Flip through the television channels during this time of year, and you’re likely to come across the movie, A Christmas Story, at least once. You might sit and watch the entire movie, or maybe you’ve seen it so many times, you stop for just a few minutes to catch your favorite scene as a grown-up Ralphie Parker recalls the most memorable Christmas of his childhood. What is your most memorable childhood Christmas? I can say with all honestly that I don’t have one.
I do remember that Christmas as a kid was magical. When we were very little, Santa brought everything. When I say everything, I mean everything. We’d hang our stockings above the fireplace, and leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk on the coffee table before going to bed on Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning, the cookies and milk would be gone, a thank-you note left in their place, and the stockings had been filled. In the center of it all, a fully lit and decorated tree with presents stacked all around, would be standing where there wasn't a tree when we went to bed! Santa had certainly been busy while we were sleeping!
Even before we woke up, we knew Santa had come, of course. I’d heard him up on the roof during the night! This was not just a figment of my childhood imagination; my brother heard him too. He’d run into my room, and whisper excitedly, “He’s here! He’s here!” We’d have to contain our curiosity, and not go watch him come down the chimney; Santa didn’t come if he sensed he was being watched. We listened to his sleigh bells, and hear his heavy footsteps above us as he made his way across the roof.
I’m not sure when my parents stopped doing everything on Christmas Eve, or when Dad stopped getting up in the attic to ring a string of bells and stomp around loud enough to be sure we’d wake up and hear Santa on the roof. I can’t imagine the work they put into just this one night! But while it lasted, it was magic.
I can also remember being very little when making the long drive to get our pictures taken with Santa at J.L. Hudson’s on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. This was in the late sixties before my youngest brother was born, and back when Hudson’s downtown flagship store was the tallest department store in the world, and the second largest store only to Macy’s in New York. At Christmas, a 9-story Tree of Lights decorated the outside of the building. In the windows, mechanical ice skaters moved around frozen ponds with ice as smooth as glass, and mechanical elves worked making toys in Santa’s workshop. There were closer places my parents could have taken us to see Santa, but everyone even remotely close to the Detroit area knew the “real” Santa only came to Hudson’s downtown. I never remember seeing Santa though; I’ve only seen the pictures of my brother and me on his lap as proof that he was there amidst my memories of the lights, and mechanical elves.
The one time I do remember seeing Santa was not at a department store. Neither did he ride in a sleigh filled with presents and pulled by reindeer. He drove a snowmobile, and the sleigh was filled with neighborhood kids. He pulled up to the house one snowy night, whisking us all off to a lodge in the woods. Outside, the parking lot was full of snowmobiles; inside the lodge was full of children. We had punch and cookies while Santa passed out presents. I don’t remember what he gave me – maybe a doll, it was, or a coloring book – it doesn’t matter. The thing that stands out in my memory is lying in that sleigh, warm and snug with neighborhood friends under layers of blankets, and watching the snow swirl above us as we sped through the night. I also remember that Santa looked suspiciously like our neighbor ... obviously because the real Santa was at Hudson’s.
There is not one thing I remember wanting was much as Ralphie wanted an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. In fact, not one Christmas present I received stands out in my mind at all. The gift I do remember well was one Dad gave to Mom. It’s what I’ve come to know since having my own kids, as The Mom Purse; the kind of purse so big it can hold an entire family’s belongings on any given outing, because it’s sure that’s where they will end up. It’s the kind of purse that makes women who carry them permanently lopsided, with one shoulder lower than the other. Mom searched through its many compartments as if there might be a fortune buried somewhere amidst the wads of paper puffing out the purse to show off its full Mom Purse capacity. Finally, she found it! With a look of joy on her face, she held it up for every one to see. It was a penny. “You remembered!” she said to my Dad, who was beaming at remembering whatever it was he was supposed to remember.
“What’s so special about a penny?” I asked, wondering why she would get so excited over something, even back then, that was of so little value. “You know that finding a penny is good luck,” she explained, “and finding a penny inside a new purse or wallet means it’ll never be empty. It means the giver is wishing you good fortune.” There might have been more significance to this small gesture than I understood then or even now; something more that it represented only between Mom and Dad. I’m not sure why I remember this short little scene so distinctly either. But it’s as clear – right down to the excited expression on my Mom’s face – as if it happened yesterday. Perhaps it’s because that’s when I first understood that it’s not how big or small the gift, it’s the thought that goes into it that matters.
There are other small memories I have from the Christmases of my childhoog ... listening to my dad sing Handel’s “Messiah” with the interfaith choir, and fidgeting on the hard wooden pews of the church, until at last, the concert concluded with the Hallelujah Chorus. Then all my fidgeting stopped; I was entranced, completely moved by the beauty of the music. Hearing the Hallelujah Chorus still gives me chills to this day. There was sledding at Yates Cider Mill, with all of us kids piled on top of my dad on our long wooden toboggan. “You’re going to break your necks!” was Mom’s version of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” heard by Ralphie over and over in A Christmas Story. Yet somehow we all made it to bottom of the hill each and every time. Our reward for not breaking our necks was hot cider and warm doughnuts from the mill.
Coming home at night after family outings such as those, I remember seeing the huge blue star blazing atop our house. Dad had found it discarded among rubble at the dump one year. Made from aluminum piping, he’d strung it with blue lights, and erected it every Christmas on the roof. I saw it recently while we were cleaning out Mom’s house, still stored on its nail in the garage, forty years after Dad rescued it the dump. The blue bulbs have long since burned out, but the memories of seeing it lit on top of the house shine as brightly as the star once did.
My childhood Christmas memories come in bits and pieces – just short little scenes played out in my head. There’s not a single memory that stands above the rest as being grander than any other, and nothing as singularly spectacular as Raphie’s Christmas of the Red Ryder BB-gun. They are more like Mom’s penny. They’re little things that to me represent a small fortune. I am a lucky woman, indeed.
Wishing everyone a wonderful holiday season filled with all the stuff of great memories.