This recollection of Christmas as a child was written a year ago as part of my Storyworth writing project. These are essays reflecting personal thoughts that are written and collected to be passed on later to the family. I believe we all have fond memories at this time of the year. I include this story in this blog to help remember and savor those simple and good times as a child, especially as we work our way to the end of another tough year in 2021. Many traditions will be paused or changed due to Covid this year. I trust children will still see the best in this holiday season and remember it fondly anyway, even if it's not all it could be.
Christmastime brings back old memories more than any other time of the year. Regardless of how old you are (I’m 72 as I write this), or where you were that Christmas, there’s always a warm memory of giving and sharing with others. It’s a time of mystery, music and carrying forth customs from long ago. Even corny decorations, questionable food choices and extreme commercialization can’t get in the way of enjoying the spirit of the season, especially as a child.
For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been a personal family tradition that we gratefully accept, look forward to and even add to as the years go on. Some Christmas traditions fade over time. And, rightly so. This year we have been forced to change or eliminate many routines that might be called traditions. Hopefully, good old traditions will make it back in future years. Or, we move on with new traditions, still keeping fragments of memories of what used to be.
Here’s some of my memories of Christmas before I turned into a teenager and became a product of the 1960’s. By then I think we had our mind on other things but we always looked forward to coming home for Christmas.
Christmas Presents at Christmas
Some of my oldest memories as a kid were of toys and presents of the day. Boys wanted guns and outfits like those worn in westerns or the military. We wanted to look like Davy Crockett or The Lone Ranger. We took our play seriously with cool toys and games that were interactive. At the time, Monopoly, Electric Football and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots were popular. Girls wished for dolls that shed tears like Tiny Tears or talked like Chatty Cathy by pulling on a string or those that looked like a teenage Barbie.
My brother John (two years older) and I had hobbies that kept us busy over many years; collecting stamps, coins, trading cards and building our HO train set in the basement. Stamp collecting, filling coin books and collecting baseball cards were ongoing, year-round projects. While that miniature HO town spent much of the year in storage. It came to life in glorious detail, like a lot of things do, each Christmas season.
When I was very young, we rode trains, buses or walked more than we used cars. Most major highways had yet to be built. My father and mother moved to Roselle from Jersey City when I was just a few years old but still connected to family using the Jersey Central Railroad. They did not even have a drivers license or car for several years.
It was easy to see how you could build a miniature imaginative city around a HO train line including a smoking engine, switch tracks, an elevated trestle, street lights, miniature farms, factories and parks. We plowed back the money we made on our newspaper routes into our growing town, which became really special at Christmas.
Hobby stores were fairly common businesses in those days and a great place for gifts. There were Revell plastic model kits that taught you the parts of a 32’ Duce Coup, a B-52 bomber or even the parts of a body like “The Visible Man” (or Visible Woman). You could even get creative by customizing your “Hot Rod” car with paint, decals and optional parts like fender skirts and a continental kit.
As we got older there were more challenging kits to build working models like airplanes, boats and cars. Companies like Heathkit and Radio Shack encouraged building real electronic devices that worked, like transistor radios and TVs. Model kits helped us understand a complicated world but one where you could still take something apart – to learn how it works – or to fix it.
Christmas represented a once-a-year chance to earn some real cash for a pre-teen with a newspaper route. It instilled in me a love of being an entrepreneur and learning customer service and how to interact with adults. You would be extra careful each year at this time to deliver your papers on time and at the doorstep. Of course, you would sneak a Christmas card into the newspaper a couple weeks before to butter up your clients. In those days, you went door-to-door each month collecting, hopefully receiving a special season tip or gift from many of your customers. This bonus money would help fund our ongoing interests in trains, stamps, trading cards, coins and sports equipment.
As I got a bit older, I added to my resume selling Christmas trees. Our Stewart’s Root Beer drive-in, a couple blocks away, sold trees during the holiday and I quickly learned that there were big tips to be had for a kid with a little hustle.
Decking the Halls
A string of lights, a big illuminated Santa face on the front door and plastic statues of carolers decorated the outside of our house at 626 East 2nd Ave. The Christmas tree took up a third of the living room with its soft glowing screw-in light bulbs, shining glass ornaments and silver tinsel or garland. Of course, there was the nativity scene with plaster-cast characters of wisemen, shepherds and the holy family, which always seemed to need some glue repair from the previous year’s wear.
Holiday Music in the Air
At least as important as the tree was the Sylvania TV to see the holiday specials and the sounds of our our Zenith stereo set with its radio, record player with odd-looking cone speakers.
These were the early days of 33 1⁄3 rpm LP vinyl record albums. Ordinary people obsessed over “stereo” and “high fidelity” and improving sound quality with the right “diamond” needle that played in the record grooves. We bought our “stereo” at a local radio/TV store to provide the best holiday music. And, in our family it was watching Christmas specials or playing albums of Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Mitch Miller, and of course, Lawrence Welk.
