With a relatively few Politically Correct exceptions, we Americans love Christmas. When we think about the season, most of us smile at the memories it conjures up. There’s the images of all the holiday trimmings, mistletoe & holly, Santa Claus and his Reindeer, snow, sleigh bells, all the colorful decorations, the Christmas Tree, the food and, of course, the family–with children everywhere with wonder, excitement and joy on their faces. Christmas also wouldn’t Christmas without the music.
Ask anyone who has been in radio and they will tell you about Christmas. I spent right at 30 Christmases while sliding through what I call my radio career. The holiday always followed the same pattern year after year. Ask anyone and they will tell you. Although the particular routine would vary from operation to operation, invariably it was all the same…only different at every station in the country. Christmas, for those of us in the business, usually fell into two general categories. Great anticipation and excitement or total dread.
Let me explain. Each year when it came time for Christmas, the radio station would prepare itself to, in effect, change its format from what it normally was—be it Rock, Pop, R&B or Country—to Christmas Music. Typically, it would start the day after Thanksgiving. Most people refer to it now as Black Friday. We didn’t call it that back in the day. Even then, it was the time for retailers to make those sales.
Retailers would be playing Christmas music in their stores incessantly all day, every day until Christmas Day. In radio, we would also do our part to support the retailers (considering that is where the bulk of our income was coming from) It was our way to support them and get our listeners to get into the holiday spirit. Starting the day after Thanksgiving we would play one Christmas song every hour or two hours just to ease into the holiday spirit.
Within a couple of days we would be playing at least one Christmas song every hour around the clock. At this point in the process we would be playing generic Christmas songs. We often called them Santa Claus songs. We were not yet playing any of the Christmas Carols. Just the fun up beat, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Sleigh Bells kinds of songs. Within the week we were playing maybe three or four songs an hour. This would stay pretty much the rule until we got a week or so away from the actual holiday. Eventually we would be playing nothing but Christmas music 24/7.
One thing about Christmas music, some of it is really fine music and well done but think about it. There really wasn’t a great depth in the number of titles to choose from. Virtually every one of those songs had been recorded thousands of times by thousands of artist. The voice my change but the words don’t! There gets to be a mind-numbing repetitiveness. You just shake your head and just want the noise to stop. Even the most avid lover of the season would develop a vile feeling for certain songs. One of the songs I won’t listen to at all anymore, to this day, even though it might be a personal favorite of yours. If so I apologize. I can’t stand “Blue Christmas” no matter who does it. I can still see the album cover of Blue Christmas with 15 variations done by 15 different artist. It makes me want to scream like a little girl and wet my pants!
It’s true every year a few new songs would come out and people would love ‘em; some have become standard Christmas fair you hear every year. There was always a new novelty song that would come out and you’d get phone requests for it until you couldn’t count them anymore. You could count on getting those request just like clockwork—“Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” was one and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” is a more recent choice. The list goes on.
For me, the song that drove me to distraction (and many of my other colleagues) was the Barking Dogs doing “Jingle Bells.” I HATE THAT SONG! It got to the point that one year, I took the record into the production studio, made a copy and came out two hours later with my own revision. My heavily edited version had a an unknown person driving up in a car, getting out of the car walking across the gravel while the dogs were singing away, Arf, arf, arf……Arf, arf, arf…Then you hear the cocking of a gun and then you hear automatic gun fire. Next you hear the record speeding up and you hear the dogs squealing and yapping and running for their lives. After you hear about 30 seconds of this. It is totally silent. Then you hear the person walk over the gravel, get into the car and drive away. Then it closes with the last seven notes of the original song. It was hilarious! I wish I could share it with you. I still have a recording. I found it recently in a box of old reel to reel tapes.
It was a cathartic moment for me. Anyone who had to play that song as many times as I have will “get it.” They’ll understand why I did it. I think it saved my mind. Damn, that felt good! Now before anyone goes off and gets all bent out of shape with me or wants to call PETA, understand, I do NOT condone violence of any animals, dogs, cats or otherwise (except maybe poisonous snakes). I have no love or use for them.
My little work of production was really just my mini-protest of the song itself. I was shooting the RECORD not the dogs! By then, I had played the Barking Dogs hundreds, if not thousands, of times and was driven to exorcise it from my life. It was just a little foray into comedy. Was it in bad taste? Maybe. Probably. I don’t know but it sure made me feel good!
As for the rest of the season, we would begin to add the Christmas Carols the last few days before Christmas itself. As I recall, we would begin to play the Christmas Carols exclusively around 4pm in the afternoon on Christmas Eve and play them nonstop until about 6pm Christmas night. After that we would return to what we normally played. A wave of relief washed over the station. It would last for another 11 months or so months. Things got back to normal.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas, what it means and what it brings as much as the next guy or lady. I’d miss it if we didn’t have it anymore. BUT I wouldn’t miss those awful damned dogs! Perhaps now you can understand, even in a small way, what it like to spend Christmas on the radio. Merry Christmas, Y’all.
Christmas has always been a special time of year. Some of my favorite memories are rooted in the Christmas holiday. You can call me a hopeless romantic if you want to but I love that ‘Christmas feeling.’ The sight of holly, snow-laced spruce trees and logs burning in a fireplace stir something deep inside of me. Perhaps it’s growing up in Norman Rockwell’s America that I cherish so much. Yes, I grew up there and was fortunate enough to experience firsthand all the trappings of a New England Christmas—even the roasted chestnuts on an open fire. Christmas always brings a hopeful, optimistic promise of good things. I see the good in people that I often miss during the other parts of the year. That’s my shortcoming, not theirs.
As I grow older, memories flood my mind, particularly during the holidays. Those memories converge around people more than anything else—mostly people who are not with us anymore. As much joy as there is at Christmas, for me, there is always a twinge of sadness. My parents are gone several years now. I miss them more than ever at this time of year. It’s because those lasting memories of Christmases past almost always includes them.
As with much of my writing, something comes from out of the blue and inspires me to start jotting down thoughts. Usually, I have no idea where it will lead. This time the thought of Christmas has moved me to share with you a Christmas story. It’s a simple snapshot in time written for sharing with my children, family, and my cherished friends.
