Sunday, December 23, 2007


Someday soon, we all will be together,

If the fates allow

Hang your brightest star above the highest bough..

HANK: I'm a sap. And I embrace it. That song always make me teary, and it's not only because I'm often wrapping presents on Christmas Eve. My pals know to expect New Years cards. It's not because I'm Jewish, it's more because I'm behind.

At the urging of my siblings and me, my family actually celebrated every holiday you could get presents for. My mom drew the line at live Easter chicks, as any wise mom would do. But otherwise, we attempted to cash in at every opportunity.

One year, though, when I had just turned 16, my mom drew the line. We're Jewish, she said. No more Christmas trees. Which seems logical now, but didn't, then. My sibs were 14, 10, 9 and 8. And I knew they wanted a tree.

I had just gotten my driver's license, so The Night Before Not-Christmas, my sister Nina and I said we were going to the movies. We took the car, and we did go to the movies. But just to the concession stand. We got popcorn. Then we went to the grocery, the A and P, and got cranberries. And we also purchased the last of the scrawny old Christmas trees, not even good enough to be a Charlie Brown tree.

We hid the tree behind our barn, then scurried upstairs with our popcorn and cranberries, and stayed up for hours stringing them. (Is there a trick to this, by the way? The cranberries got very mushy.)

Then late late late, we sneaked outside and brought in the tree. Everyone else was, um, snug in their beds. We set it up, and decorated it, and put the presents underneath it. (Oh yeah, we still had presents. It was just the tree that was prohibited. Go figure.) Anyway, all finished, we scampered back upstairs.

The next morning--we got up early early as usual, and hid in the living room. It worked perfectly. We got to see the shocked and surprised looks on our parents faces. "Santa came!" Mom said. (And I guess that's how they felt when they saw our faces as little kids.) And to this day we still remember "the year without the tree."

Memories, anyone?

RO: My gosh, that sounds wonderful. Christmas Eve was always the big celebration in my family - the day itself was anti-climactic. On Christmas Eve we'd all gather at Grandma's house - my mother was one of eight, so I have a zillion cousins, and yes, being Italian, most of the males are named Anthony, or some version.

(It's even more complicated now that one cousin Pam, whose father was Anthony, and who has a sister named Toni, has married a Tony, and they have a son named Anthony. Another cousin Anthony had a son named Anthony and he married a Pam.)
Anyway my grandmother would make an antipasto that was a work of art, and god help you if you picked at anything before everyone saw it. She also prepared seven different types of fish, it's a Neapolitan thing, including bacala, which we kids never touched.

My mother would make zeppole and struffoli, two of the most fattening things on the planet. It was an orgy of eating.

There was always one aunt who gave great presents, and another who gave us all the same thing - usually a boring, practical gift like an umbrella, which is the last thing you want when you're seven - so after the first cousin opened his gift, we all knew what we got, and had to fake being excited. Other than that, it was big fun...and I still make struffoli.

So did you have an official tree the next year?

HANK: You know, I think we didn't. I was a senior in high school, then, way too cool for such things. Nina was probably on a date. The other kinds were older. And way too knowledgeable for such things. As will happen. Which makes it all the sweeter. I'm off to look up struffoli.

ROBERTA: Oh my gosh, I wish I'd been at Ro's house for Christmas Eve! Especially that antipasto! I can't even remember what we ate CE, because my mother was busy shopping for stocking stuffers. We were all crazy for stockings. She'd go out the day before Christmas to Two Guys, a discount store that must have been insanely busy, just to be sure each stocking was crammed to the top. My aunt had knitted all of us a two-footer with our names on it, plus Santa's head with an actual fuzzy white beard, leaping reindeer, and so on. It's hanging up by the chimney with care right now!

JAN: Once I heard about the seven fish dinner, I wanted to be Italian. The half-Polish, half-Irish thing didn't many Christmas rituals, except that we always had to have Kielbasa and horse radish on little rye breads for every holiday. (Luckily, the horrible Irish food was reserved for St. Patrick's Day.) Probably my best Christmas memory is just after college. My room-mate Beth was Jewish, with limited Christmas experience, so I got this inspiration to fill a stocking full of little presents for her. She was so tickled by this that the next year, she handknitted me a stocking with my name on it.I still hang that stocking by the chimney and for years, Beth and I exchanged stocking stuffers for Christmas. Once we had kids, we made Christmas ornaments together. We still have them and put them up on the tree.

