"Hey, Mister, Merry Christmas" said the little lad. Isn't it kind of funny that such a simple greeting can generate such strong memories?
The lad's greeting conjured long forgotten memories of Christmases past. Why do we suppress such simplicity of life? How old had we become before realizing how much work our parents went through just to see a smile on our faces? What do you recall of your Christmases? The lad deserves an answer.
Many holiday films show a happy, carefree and loving family. Of course reality is often much different. For some it may be sad and for the others, time embellishes them. Perhaps a nice Christmas becomes a wonderful Christmas and the not-so-nice parts are subdued or perhaps repressed. Our hearts want happiness and once a year we should allow ourselves a little time to dream and reflect upon only the good thoughts.
The house was built in the 1890's or even earlier. It was a boarding house during the heyday when anthracite was king. The first foyer was small and was designed to dislodge the gooey coal slime from one's boots. The second foyer became the hallway to two parlors, a dining room and kitchen. For those who came simply to dine, the outside walk opened into the dining room. All had 10 foot ceilings and measured about fifteen 15-by-15 feet. The second floor consisted of three very large bedrooms and down the hallway the communal bathroom. (The servants had access to the upper floors from the hidden stairwell in the kitchen. They would enter into what was, most likely, a storage area for linens and cleaning supplies).
The third floor contained three more rooms. Two of the rooms would qualify as a New York apartment (perhaps eight feet by twenty feet with only seven foot ceilings). The third room was a basic bathroom, sink and lavatory. Nothing fancy and the pipes always froze in the bitter chill of winter.
Perhaps in early 1910's or thereabout the house became a funeral home. The undertaker was rather lazy and simply discarded the coal ashes on the basement floor until they were about five feet high. The three rooms of the basement were rough hewn out the rock wall. The front portion received the coal, the middle room contain the coal furnace and the "bucket-a-day." To those who have never shoveled coal the "bucket-a-day" was a small coal burner attached to a water tank. In order to keep the water at a high temperature suitable for cleaning the kitchenware and bathing (no showers in those days), someone had to add fresh coal to the stove and the quantity just happened to a bucketful!
If you forgot to stoke the stove, the fire would go out and there would be no hot water, which led to hot tempers and quite a few cuss words! If you tried to stoke the fire too quickly, the water in the tank would essentially start to boil and loosen the scale that accumulated inside the tank and you would generate rusty water ... and more cuss words!
So it is hoped that you will really appreciate your next shower! Oh, the third room of the basement served as a general storage room with access to the long and narrow yard, as well as an entrance to the kitchen and dining room for paying customers.
It must have been expensive to keep the house heated during the winter months but what kid is aware of that? The house, despite its' size was always warm and comfy. Coal was the sole source of heat for everything that required any form of heat. The bucket-a-day was a year long pain in the ash! Cooking was next to Joan-of-Arc torture. Mother had to use the big hernia-generating cast iron pots and fry pans.
Surprisingly, none of us took particular notice to the immensely laborious task of preparing meals. We just took it for granted because that's what moms do! And Christmas time, a joy for kids, must have been mother's bah-humbug time of the year (justifiably so) because men (a.k.a. father) did virtually nothing but to eat in the kitchen. It's hard to imagine mother up at the crack of dawn mixing dough for the Christmas cookies and for the poppy seed or nut rolls, kneading the dough when the yeast had done its thing. Flour on the kitchen table, flour on the floor, flour on mom, flour everywhere amidst the kitchen. One would warn the other, "Stay out of the kitchen. Mom's making cookies."
If mom started making Christmas cookie too early in the month, there would be none left for Santa Claus! And the nut bread – to die for. Cardio-friendly? No way. If it didn't taste like we expected, put more butter on it! Dinner (or supper to us coal-crackers) was a rush job during the holidays.
How about some "bleenies?" (potato pancakes to the self-appointed gastronomical critics). Of course they were fried in Crisco shortening. No Crisco? Use lard. Salt? By the pound, not the shaker. Milk – whole and cold. And, our favorite – fried eggs, fried bacon, fried potatoes and butted toast (still see the toast? More butter, please!). Like being in hog Heaven if ever there was one.
It was probably 1950 or thereabouts that I recall the most beautiful Christmas tree God ever created. A nine foot Scotch silver pine. Long, and extremely soft, delicate needles. Like running your hand across a fine cashmere sweater. A fragrant but not overwhelming scent that lasted days. No phony chemical additives in those days.
It was placed on a sturdy plywood platform, about six inches high and four-by-six feet. The tree was well anchored in the tree stand with guide wires six feet long wrapped near the top of the trunk and secured to the baseboard (real wood in those days).
The decorations were large Christmas balls, many heirloom. The lights were the kind you could cook marshmallows on! They had little spring load clips that had to be individually secured to the tree branches with enough space to dissipate the heat they generated.
Then the once-a-year joy of the Lionel train. The tracks had to aligned perfectly and the dump car checked out to be sure it would work. And the most important, the transformer, the brains of the railroad, was also given a thorough check, with ample space to cool off.
And then, and only then, was the angel placed atop the tree. Some years, the 10-foot ceiling was not high. The highpoint of the train was to crash into whatever was handy. Mother and father were not too keen on this, but, hey, that's what kids do!
Christmas Eve services were always awe-inspiring. Everybody fancied up and at home, breaking of the blessed host (very thin rice wafers with various Christmas scenes made by the good Sisters of St. Francis) was a moment to reflect on our blessings and downplay our shortcomings and realize, if ever so briefly, that Christmas is family, Christmas is giving, Christmas is that time of year when can say "I love you" without having to explain it or subject it to psychoanalysis.
We would gather in the dining room, form a rough circle, and father would say, "May we all be here next Christmas," and break off a small piece of the wafer and pass it down oldest to youngest. As we grew older the circle grew smaller; first Mother and then Father. Now our kids look to us to carry on our Christmas Eve tradition and have them appreciate that the most important thing in one's life is family.
"Yes, lad, I remember the tree, I remember the love. Thank you. Don't you forget your Christmases."
"Jimmy, quit your lollygagging. We have to leave soon," shouted the lad's mother.
"I was just listening to this guy talk about Christmas," Jimmy replied.
"Really? Jimmy, we're in a cemetery paying our respects to grandma and grandpa," she retorted.
"I know mom. The guy seemed lonely," he told his mother. "So I wished him a Merry Christmas.
What's wrong with that?"