Most families have their own holiday traditions and legends and rightfully so. This is one of ours. I promise every word is true. It’s too ‘out there’ not to be true. It begins on a cold grey Sunday afternoon in November in Sanbornton, NH. My stepdad, Hal, who for some reason I cannot truthfully remember to this day why but I called him, ‘Pop.’ He and I drove up to his parent’s farm in Sanbornton with plans of chopping down our own Christmas tree. The homestead goes all the way back to the days of the French and Indian War. In fact, it was built by one of ‘Roger’s Rangers.’ Kenneth Roberts wrote a book called, Northwest Passage which later became a movie starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Young and Walter Brennan. Apparently the group actually existed or at least, one just like it.
The farmhouse sat on 180 acres on what was the Old Concord Coach Road that traversed the forest between Sanbornton and New Hampton. The Concord Coach House where the coach ride began was situated on the road, now called Plummer Hill Road, at the bottom of the hill about a quarter of a mile below the house. The farmhouse itself was built by a Mr. Plummer who served as a ranger in that militia group. He rests in the family cemetery in the woods about a hundred yards behind the farmhouse. I spent many summer afternoons back in the old family cemetery trying to visualize what his life must have been like—still watching for marauding Indians in the woods.
Pop and I drove up there one cloudy, gnarly, cold Sunday afternoon in 1965. Our mission was to find and cut down a stately, well-proportioned Christmas tree from our own farm. How difficult could that possibly be? He parked the big, maroon, whale-like 1962 Mercury on the side of the seldom traveled road. We began our search on the steep incline in the field below the road.
It takes time to find the perfect Christmas tree. Even though the cold passed through our layered clothing, we pressed on. We would spot a tree standing like a sentry off to one side or the other and approach it with the eager anticipation of a child—only to turn it down because of some perceived flaw. I cannot tell you how many times we put ourselves through this process; easily dozens. It must have been 90 minutes later; when we realized that it was getting late in the afternoon and we were going to lose daylight if we didn’t make our decision soon. You would think standing in the midst of 180 acres of trees finding a ‘perfect’ tree would have been a no brainer. We began to get in touch with reality. This was an exercise in futility…”For God’s sake, pick a tree!” I’ve never been one to feel comfortable in the ‘settle for’ mode but we really did have to make a decision.
Finally, about 50 yards down the side of the hill we found a likely suspect. As I stood slightly behind it on the side of the hill, it was just a tad taller than me. I was 5’9’ with my stocking hat on. I stood there with my arm standing straight out and I was holding the middle of the tree. At this point, I’m considering neither the geometry nor the size of our prize. The tree was pretty. No, it was magnificent. It had a perfect shape. It was what Pop called a ‘Bastard Pine.’ It was a mixture of pine, spruce and some other kind of evergreen. It had long, supple, multi-colored needles. It was a naturally colorful tree. This tree was going to look spectacular in the front window of our living room in the house at 69 Lincoln Street. I just knew Mom was going to be so proud of us for finding such a superb specimen.
We attacked the 10 inch base of the tree with the hacksaw. In a minute or two of furious, sweaty effort, the tree twitched, made a cracking noise and fell to the ground with a loud resounding swoosh! We had our tree. Now only the simple task of hauling it up the hill and placing it on the roof of the old Merc remained. Little did we know at the time, this was only the beginning of a growing list of troubles.
Pop moved to the base on the right side of the trunk; I to the left. We looked at each other and reached down to grab the base. We wrapped our arms around the bottom two branches and lifted the cumbersome trunk. On the count of three we both lunged forward. WE lunged forward…the tree, stayed put. Not believing or accepting the previous outcome, we tried the same ploy again with the exact same results. A third attempt found us no closer to perceptible movement. Yes, this was the definition of insanity personified. You know, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? As the old joke goes when the box fell out of the back of the long car, someone remarked it was time to rehearse this thing. This plan was not working.
Realizing we might have bitten off a bit more than we could chew, we approached our tree with a new determination. This time we placed an extra tight grip on the lower branches and picked the tree up to about shoulder high. This time we actually got it to move–maybe a foot. We must have been a sight. Pop said we looked like a couple of monkeys trying to hump a football. Imagine watching a man and a boy trying to muscle this forest up the side of a steep hill. Words were muttered, energy expended while inching this behemoth up the hill. At one point we realized there was an easier way. That was to lay the tree on its side parallel to the road and roll it up the hill. We would have to adjust the top of the tree after every couple of turns of the tree. Remember, the tree was a lot wider at the bottom than the top. Our method might not have been pretty but at least it worked.
We easily consumed more than 45 minutes to finally get that tree the fifty yards or so up to a stopping point on the side of the road. When we reached the top of the hill, we were both out of breath and hunched over like a couple of arthritic old men. “Thank God that’s over!” Pop said as he lit a cigarette. I was cold but I recall not minding sitting on the cold ground clenching my knees close to my chest just to stay warm. I was plum tuckered out.
Next came the task of loading it onto the roof of the car. Hal and I were gassed from the trek up the hill. Rather than drag the tree to the car, Hal backed the car beside the tree. I think this was the first time we began to get a sense of the actual size of our hard won greenery. The tree was longer than that big ‘ol Mercury. The bottom branches, even in the prone position, were taller than the car itself.
We had worked too hard to turn back now. If we can get this thing to the house, it will make a magnificent tree. If is a little word consisting of two letters that can often take on implications on par with quantum physics. I can prove it. Having the tree beside the car was no guarantee that we would ever get it home. We only had to raise the tree up the four or five feet onto the roof of the car. It might as well been a mile. This would prove to be a challenge greater than finding the tree and far greater than coaxing it up the hill.
Again, we approached the problem in a manly way—brute force! We bent down, grabbed the tree and tried to hoist it upon our shoulders for the final push onto the roof. Did I mentioned before, we were gassed? After a couple of futile attempts, it was obvious; we just didn’t have the strength to pick it up. It was way too heavy for us. There had to be another way, but how?