HALLIE: The thing I remember most fondly about Christmas, growing up in Los Angeles, was the night BEFORE the night before Christmas, going out to bag a tree. Every year, my mother would beg my father to bring home a small tree, just about this tall (her size). We'd pile into the family wagon and cruise through Westwood and Santa Monica where, on vacant street corner lots (there were such things back in the olden days), the tree vendors would be set up for the season. We'd hold our noses at the pink Christmas trees, the silver ones, and the ones laden with fake snow (did the rest of the world have those back then?). Invariably we'd be drawn to the monster trees (what was usually left by that late date) and my father would haggle and we'd all have to squeeze in the front seat for the drive home because the tree would take up the whole back of the wagon, filling the car with that lovely pine smell. And when we got home my mother got her person-sized tree, because that was about the size of the top my father had to cut off to get the thing into the house.

HANK: Yes, decorating the tree is another whole blog. There was the year Mom wanted all red bows. Then we'd all sneak on our favorite ornaments, just one, and eventually the red bows were overtaken by the family treasures.

So--how about you? Traditions and memories? Did you put out milk and cookies? Read The Night Before Christmas? Hang stockings? Make struffoli?


  1. I'm going to be posting a piece on my blog about my family's worst Christmas and the special gift we were given--as soon as I can kick my son off my computer, where the files are saved. Meanwhile, here are some nice memories:

    In the early years, my mother would go to 6 a.m. Mass, then wake us up when she came home and we'd open our presents. There was always something hand-knitted from Grandma Birchenough, a book from my mother's godmother, something special from Santa, and something--a costume or doll clothes--that my mother sewed herself. Those were the days when Catholics had to fast 3 hours before Communion, so we didn't eat before going off to 8:30 a.m. Mass with my dad. Mom had breakfast waiting when we got home.

    The big Flynn clan came to our house Christmas night, so midday was spent writing Thank You notes and making potato chip dip and Pillsbury crescent rolls. After everyone had eaten, my two uncles who were priests played Santa to all 10 nieces and nephews, with boxes of candy for our mothers and a bottle of something for the men. One uncle had a parishioner who ran a wholesale food business, so he'd pass out jars of olives or cans of Hersheys syrup. Another worked in the post office and always had extra samples of Oil of Olay or cologne to distribute.

    It was a shock to me to marry into a very small Boston family. In the beginning, it was my husband and me, his mother and grandmother, his aunt and great-aunt--and that was both sides of his family! Even stranger to me, we had Christmas dinner midday and everyone went home before dark. For several years when the kids were little, we had a single Jewish pediatrician from New York as a neighbor. He had no local family and always took the call duty for his practice on Christmas. We always had plenty of food left over, so he'd come over for a second dinner with us in the evening, admire the kids' toys and tell us about the odd calls he'd get--like the parents who couldn't wake their infant up after passing him around for four hours at a relative's house, then bundling him up in six layers of clothes and driving him home in a heated car.

    We head for St. Louis after Christmas to spend a week with my family, so that extends the celebration for us. I really hate seeing Christmas trees out on the curb on December 26th. Ours stays up at least two weeks after Christmas. (Those 12 days start December 25th.)

    Check my blog tomorrow at I debated whether to post "Thrill of Hope," but somebody might need it. Hope you all enjoy your family holiday traditions or start some new ones!


  2. Hallie, I didn't know you also grew up in Los Angeles. I was born in Pasadena and grew up in Temple City. It seemed normal to me then that, although we had orange trees and snow only on distant mountaintops in the winter, all the children's books featured sledding, snowflakes, and apple trees.
    I also remember seeing the flocked Christmas trees for sale on those vacant lots and feeling the same disdain for them. We had a very tall living room ceiling and always bought the tallest tree we could find, and then my very short father had to dig out the step ladder to decorate the top branches. The final touch was we three youngest kids hurling tinsel semirandomly at the branches (the old tinsel made of tin, not the flimsy aluminum kind that came in later, although no tinsel at all seems to have made it to the east coast, at least not since 1980), to the ire of the oldest sister who thought we should lay it on neatly, single strand by single strand. (Does anybody else still call aluminum foil tin foil?)

