By Michael Turton
While the July fireworks, Labor Day barbecues and Thanksgiving dinners of the past tend to blur into indistinct memories, Christmas is very different. December 25 is kept in a special place in our mind. Viewed through the rear-view mirror of our recollections, it often comes back to us as a series of crystal-clear photographs and short, homemade videos.
I recently sat down with some eggnog and rummaged though my personal trunk of favorite Christmas memories and here’s what I came up with. Interestingly, the more I dug into that trunk, the more images I recalled.
The bright lights of the city
I grew up in a rural area and have a clear picture of my parents, my brothers and sisters and I piling into the 1956 brown Plymouth station wagon to drive into the wealthy part of Windsor, along Riverside Drive, just to see the big homes decorated with electric lights. They were the only houses in the region with Christmas lights. It was as amazing as any fireworks display I had seen. “Wow! Look at that house!” “That’s nothing! Look at that one.”
End of a career
The junior choir, all 30 kids in grades one through four in our two-room school, always sang at the Christmas concert — required penance for the parent-laden audience. During rehearsal, John and Ronnie, my two best friends, knew enough to stop barking at the end of “Jingle Bells.” The three of us had enthusiastically barked out the entire song, with what we thought were some pretty nice harmonies.
When I carried on for three “ruffs” after the final note, in what was by then a very quiet classroom, Sister St. Gertrude demanded my resignation from the choir, thus ending a potentially great musical career. On the night of the concert I told my parents that I had volunteered to collect money at the door and they were suitably proud. Years later, I heard reports that Sister St. Gertrude was guilt-ridden over her inability to recognize my true talent when the popular group The Barking Dogs rocked the music world with their hit single “Jingle Bells.”
Staying up late
Midnight mass made a huge impression on me as a kid, in quite varied ways. The sight of a big, burly Ontario Provincial Police officer going up the aisle for communion, gun on his hip, struck me as very, very strange. Yet I felt very happy for him that he was able to be there. I felt less happy for the guy who fell asleep drunk in the seat just ahead of where my family always sat. Until that moment I didn’t realize people drank on Christmas Eve.
When Mary Lou Gavan sang “Oh Holy Night” from up high in the choir loft, it sounded so good I got goose bumps. Everyone in the church turned to look up at her. But as a kid the absolute best thing about midnight mass was that you didn’t have to go to church in the morning. Gifts were waiting to be unwrapped. Toys were ready to be unwrapped. Cookies and Christmas cake waited to be snuck away in large quantities despite warnings not to eat too much.
Yes Michael, there is a …
The year before I was old enough to go to midnight mass my parents left me at home in charge of my three younger siblings. I was beginning to doubt that Santa Claus was real. So, I waited for more than an hour until I saw headlights turning into our driveway, signaling their return from mass. I quickly hid behind the living room couch. If this Santa thing was bogus, it had to be my parents, and I would catch them in the act.
My parents and older siblings came in, sat in the kitchen, drank tea and hot chocolate and chatted while eating Christmas cookies. They also put out a plate of goodies for Santa. To my astonishment and great relief they then just went to bed, leaving me in the dark behind the couch. I snuck back up to bed and slept very well. And wondered what Santa would bring me in the wee hours of the morning.
It better not go above freezing
Christmas was also one of the most exciting times of the year for an entirely different reason. Water was beginning to turn into ice. My best friend Tom and I kept vigilant watch on the temperature. Our constant hope was that the thermometer would dip low into the 20s at night. If it rose above freezing during the day we were disconsolate. A few days of a good freeze meant many hours of weekend hockey on Frith’s Pond. The is no better feeling than being the first player to skate out onto the brand new, untouched, natural ice on a pond.
No emails, no face book
Christmas cards were very important to my parents. My mom labored over the list for days before mailing out close to 100 cards to friends, relatives and neighbors. She announced the final tally each year and the greater the count the greater was the joy she took from it. The cards we received — roughly the same in number — became decorations throughout the house. This year I have received two Christmas cards in the mail, from my sisters Penny and Mary Anne.
Stuffed with stuff
To us kids, our Christmas stocking was a big deal. Our names were not written on a store-bought decorative sock in sparkling letters. Instead we picked the largest more-or-less still wearable sock we owned in hopes of getting more stuff. I always chose one of those thick grayish work socks with a red stripe around the top. Lots of capacity. In the morning we didn’t find our stocking filled with Ipods or rings or gift cards. It was full of tangerines, nuts and candies that only appeared at that time of year. I loved my stocking. Tangerines were a real treat. When I have one now, sometimes my sense-memory kicks in and I’m transported back to Christmas.
Soup cans and Toblerone
I continued the stocking tradition with my sons. Drew loved chocolate so Toblerone in its distinctive triangular box always appeared in his stocking. When he was very young Blair loved soup so a can of cream of asparagus was always to be found in his. They are young men now but I think they would be very disappointed not to get chocolate and soup at Christmas.
Some assembly required
Christmas with my sons was no less magical than what I had experienced but it was magic as seen through the eyes of the magician. When Star Wars was the rage I stayed up until 4:30 a.m. putting to put together the dreaded “some-assembly-required” spaceship. It was well worth it to see their reaction.
You’ll put your eye out!
Another tradition we shared was to watch A Christmas Story starring Darren McGavin each year. Forget It’s a Wonderful Life. This is the greatest Christmas movie of all time. The Rumpus’s dogs eating the turkey; the kid getting his tongue stuck on frozen flag pole, Ralphie wanting the Red Rider BB rifle and the dad winning the infamous “leg lamp” as a grand prize. I will never get a Christmas present that surpasses the replica leg lamp that Drew and Blair gave me a few years ago.