For several minutes, we stared, perplexed, at the tree and then at the car and back at the tree all the while secretly wishing that somehow magically it would climb up there by itself. Suddenly a light went on in our brains. Granted, it might have only been a 40 watt bulb but a glimmer of an idea flickered to life. We did have in our possession a piece of rope about twenty or twenty-five feet in length. I tied one end around the trunk and the bottom branches of the tree. Meanwhile, Pop tied the other end around a rather stout looking tree beside the road. There was sufficient slack in the rope so that I could lift it over the hood and roof of the car while Hal maneuvered the vehicle between the upright tree and our Christmas tree.
Pop inched the car forward, then backward and forward again until we had the length of rope running over the middle of the hood and roof and down over the trunk to the base of our tree. At this point, Pop and I switched assignments. He stood behind the car as I slowly inched it backward while Pop lifted the tree trunk and lower branches onto the trunk of the Mercury. He was huffin’ & puffin’. As with many great plans, it didn’t work the first time. The tree simply rolled off the other side of the trunk when it reached the rear window taking the radio antenna with it. That’s OK we weren’t listening to the radio anyway. However, the plan did show promise. We went at it again.
I pulled forward and then back again. Pop once again took a mighty breath and hoisted that tree back onto the trunk with every ounce of strength he had left. Eureka! It worked. We were able to get the tree onto the roof, grinding and scratching paint every inch of the way. That big ‘ol Mercury actually groaned as the shock absorbers bottomed out. With the car running, I hung on to the tree while Hal undid the knots at both ends. We quickly tied the tree to the roof by running the rope through all of the open windows of the four door sedan and over the top of the tree in several locations. Although we still had twenty somethin’ miles to get back to Laconia, that puppy wasn’t going anywhere. The Mercury took on the appearance of an old fashion East Texas logging truck. I wish you could have seen it. It was a sight–Just this big green & Maroon massive growth rollin’ down the road.
Because we had to run the rope through the interior of the car, we made the trip back to town with the windows down. It felt like 20 somethin’ degrees. In those days, we didn’t know anything about wind chill. It was just damned cold. I was already at the point of not feeling my fingers. So there we were coming back to town with a monstrosity of a tree dwarfing the car underneath it with the windows down and the heater on full blast laying our hands on the closest dashboard heater vent. On the ride home, I remember looking over at Pop every now and then and sharing that look of intense pride. We smiled like a couple of Cheshire cats. We were pretty proud of ourselves. The feeling would last until we got home.
We pulled into the drive way on Lincoln Street. Our house was a gray two story house with enough room in the attic to have made a nice apartment had it been finished out. I used to practice my trombone up there. The roof of the house, like most houses in that part of the world, had a serious pitch to it so that the snow would fall off and not put so much stress on the roof. The downstairs rooms were fairly large with the living room in the front of the house, the dining room in the middle and the kitchen in the back.
Pop pulled the car to the back door off the kitchen. I ran into the house with excitement and called my Mom to come and look at our Christmas tree. I will never forget her reaction as she walked through the back door onto the porch. “What the hell are you going to do with that thing?” She asked with more than a touch of sarcasm. I was crushed. My expanded chest quickly deflated. Pop looked hurt too.
Mom continued, “How do you expect to get that in the house? Look at that. It won’t fit through the door!” Pop and I looked at each other and in a manly saving face kind of way, we said, “Oh we can get it in—the boughs will bend.” Yeah, right. I untied the rope holding the tree to the roof and Pop pushed the tree toward the porch. Again, with a heavy swoosh, it found the ground. I think I heard the Mercury catch its breath and raise six inches higher. Pop pulled the car away and then we approached the immediate problem at hand–getting it up the back stairs and into the house.
Having already had the experience out in the field of trying to pick up the tree and move it without much success, we were determined to get it through the doorway. We muscled it to the back door. Oh that idea of the boughs bending at the doorway? That wasn’t going to happen. Getting that monstrosity into the house was simply an obese possibility. Obese possibility—FAT CHANCE! As much as I hated the idea, it was the only thing he could do; Pop broke out the hacksaw again. He cut just above the lowest spray of branches. Keep in mind the trunk of this tree was easily 10 inches or more. Still again, the tree would not go through the door. He then moved the hacksaw about two feet further up the trunk and started driving the saw through the soft wood. The next section fell to the ground with a heavy sounding clunk. This time we got it through the door—barely.
Mom had to move the kitchen table and chairs out of the way or we would have surely knocked them all over. Pop and I manhandled the tree through the dining room into the living room. By now the tree was considerably lighter. We laid it down by the front window and both bent over, got a good grip and stood it up. Or should I say, we tried to stand it up? Now the tree was too tall! The tree started to bend about half way up the tree. The top of the tree stretched across the ceiling parallel with the floor. There must have been four feet of tree running along the ceiling. Mom just sat in the corner chair shaking her head reminding us just how stupid we were and how silly we looked. Mom never suffered fools lightly. If you knew her, you know that about her.
It was time again for the hacksaw. A couple of more cuts had indeed cut that tree down to size. Even after cutting easily four or five feet from the top, it went from the floor to the ceiling. Understand, we cut enough off the top of this tree that if we had cut a circular hole in the ceiling instead, Mom & Pop would have had a full size Christmas tree downstairs in the living room and a full size tree upstairs in their bedroom. And it would have been the same tree!
The tree trunk, despite all the cutting, was still too large to fit into the tree stand. We had come this far…this tree was our tree and there was no backing up. Pop went outside to the garage and came back with some wooden slats to nail to the underside of the trunk. Once we stood the tree back up, he then nailed that puppy to the hard wood floor. Mom likely went nuts over that but Pop was NOT going to be denied. This was war. We then took a piece of clothesline, wrapped it around the middle of the tree, and then tied off each end to nails Pop had driven into the window and door frames.
It was time to stand back and admire our handiwork. This gorgeous Christmas tree in the wild now had no shape! It was just one continuous wide piece of green pipe that ran from the floor to the ceiling. I’m not kidding. There was NO Shape. There was just this massive green growth in the corner of the room. You have never seen anything so ugly in your life! Mom claimed she hated it but as the years passed, I always knew that, secretly, it was special to her too. We never had a Christmas together after that when that tree didn’t come up in the conversation. It was my favorite Christmas tree of all time—ugly as it was—no tree ever meant more to me and our family.
Mom passed in 1998, Pop in 2002. Just before he died, we knew it was the end game for him. I drove to New Hampshire and spent 11 days with him while he was in the hospital. We talked about everything and everybody. Finally, on my last day before I left to come back to Texas, we talked again. I knew it would be the last time we would ever see each other. He knew it, I knew it. Tears were easy to find. I couldn’t leave it that way. I was determined to get him to laugh one more time.
The conversation turned to that wretched Christmas tree. It had become a family legend. Pop and I bonded because of that tree. He truly became my dad on that hillside that cold November day. As we reminisced one last time about that pitiable pine, we laughed until we cried. It was the ugliest Christmas tree ever displayed in Laconia, NH—or for that matter, perhaps, anywhere at any time. But in reality, to this very day, for me, it remains the most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw.
It’s December already. Wow, the year sure has shot by. As I settle into my plush easy chair for my afternoon power nap, I close my eyes to see what images show up on my inner eyelids. It has turned chilly outside with a bit more nippiness in the air.
Within a few moments, my mind is a rush of holiday memories. Some are so vivid, I not only see them–I can feel, smell, and even taste them! When I think of Christmas, I instantly think of people of Christmases past, Christmas cards, the aroma of food, wintry scenes, countless Christmassy images, movies, music, decorations of all kinds and especially family.
One of my favorite memories is the one of placing a Baby Jesus figurine with his out stretched arms on the Christmas tree. I always enjoyed nestling him into a welcoming bough. It always seemed like such a fitting place for him to rest. He would stay there until it was time to take the tree down. It was the last ornament we removed every year. I got that childhood keepsake from a Nursery school Nativity scene. Each child got one to take home and it became a treasured Christmas tradition at our house.
One of my fondest memories was walking down a snowy Main St. in Laconia just after twilight enjoying the lights and the decorations on each light pole. I especially loved hearing the snow crunching on the sidewalk as I walked along taking in the festive atmosphere. It was even more special when the snow was falling. There were the foil strands of red & green with a wreath in the middle hung across Main Street and tied off on the pole on the opposite side of the street. There was the smell of fresh popcorn wafting from the old Woolworth’s Five & Dime. Then my mind quickly darts to when some of us in the Laconia High School Band would climb onto a flatbed truck and perform Christmas music in the annual parade escorting Santa Claus into town. It was always fun playing all those familiar Christmas songs. One year it was so cold that the mouthpiece of my trombone stuck to my lips. Yeah, that year was memorable and painful.
One of the other things I thought made our town special was the decorations the individual storekeepers would paint on their store windows. Window shopping was always a great past time at that time of year. This was back in the days before we ever heard of a shopping mall. The stores painted their snowflakes and wintry scenes onto their picture windows adding to the wonder and spirit of the season. There were snowy hills and pine trees, Santa Claus, elves and any variety of holiday scenes.
I would remember too being excited when the mail man would drop off a half dozen cards or more. I got to open up most of them, my mom would open the ones from people I didn’t know. We always got lots of cards from family and friends. We would stand them up in the living room in plain view for all the world to see.—on the TV, book shelves—almost any open space. Remember all those cards that had glitter on them and how the glitter got everywhere? I was always partial to the nature or woodsy themed cards with Cardinals. I think that’s where my love of Cardinals came from. Ironically, years later my college mascot would be the Lamar Cardinals.
We had another tradition each year beginning back before I was even born and that was putting the candle in the windows. That happened every year of my life. It was just part of life. There was always something simple, plain, understated and yet beautiful about that simple decoration.
Of course, there was the Christmas tree. There was nothing to spark that Christmas feeling quite like that first smell of the live cut Christmas tree. I could smell that odor every day of the year even now and never get tired of it. Our tree would often have a theme or a particular color scheme just to change things up from year to year. We always had a “real” tree. My grandparents in RI, I think, were one of the first families to have one of those aluminum trees with the motorized color wheel. It was fascinating for a little kid but maybe not much so for adults but they sure were a novelty in their day.
I also remember, particularly in my early days, listening to the grownups complain about the lights. Remember the strands of lights where if one light went out and they all went out? Someone would have to unscrew each light bulb and try another until you could determine which was the one that had blown out. That process could take 15 minutes or more for each string of lights. That made decorating the tree an adventure before you ever got started. We all had our favorite ornaments to put on the tree each year. Once the ornaments were properly placed with love, it was time to lay on my back with my head next to the water filled tree holder and look up through the tree boughs with its lights, ornaments and garland. Put on the Christmas music and it was simply magical. It was one of the moments I longed for every year.
My mom wasn’t a big baker but she did bake during the holidays. I use to accuse her of being a binge baker. Usually it was cookies both regular flavored cookies and filled cookies. What they might have lacked in style points they more than made up in flavor. Mom was a good cook. You could always count on the house smelling great between Thanksgiving & Christmas. Our holidays weren’t always traditional. Now Thanksgiving was usually some big old Turkey who quickly got cut down to size. I also remember eating every variation of turkey for what seems like for weeks. My recollection may be exaggerating that a bit. I do remember one year for Christmas, she decided to make a New England Yankee pot roast. I remember thinking it was the best pot roast ever. The Christmas meu could be anything from another Turkey to Lasagna or Pork Roast. I think it was whatever sounded good in her head at the time. It never mattered. It was always good—especially the leftovers. Those Christmases we celebrated in Rhode Island at my grandparents’ house—those were feasts! We devoured turkey, ham and several kinds of pastas including Lasagna, antipasto, and decadent Italian pastries. I know us kids were on a sugar high for days afterwards.
How do we talk about Christmas and not think of music? I have always loved the sounds of the seasons. When I was a child I remember several years getting those little blue printed booklets from John Handcock Insurance Company. The booklets were full of Christmas Carols. I remember going out caroling with my mom and some of her friends using those booklets. Caroling amounted to going from house to house and singing a couple of songs before moving on to another friends’ house. I still remember getting cold but having lots of fun. I couldn’t carry a tune with a bucket, then or now, but I did put forth a joyful noise. At the end of the evening, there were no Starbucks and the Dunkin’ Donuts weren’t open that late in those days, so it would be off to home and Hot Chocolate.