  3. The first year I was living in an apartment in Cambridge, with two roommates, we decided we would have a Christmas tree, and we would give a Christmas party and invite all our friends. Most of them actually came (hey, we were all starving students, and we were offering free food!).

    We dutifully provided cranberries and popcorn to make decorations, and some people followed the script. But as the evening wore on (and the levels in the bottles sank), people started getting creative. I remember one guy very intently making a garland of potato chips, and the orthodontist who lived upstairs provided several extremely large plastic teeth for the tree. I don't think anyone could see straight enough by the end of the party to take a picture of the result.

    Happy holidays to all!


  4. I have to thank Hank for starting this post. All of my family is gone now (there was a lot of cigarette smoking going on in addition to all that eating)and I just reread my own post and got sappy!
    Love reading everyone else's memories, too. So, Hallie, what did you do with the bottom of the tree?
    BTW here is a link to Mario Batali's struffoli recipe...
    They're yummy!

  5. Mo: I'm picturing your memory as a an opening scene of a movie -- with the priests coming to give out the gifts. (I'm off your blog now to read the alternate memory).

    Edith: I still call it tin foil!

    And Sheila: I'd give anything to see that tree!

    I have one more Xmas memory to share, although it isn't mine.

    It was sent to me by a friend from Rhode Island(where my books are set)when I was writing about gambling in ACS. It was a child's recollection of the annual visit from Bootsie, the family's favorite bookie. Bootsie came each year to dole out presents to the kids. They were stolen goods of course, but the kids never realized that until they grew up.
    They loved Bootsie, all the same.

  6. I came from a family more likely to order takeout than to cook, so I don't really have many Christmas memories associated with making food. I do remember lots of tinfoil pans, however. And the tunk-tunk-tunk sound of my grandmother's gas oven warming, the smell of it set to "reheat."

    But I do remember that once we were here in the U.S., the tradition was to open presents Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day (and certainly rather than Boxing Day, which was our previous history), and my grandmother would take me out to look at Christmas lights so that Santa could come. If there is one thing that carries over from Christmases of my childhood, it's those lights -- and my grandmother's plastic, electrified waving Santa, who partially melted as he was exposed to the heat of his internal bulb over several years -- causing him to sag at the knees a little, giving him a kind of hooker's hip-cocked come-hither stance over time. It didn't help that my grandmother placed him beneath her lamp post. By 1968, her Santa looked like he'd tossed back a couple and was clearly a cooked and lonely guy on the make.

    She also had these little funky elves -- the bodies were pipe cleaners and their faces were some kind of painted plastic. She would wrap them onto the branches of her aluminum Chistmas tree (the one with the wheel turning at the base of it, changing the tree from red to green to gold to blue), and by the end of Christmas Eve, all the elves had slid around and were dangling over the snapping jaws of my aunt's dachshund, Heidi, who liked to eat them. Heidi then spend the next day barfing up elf bits on the linoleum. My grandmother never learned to put the elves higher up, and Heidi never figured out that they were the reason for her bellyache the next day.

    I also remember the toys: my Pat-a-Burp doll's dainty little belches, the EasyBake oven I got when I was six (same lightbulb wattage as debauched Santa). I was very proud of the little cake I baked in it, which rose prettily but tasted like cardboard -- qualities I carry forward to my baking today.

    My grandmother died last year at age 94 -- a kick butt fate-wrangler, former nurse and early ferry pilot for Curtiss-Wright, who raised two pre-teen boys on her own after her husband took a bus south out of Edinburgh and never came back. I'd give anything to have her Hey, Sailor Santa.

    But tonight I'll walk Puzzle and go look at the lights in her honor, then reheat cornbread dressing and green beans almondine, eschewing the microwave for the gas oven -- natch.


    Happy holidays. Best love, health, and safety to all in 2008.


  7. Mo -- I read Thrill of Hope and am grateful you chose to post it. Anything I could write other than 'thank you' would be inadequate.

  8. Sheila: I love the potato chip garlands. That would be hard to do, right? Wouldn't they keep breaking?

    Susannah and Mo--You bring tears to my eyes. (And then laughter at elf bits.)

    Please pay a visit to Mo's blog. She has honored us all in sharing her story.

  9. To get to Mo's blog, Momentary Lapses, go to: