people to substitute for Christians at work so they can enjoy their holiday. Members of my family have done this for decades. Participating in charitable efforts is also a habitual aspect of many Jewish people during the holiday.

For over 15 years, I volunteered at a food bank that fed Christmas dinner to elderly shut ins. Often my daughter accompanied me. One earlier Christmas, I volunteered as an orderly at a hospital. However, the other orderlies resented the older guy taking the place of an overtime paid employee. Therefore, I did this service only once.

About 35 years ago, my friend art historian now also architectural photographer John Arthur and I spent Christmas watching  Godfather II when it came out. Then we started to look for a Chinese restaurant. I was not yet married, and John was in between marriages. Though born into a faithful Christian family, he did not take Christmas very seriously or well as an adult.

Anyway, it was a snowy night in Harvard Square, and as we were ambling through the slush and precipitation, a car horn beeped. It was the late artist David Omar White and his jerky teenage son. Omar asked us where we were going, and we said to find an open Chinese restaurant.

I don't remember if we got into his car or not, but we somehow all arrived at the venerable (should I say historic?) Hong Kong Restaurant on Mass Avenue in Harvard Square, a late night and holiday haunt for drunk and hungover students and hipsters for generations. At best, the food was not gourmet but often passable.

Omar sat across the table from John and me telling stories and making jokes. Next to him, his son pulled faces and acted as obnoxious and as angry as an awkward 16 year old under duress could. After all, he had to hang with his divorced dad and some old guys (I was in my 20s) rather than be with his friends and listen to music.

When the hot food arrived, we split up the various dishes. As we were working our way through the meal, the boy saw the bowl of light yellow creamy textured sauce and asked what it was. I told him it was mustard. He said that he liked mustard. And before I and the others could warn him of its deadly implications, he lathered his egg roll with it and took a large bite. Then his head nearly exploded.

His face turned beet red, his eyes filled with tears and his nose started running, no actually pouring. He jumped up and ran to the restroom. The mustard's hotness had overcome angry youth. We three adults nearly fell off of our chairs laughing. It was a Christmas meal that John Arthur and I never forgot. Every year or so, we remind each other about Omar's son and the mustard. The son must be about 50 now.

Last night, I attended one of the two Christmas parties that I was invited to this season. It was an annual affair that had been resurrected (isn't that an Easter tradition?) after a couple of nonevent years following my former neighbor's messy divorce. Every so often, it is always good to see former neighbors for a very short while.

Christmas eve parties often reflect the best of the season's traditions. The house was decorated beautifully, the trees were trimmed with presents laid out for her grown children. The wine flowed and traditional treats were served: chicken wings, egg rolls, giant shrimp, hummus and pita bread. I digested the other invitees both hot and cold. Few were more interesting than I remembered.

Today, I slept a little late, listened to some Christmas music and am planning to go with a friend to see a traditional Christmas film, Star Wars. This will be followed by scallion pancakes, Mooshi Pork, hot tea and fortune cookies at Chef Chow's.

The late Nat King Cole sings my favorite The Christmas Song every year starting with "chestnuts roasting over an open fire." It kind of sums up my feelings:

And so I am offering this simple phrase

To kids from one to ninety-two

Although its beeen said many times many ways

A very Merry Christmas to you.