I always liked the secular or what we later called “Santa Claus songs” but I always thought the Christmas Carols were sacred and special somehow. There was something majestic about them. There was a bigness about the orchestrations that made them impressive. I remember hearing those songs in church with the choir. It was mesmerizing for a little guy. Later in life, music became an everyday part of my life. I know I played my share of Christmas music during my radio career.
As much as I love the trappings of the holidays, the colors, the decorations and imagery, it is undoubtedly the people that make the holiday for me. I still see the visual images of family and love ones long gone. I still see their unmistakable smiles. I can even hear their laughter; even the loving looks of my long passed uncles, Don & Lou. My aunts Delores, Barbara, Ann & Gladys all shared their laughter and good humor with me. I remember playing with toys with my cousins, Ed, Tony & Steven. We had our own club until the first girl cousin, Terry, was born. I think there were 10 girls in a row after that. I love each and every one of them. I wish I saw them more.
I remember my Grandma Della Porta standing in the kitchen smiling back at me over something stupid this child did. Just an image from decades ago but it remains as real in my memory as it if happened yesterday. I recall the one time my grandfather gave me a hot roasted chestnut. I remember just as vividly spitting it right out. That is one traditional food I still joyfully avoid. Of course there are the countless images of my mom, the one person I knew my whole life. I remember the many years I saw joy on her face as I opened my gifts from under the tree; you know, the ones Santa brought. It would be many years before I had children of my and could truly understand what she felt. There is no doubt in my mind, I know how blessed I am to have her and the hundreds of other people who have passed through my life. Ultimately, I think it is the people in our lives that make all the difference.
In closing, I have always been cognizant of the ‘reason for the season.’ God has been good to me…frankly, I believe more than I could ever deserve. He has played a major role in my life many times. Frankly, I wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t have stepped in a time or two. You may agree or disagree. You are free to believe in whatever you like. That is none of my business.
Personally, I believe in God, Jesus Christ his only son and my personal savior. I love the story of the birth and the nativity. I also believe in Easter and his death and resurrection and the promise of the life in the hereafter. As we get caught up in all the holiday activities, I am always aware of His presence. The holidays bring an unending flood of memories for each of us. Some good and maybe some not so good. As you go about your celebration this year, I pray it will be joyous and memorable for you. This is a great time of year to reflect. What have been your happiest holiday moments? Take a few minutes to think about that and I bet you’ll find a smile on your lips before long. Say hello or smile at a stranger this season. Hug your neighbor or as my former radio colleague said on a song, “Lighten up, It’s Christmas!”
Wait! I hear a noise on the roof! Could it be…? Hmm. I wonder if that fat guy in the red suit has landed on my roof again. Those reindeer—man, they sure can be messy. I think I’ll go get a Blackberry eggnog before I go check. Merry Christmas, Y’all!
Without a doubt, my favorite two holidays of the year are Christmas and the Fourth of July. The Fourth of July brings out the patriotic side of me. Christmas brings out my reflective side. Even as a boy I’d find myself looking back and reflecting upon Christmases past. I don’t know why. There is just something about this holiday that lends itself to memories. I’d think about all the toys & games I had received and about the Christmas trees past too; however, most of my memories were centered on people – many of which, if not most, who are no longer with me. I grew up in a rather large extended family on my mother’s side. They were known as the Della Porta’s. My mother and her brothers and sisters were raised by an Italian father and a Portuguese mother. As a child, my most vivid memories are of laughter and food. The Della Porta family knew how to cook and eat. I remember eating my first chestnuts roasted over an open fire. Frankly, I wasn’t too fond of the chestnuts but I ate them. I love my aunts and uncles and all my cousins too. The family gatherings at Christmas were always special. Our family was so large, I think I was still sitting at the card table when I was 45 years old.
As a child just beyond toddler, I remember my great-grandmother, Christina, my grandfather’s mother. I was always told that she was the only one of the family with blue eyes and that I got mine from her. So I’ve always felt a special connection with her. I remember standing there beside her. There is a picture of the two of us in the family album. I was maybe four or so at the time. She died one Christmas Eve. For several years afterwards as joyous as the Christmas season was there was always a bit of a pall over the holiday. For years afterward she would often come up in conversations. But then again, I mostly remember the food. We ate lots of Italian food, turkey & ham. It was a feast every year–more food that you could possibly eat topped off with decadent Italian pastries. I remember being covered in powdered sugar.
We always had Christmas at our house where Santa would leave lots of booty for me but no Christmas was complete without going to grandma and grandpa’s to see what Santa left me under their tree. I cannot remember a Christmas when I was disappointed. That Santa Claus had to be a rich dude. It wasn’t that I got these wildly extravagant gifts but he always seemed to bring the thing that I wanted most. That Santa guy is all right in my book.
I spent every one of my first 17 Christmases at home. The first six or seven were in Rhode Island where I was born. The rest were in Laconia, New Hampshire, where I grew up. I have lots of memories of the holidays. The one that comes to mind at the moment was my last Christmas in Laconia. It was supposed to be my first Christmas away from home. I had enlisted in the U.S. Navy in the month of March prior to my graduation from high school in June. And I was supposed to be away at school at NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, learning how to be a Parachute Rigger. At the last minute, I was able to swing a pass to go home a couple of days before Christmas. I didn’t tell my folks I was coming. Based upon previous experience with my mom, I didn’t want to deal with trying to explain to her what my plans were. Remind me sometime and I will tell you a very funny story about my mom and getting me home from boot camp. It’s funny—no–it’s hilarious and to this day it’s still downright embarrassing. I’ll just give you the Cliff Notes version here. My mother called the Admiral at Great Lakes to make sure that her little boy got home from boot camp safely. Embarrassing doesn’t begin to explain the emotion I felt when I was called out in front of 700 other sailors and told that I had a phone call from my mother. Maybe that’s what scarred me for life.