My father, an amateur harmonica player (learned in the Army), believed in the beauty of music and wouldn’t mind singing along if the occasion called for it. The popular musical instrument to learn at the time, especially if you were Polish, was the accordian.
One year the family broke down and bought a Yamaha organ which my youngest sister Carolyn (11 years younger than me) took lessons. My other sisters, Christine and Barbara and even Mom and Dad took some free lessons but did not get far. John and I were not motivated enough to learn any instrument. In time, the musical fad faded and I think we passed the organ to an aspiring neighbor, which probably became a tradition. I’m still wondering how it fit in that small living room.
Christmas Mass was always a center of time during the holiday. I remember in grade school being in the special Christmas choir dressed in a red cassock, starched collar and a big bow. Our parish, St. Joseph’s, took this seriously. It was probably a Latin mass at that time. Also, an altar boy, you had to know the Latin responses during the Mass, but we had no idea what they translated to. We typically went to either the special Christmas Eve mass with the singing or midnight Mass which was “Standing Room Only”.
A Polish Christmas Eve
Since my Mom (Stella) and Dad (John, Sr.) had very ethnic and religious childhoods growing up in Jersey City, there was a strong desire to carry on some of the sacred Polish traditions at Christmas. My Dad was the youngest of 9 children. My Mom was an only child. Dad’s closest siblings were aunt (Polish: “Cioci”) Frances and aunt Josephine who lived next door to us in Roselle.
His oldest brother, Father Al, a well-respected priest and pastor at St. Casmir’s and Sacred Heart in Newark, his cousin Joe and his sister Mary “May” Slawinski with her family might visit and we usually made the long journey out to Jersey City to visit them after Christmas.
As kids, holiday old country traditions were almost dreaded. It was hard to be on your best behavior with the company of strange food, a strange language being spoken and relatives that seemed to come from a different world. Jersey City was rough, noisy and crowded. We wondered why everyone lived there in small apartments when they could move out to the suburbs. Little did I know then that my son Justin and daughter Alison would gladly choose to settle there once they started their careers.
My uncle Stan (Slawinski, Sr., husband of May) was a jolly old, stout guy. He set a light hearted-tone for their family and our gatherings. He had a distinctive mustache, much like Charlie Chaplin. I do remember vaguely (spoiler alert) that he showed up at our place on at least one Christmas Eve dressed perfectly as the real Santa Claus. Can you imagine that!
For our family there was probably no tradition more memorable than the Christmas Eve celebration otherwise known as Wigilia. With aunts Frances and Josephine next door in Roselle, we ate this sacred meal either at home or at their place. Cousin Joe or Father Al might drop by. This is a time where it is traditional to get together and invite others for a polish meal with 12 meatless dishes (12 signifying the 12 apostles). It’s also a tradition to set an extra empty plate for anyone who might drop by representing a true Christmas spirit.
But the first thing that night was to say a family prayer and share opłatek, the Christmas communion wafer. The custom is to take a larger piece and allow each person to break off a piece of yours and eat it, while you do the same to theirs. This commemorates the Last Supper and is a nice social way to wish everyone individually a Merry Christmas.
The meal began late because, as I learned recently, it was customary to start when “the first star can be seen” commemorating the Star of Bethlehem. The two most prominent dishes were a beet borscht soup and fish. Mushroom dishes (Poles are big on mushrooms) were many and varied. First, was the deep red beet soup served with potato dumplings then fried fish, then a mushroom dish. Pickled herring was also an option as it was seen as a sign of good luck for the new year.
Needless to say once the borscht and fish came out, all the kids would bolt away from the table or eat little, until better choices arrived like pierogis and/or potato pancakes (placki). Our favorite polish foods like kielbasa or gołąbki, stuffed cabbage, could not be served, at least not today. We were fasting from meat. Somewhere between dishes we were probably singing or at least listening to Polish and English Christmas songs.
My fondest food memory of the season was probably the buttery kolaczki cookies for dessert made by my Aunt Frances with raspberry, apricot, poppy and prune filling. With 12 dishes to get through, conversation and some drinking it was a sit-down party lasted late into the night as we were sent to bed with beautiful visions of Santa on his sleigh and nightmares of borscht and fish in our heads.
Tradition Continues at Christmas
Old rituals that have stayed the same or maybe improved over time are especially significant to me as I get older. As kids, I’d like to think we behaved a little bit better during the season and learned the valuable lessons of giving and receiving . All this we experienced through the same legends of a jolly old man and a baby being born and through the lens of our own family customs. Tradition helps make the magic.
We might not have understood these mysteries, but we instinctively respected the forces around us and solemnness of the season. Christmastime is still the best of times which we continue to cherish and hope to pass on to other generations.