For this trip, I figured out that I could get home all by myself. I took a bus to Newark and boarded a plane bound for Boston. From Logan Airport, I took the bus to Laconia.
When I arrived in Laconia, it was like a Christmas postcard. I got there late in the afternoon, it was right at dusk. The Christmas lights were on everywhere. All the street light columns were adorned the familiar Christmas decorations. Snow was falling heavily and had been for about an hour so. It crunched under my feet. I was dressed in my dress Navy blues covered by my Navy pea coat. All topped with my white sailors’ hat. The bus depot was at the train station. To get home, I had to walk through downtown. As I strolled down Main St. I passed Greenlaw’s Music, Sawyers Jewelry Store and Woolworth’s. I was thirsty so I decided to stop in and get a Coca-Cola at the soda fountain. My friends Norman and Ray Normandin’s mother worked at the soda fountain. As kids, she would often buy us a Coca-Cola on our way home from school. For me, there was nothing like the taste of a fountain Coca-Cola. It was always sweet and tasty as all get out. As she and I talked about what I was doing in the service and what was happening in Laconia, I realized it was getting late and that I needed to get home before the snow got too bad. I couldn’t wait to surprise my mom.
I left and headed back down Main Street. I remember crossing the bridge in the snow and stopping at the rail looking down into the Winnisquam River. I used to catch ‘Suckers’ there as a kid. Really just a trash fish but they’d give you a good fight. They were just fun to catch and release. I had many vivid memories of both crossing and standing on that bridge and watching the river change colors as the Cormier Mill dumped dye directly into the river. I also remembered watching the Salmon that used to jump the falls at the dam upstream years before. I lingered for a few minutes looking around downtown soaking up the sites and the memories of this place I truly loved. I proceeded to walk down to Baldi’s Corner and turned right on Court Street and angled off onto Academy. As I passed what used to be the Academy Street School where I once attended, I looked to my right and across the street at my friend Larry Howe’s house. I wondered what and how he was doing that day. Little did I know at the time, he was off in the Navy having his own adventures.
The snow was getting deeper and it was about three inches or so by now. It was not doing my highly polished dress shoes any good. I continued down Academy and hung a left at the corner onto Lincoln Street. I pushed my way down the sidewalk past seven or eight houses until I reached the front steps of my house at 69 Lincoln St. I bounded up the steps onto the porch and knocked on the door. After a moment or two the big heavy door swung open. There stood my mom with her mouth open with a shocked look on her face. Suddenly, that familiar gleam in the eye came across her face and she greeted me with a big smile and her open arms hugged me with all her might. She cried out,” What are you doing here? I thought you weren’t coming home.” I responded with,” Well, the Navy decided they don’t need me for a few days, Merry Christmas mom.” I thought she was going to cry. It made me feel so good to make her feel good.
My stepdad, Hal, I called him “Pop”, didn’t get home till later that evening from working at St. Pierre’s restaurant. He was surprised to see me too. Maybe it was because I was in the service then but we all felt a special closeness that night. There were lots of questions about what the future held for all of us but in that very moment here was genuine love being shared. It was palpable. You could feel it. Later in the evening, we huddled up by the Christmas tree, each of us with a glass of our favorite nog. We spoke of Christmases past and some of our favorite memories. Yes, including that awful Christmas tree from the year before—the one I told you about last year. I smile whenever I remember those tender moments. So many of those people are gone now—my parents, grandparents, some aunts & uncles and too many friends to name. I am grateful every time I think of them for the time they shared with me during their lives.
What has often struck me the most is how our memories are focused around people and not things. There is something to be learned there. I have been so blessed to have had so many remarkable people pass through my life. Some for only mere moments and still others as lifelong friends. God has blessed me with lots of family and friends. I consider you among them. Thank you for sharing a part of you with me. As I reflect on this past year, I can only feel that I have been blessed beyond measure by the God I believe in and his son. My heart surgery three years ago was an unqualified success, so was my bladder cancer surgery the next year at this same time of year. I’m here to celebrate another Christmas with you. My Christmases are not measured in the gifts I might receive but in the knowledge that I too am loved by my children, all my family & friends. That means more to me than anything. As I reflect on this Christmas of 2015, I wish you & yours joy, happiness and to be loved beyond measure. I ‘m thankful. I am the luckiest man on earth because I have you in my life. Merry Christmas from my heart to yours.
The oldest holiday celebrated in Texas is Christmas. As Texas grew under the six flags each nation brought their own customs and traditions for celebrating Christmas. You would be hard pressed to name another holiday that enjoys as many traditions as Christmas. With the season upon us again it’s only fitting to look at some of these customs, where they come from and who was responsible for them.
Spain 1519-1685: The Spaniards came to Texas in 1519 and brought Catholicism and Christmas with them. The first indication of a celebration by the Spaniards came in 1599. They held a Christmas pageant near present day El Paso. It included roles for men and women and some of the local Indians. It is believed that the tradition of the piñata dates back to this period. The paper mache figure is filled with candy and small toys. A blindfolded player tries to break the piñata with a stick so that the treasures spill out. This exciting tradition continues to this day.
France 1685-1690: Although France ruled Texas for only five years, it left its mark on Texas’ Christmas traditions. Also strongly rooted in the Catholic religion, the French brought the celebration of Epiphany into the holiday. Epiphany was also known as the Twelfth Day. It takes place the twelfth day after Christmas (January 6th) and is symbolic of the time the Three Wise Men bestowed their gifts on the baby Jesus. Although France ruled a short time, the heaviest French influence would come about 150 years later during the Texas Republic period. The French opened the French Legation in Austin for their diplomats. Christmas as it was in 1841 is celebrated there each year with traditional dress and customs. The French version of Santa Claus, Pere Noel, always makes an appearance.
The French also liked Christmas trees. The early Texans would decorate them with assorted cookies. It is thought they were to symbolize communion wafers. If Christmas was being celebrated, you could count on seeing a “crèche” nearby. That is the French version of the Nativity scene. How can you mention the French and not mention food? During the yuletide season they would bake a chocolate cake and then roll it up to look like a Yule Log.
Spain 1690-1821: For the next 131 years Spain ruled Texas. It was during this period that all the great missions were built. The priest worked tirelessly to convert the Native Americans to Catholicism. It was common for the priest to put on pageants, festivals and great feast at Christmas to show the Indians to benefits of the church. San Antonio seemed to be particularly active in this regard. About 1731, a group of settlers came to the town from the Canary Islands. They brought a custom they called, “Las Posadas”. It means “The Inns”. The custom plays itself out as a group of families go from house to house singing Christmas carols. At each house they get turned away until, finally, they are invited in and pray at a nacimiento—the Spanish Nativity scene. Shortly afterward, a party breaks out.
At about the same time America was declaring it’s independence from England, another tradition took root, again, in San Antonio. A play called “Los Pastores” (The Shepards) was performed. It is still performed each year at the Mission San Jose where it was first performed in the 16th century. This play portrays the story of the shepards as they try to make their way to Bethlehem.
Another custom that grew out of the 1700’s was the Spanish “luminaries”. The Spanish Texans would light a series of small bonfires. It is thought that they would symbolize the fires the shepards would build each evening of their journey—some even suggest that it could allude to following the light of the North Star. With the influx of more Americans into Texas, paper bags came into use. This is where the custom of burning a candle inside the sand filled bag came into vogue. It is still a popular custom to this day.
Mexico 1821-1836: By 1821, Mexico had won its revolution from Spain and in so doing, became the ruler of Texas. Because of its rich and deep heritage with the Catholic Church, it became law that no Protestant Churches could be started in Texas. Almost all of the new settlers from the United States were protestant. Conflict was inevitable. To get around the law, one man went so far as go up to Illinois, form a protestant church there and moved it to near present day Bastrop. In 1834, they held the first legal Protestant Christmas celebration in Texas.
Another Christmas symbol you’ll recognize comes from this time period. The American government had its eye on Texas for some time. It sent Joel Poinsett to Mexico with the purpose of purchasing Texas for the United States. Why not? Jefferson got a deal on the Louisiana Purchase. While in Mexico he saw flowers that the Mexicans called “The Flower of Christmas Eve”. He took some home with him. Before long Poinsettias became popular plants that are synonymous with Christmas.
These were hard times for the settlers that continued to stream into the future republic. These for the most part were not rich people. They did all they could do to coax a subsistence living off the land, cattle or tiny retail establishments. There were not many luxuries. It would be a good Christmas if they could find eggnog or even fresh milk.
The Mexicans would enjoy a Christmas meal, which included tamales. Tamales have become a tradition especially in Texas and the southwest. The cornhusk-covered delight is covering more geography each year. This is also the time when the Midnight Mass became popular.
Republic of Texas 1836-1845: Up until the Republic of Texas was established, Christmas was really focused around the church. Once Texas became a nation, it was no longer illegal for Protestants to form churches and celebrate to their own liking. This is when more activities away from the church began to surface. Balls, dances, hops and square dances were held wherever people gathered. For the most part the people were poor and could not afford much in the way of gifts.
While the Republic of Texas took root, people of various ethnic backgrounds where moving in—bringing their homegrown customs with them. There were the Germans, the Czechs, Irish, Scotts, Poles and others—all adding to the tapestry of Texas. Although the French used Christmas trees in their observance of the holiday, it was the Germans that held the Christmas tree very close to their hearts. Although the earliest use of “Christmas trees” goes back to the Druids of England (who did not celebrate Christmas), the Germanic people somehow came up with a connection between the “Tree of Knowledge” in the Garden of Eden and apple trees. Since apple trees are bare during the winter, they used evergreens and put apples on them for decorations—later it would be roses—eventually, decorations of various types would be used. These trees were often placed on the table. The floor to ceiling jobs were strictly an American custom.
Ironically, the first artificial trees came from Germany too.
Gifts given during this time were usually quite practical—scarves, socks and other homemade toys or crafts. The United States received a gift during the season of 1845. The Lone Star became the 28th star on the flag of an ever-expanding nation.
Antebellum Texas 1845-1861: The period of statehood between it’s joining the union and the Civil War is known as the Antebellum period of Texas. It was during this period when Santa Claus first appears in Texas. The real St. Nicolas lived in Turkey during the 4th century. He is reported to have died on December 6th. This is the date that many Czech and Polish Texans celebrate his day. Most Americans today got their first real look at the jolly old elf through Clement Moore’s famous 1822 poem, “A Visit From St.Nicolas”. You probably know it better as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. In the poem he had eight tiny reindeer. Rudolph, a strictly commercial addition, would not show up for about 120 years. By mid the 1800’s, stockings were hung with care on fireplaces all across Texas (and America for that matter). By now, people of all ethnic backgrounds were observing many culturally diverse traditions like Yule Logs, popcorn strands, wassail punch, mistletoe, and general revelry. The holidays would take on a different light over the next five years as Texas became part of the Confederate States of America.
Confederate Texas 1861-1865: These were extremely tough times in Texas. Constant shortages made gift giving and eating, at times, challenging. People out of necessity had to be self-sufficient. Many resorted to making their own shoes and clothes. They would send what little they could to their family members off fighting the war with little guarantee they would ever receive the packages. Wars end however; the Civil War was no exception.
United States 1865-Present: The Reconstruction period right after the war was particularly harsh. Most southerners felt they were being punished for the war. Shortages continued as the people tried to reestablish their lives. In time, things did get better and Texas began to flourish. Christmas cards, an English invention, caught on—a tradition we joyfully continue to this day. Christmas seals first appeared in 1907. The world famous fruitcake came from a bakery in Corsicana in 1896. It was a German recipe and it’s still being made there today. Texans now celebrate the holiday according to their own customs and desires.
If you would like to find out more how Christmas was celebrated under the six flags, you might consider reading, “Texas Christmas As Celebrated Under the Six Flags” by Elizabeth Dearing Morgan.
I hope you have a wonderfully joyous holiday season. However you choose to celebrate, may it be all you hope for. Remember the reason for the season and keep Christ in Christmas. Merry Christmas from our home to your home.
One of my earliest memories of Christmas was from the early 50’s. It was the lights. Our little family didn’t have much money. I think we were one of those “beginner families” starting to get a foothold in the years after WW II. We did have a Christmas tree with those strings of lights that would go out if one light burnt out. I learned from personal experience those lights would burn your fingers if you touched them. So I made it a point to leave them alone.
Even with the array of colors on the tree the thing that made the greatest impression on me were the candle lights in the windows of our house. Each window facing the street had a candle with a plastic base that supported three white columns topped with orange colored lights. As a child of about six, I didn’t understand the significance of those candles. I still remember my mother telling me why we put them in the window every year.
First she explained to me how Joseph & Mary had travelled so far but still could not find an inn or a place to spend the night. She told me how they ended up staying in a drafty old stable. Then she told me about how their path was guided by a star and how that star directed the shepherds and Magi to the humble little stable so they could find Jesus, the Christ child. She went on to explain to me that was why we put the candles in the window every year; to let the Christ child know that if he saw our lights that he would be welcome in our home. I remember thinking how cool that would be if he would come and visit our house. I secretly waited to hear a knock at the door.
In those days, it seemed everyone had those kind of candles in their windows too. Then as the years went on, the light displays got bigger, brighter and gaudier, those candles got relegated to the attic or some other unseen place. As I’ve driven around this year I have seen several homes with the candles in the windows again. It pleases me to see them coming back. There is a certain understated elegance in the simplicity of those candles. Just looking at them brings me back to a simpler uncomplicated time. The lighted candles were one of our family’s longest held traditions. I’m still hoping to hear a knock at the door.
A few years ago, I decided to get a part time job to raise some more cash for Christmas. So I landed a job at a jewelry store. This was a Texas family owned & operated jewelry store. That was a fun job—really a lot of fun. I have nothing but respect and high praise for them for lots of reasons–not the least of which is this is a Christian company and they practice what they preach. I was the only guy on the staff that season. My co-workers were wonderful ladies and they took me under their collective wing. I’m thinking they were feeling a little sorry for me. When I took the job, I promise you, I didn’t know anything about jewelry but thanks to their help, I did learn a lot and quickly.
Our store had a sizable floor plan with several tastefully placed display cabinets filled with bling for everyone. I think I started just before Thanksgiving but what I do remember clearly was how every day we got closer to Christmas, the busier it got. A week or two before Christmas, it was not uncommon to see the store packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder trying to find that special item for friends & loved ones. It was mostly women in the store with a few men who obviously had been towed in there by their wives or girlfriends.
The way things worked was clear cut. Customers would come in and browse the store. Many of them were holding the catalogs they received in the mail. A lot of these people were long time, repeat, dedicated, loyal customers. They would get a slip of paper and write down the item number on the jewelry tag or in the catalog. When they got to the counter. We’d go find that specific piece in the storage drawers or bins behind us. Our store sold a ton of charm bracelets, charms, neck chains, rings & earrings. We’d let the customers try on the jewelry for their approval. They’d say yay or nay, make the transaction, and it was done. The staff took great pride in their customer service. Most of these ladies had been doing this for years and they are very good at what they do.
One morning I had not been on the floor for more than 10 minutes when a little, older lady came up to the counter and got right in my face. The store was packed with people. People people everywhere. Apparently, she had purchased something a few days earlier and was not a happy camper. She was in a major snit. She apparently didn’t want to do just an exchange or simply want her money back; she wanted justice! I know this kind of person. I have known them since my college days working at McDonald’s. They have a room in their house where the have on their wall the heads of deer, antelope and ferrel hogs. She obviously to mount MY head up there too. At first, her firm and targeted fury at me made no sense. I honestly had no idea what she wanted or what she was talking about. She just kept ranting at me in her loud annoying voice. I maintained my cool and just let her rant. After she finally ran out of a steam, I was able to cut to the source of her issue and figure out how to help her. I have to admit, it would have been so easy to cut loose and dump my frustration back at her but in those situations you just have to remain a professional. (But don’t think I hadn’t thought of it) As the lady left the store, I walked to the back of the store into the conference room and closed the door. I was still seething. I took a big breath, exhaled and said out loud in a calm normal voice, “Lady, I hope your pet spider dies.” And walked back out the floor and went back to work.
I loved my work there. You would be amazed with how many charms & charm bracelets they sell. Not being a girl, I didn’t realize how personal charm bracelets are to women. Every charm has a special meaning and a special place on the bracelet. Ladies will use a lot of time choosing each charm and precisely in what order those charms will go on that bracelet. Don’t be messin’ with any lady’s charm bracelets–unless you just really need a broken hand.
The Christmas season can be a mad house. That is an understatement. I remember working the counter and having my head down for a couple of hours at a time only to look up and see no end to the line of customers filling the room–a couple of hundred, at least. The customers were great. They were very patient and thoughtful. They knew we were really trying to help them in a timely fashion. It was just crazy busy.
That is how busy it gets but then, suddenly, it’s Christmas Eve and something weird happens. Early in the day you notice there are a few women come in as the store opens but then the transformation happens. By noon, there are nothing but men in the store. They come in and start viewing the display cases, cabinets and the wall displays. Almost to a man they have an order slip in their hands. Some have very confused looks on their faces. Some are in the downright panic mode. The funniest thing to me happened more than just a few times. A man would come to the counter and point to a catalog number of an item he wanted.
It is now Christmas Eve. The store has been hammered by thousands of customers over the past three weeks or so and many of the items have simply been sold out. When you tell the guy, “I’m sorry but we have sold out of that item but we’ll have more next week.” He doesn’t want to hear that but he presses on. Next, he’ll turn and survey the store and point to an item on the wall or in a display case and say, “I want THAT!” Hopefully, we still have some. This guy desperately does not want to go home empty handed–he wants something…anything! I figure his logic was, if his spouse isn’t exactly crazy about the item, SHE can bring it back and exchange it for something she does want after the holiday. That always amused me to no end. Yes, there are more people than you can count that wait until the last day.
For you guys who wait until Christmas Eve, good luck and I hope you get what you want in time this year. Merry Christmas, Y’all.