Certain gifts are locked in our memory forever. My best ever was when I was about 12. My younger brother Pat and I got a really good quality table-hockey game. It lasted almost as long as the memory. We shared many good, brotherly moments yelling at each other as Toronto and Montreal went at it head-to-head on the ice.
Worst gifts are a whole other story. They stay with you too but you can’t even discuss them until decades later. My mom actually thought my brothers and I enjoyed getting socks for Christmas. “Do you like those, boys?” she would ask. “Yeah mom, they’re great” we’d say in unison while rolling our eyes.
But the worst was my third-grade gift exchange. As the other kids unwrapped trucks and dolls and guns, my excitement built and built and finally I got to unwrap my gift which turned out to be: cuff links. Cuff links? What kid gives another kid cliff links? Even my mom, the sock giver, could not believe it.
I went up to Philip Markham, the maladjusted second-grader who gave me that gift and said, “Philip, I don’t want to make you feel bad, but I don’t have a shirt that uses cuff links.” Re-gifting hadn’t been invented yet.
The only moment that came close to that all-time gift-receiving low was many years later when I was dating Margaret. I was 22. I gave her the Seals and Crofts Summer Breeze album. It was a damned good album. Margaret gave me a coat hanger. And a pen. Needless to say Margaret and I did not wed. A coat hanger? I would rather have gotten cuff links.
Pranks at Christmas?
When we were in our late teens and our younger brother Pat was about 15, my older brother Terry and I awoke him from a sound sleep at about 2:30 a.m. on Christmas morning. We berated him for oversleeping. Everyone’s Christmas was on hold due his selfish behavior.
Pat bolted out of bed immediately and began heartfelt apologies. He didn’t notice that it was still pitch black outside as he stumbled down the stairs to discover only a dark, empty living room. He was back upstairs in a flash and impressed us with his command of parts of the English language we were sure he did not know. We were doubled over with laughter.
My dad always insisted on a Scotch Pine Christmas tree. It had to be tall enough to almost touch the ceiling, full and symmetrical in shape. Tinsel could only be used sparingly and throwing it onto the tree in huge clumps was not permitted. Hooked candy canes were a mandatory part of the decorations. Dad may have insisted on Scotch Pine because it was the least expensive but I think he wanted us to always remember just how picky Scotch Pines are. I managed to break free of the past to buy a Fraser Fir many years later, but I kind of missed those picky needles.
The Santa chair
Each family has its own traditions. In our house, gifts from Santa Claus magically appeared unwrapped and placed on a special chair chosen by each of the eight kids. Unfortunately, I discovered early on that choosing a larger chair did not result in a corresponding larger haul of gifts.
One year I was the first one up early on Christmas morning. Upon discovering that my older brother’s Santa chair included a Mattel Fanner 50 pistol and holster, just slightly more upscale than the two, blue-handled pistols on my chair, I simply exchanged the guns before anyone else got up. My mom caught on right away and said, “Joe, I think Santa made a mistake.” The guns were switched back. My brother was elated. My mom gave me a “nice try” smile.
One Christmas I was living in an upper flat above a very neat-freakish landlord who had a tiny front lawn that could have doubled as a putting green. I kept my Scotch Pine Christmas tree out on the balcony until early August. Late August would have been too much. I decided it was time to act. Rather than drag the needle-shedding tree through the apartment I simply dropped it from the balcony right onto that little putting green.
Every single brown needle fell off on in a perfect, thick circle in the middle of the lawn. I thought it looked very cool until I realized my landlord would be home in 15 minutes. I strung a very long extension cord over the balcony and went to work with the vacuum. The needles rendered the vacuum useless in the end, but the putting green was saved.
In the Windsor, Ontario area where I’m from, Good Fellows has a much different meaning than Good Fellas here in New York. The Good Fellows are a service club whose one annual project is to collect money to buy food baskets for needy families, and they do it up right. I was assigned to go door-to-door along a five-mile stretch of Highway 3.
Most people gave a dollar, maybe two. Occasionally five. One house was very small and a bit ramshackle. I hesitated but had decided to go to every house, no matter what. The man who came to the door had just woken up. He was small, quite disheveled, unshaven. He looked pretty somber. I felt very awkward but asked if he cared to contribute a dollar to The Good Fellows. He didn’t hesitate. He reached into his pocket and gave me $20 and said, “They helped me out a few years ago. I’m happy to give something back.”
That incident has always defined the word “generous” for me. He could have used that $20. It must have hurt a bit. If it doesn’t hurt at least a little, I don’t think it’s generous at all.
Christmas in July
One of my favorite memories occurred just last July  in the midst of that sweltering heat wave. I was on vacation, in a state park in the Finger Lakes and getting in touch with my inner child, swinging very high on an adult-sized swing, something I hadn’t done in decades. I looked down to see a little girl staring up at me. Finally she said, “Hey mister, are you Santa Claus?”
I thought for a second and said “Yes I am.” She kept staring. I said, “I’m on vacation. This is the one week of the year I don’t work.” She kept staring. I said, “I trim my beard back in summer because it gets too hot.” She kept staring. I said, “I sent Rudolph to Bermuda for a nice rest.” As I walked away she just kept staring.
As I got in my car and drove off she still stared, and then waved. I waved back. I hope that years from now, when as an adult she rummages through her trunk of Christmas memories , that meeting Santa Claus on that hot July day will be included.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night from everyone at The Current.
Photos by Alison Rooney
I stand corrected. I received a Christmas card from my oldest brother Len on Christmas Eve, bringing my total to three cards this year. By the way, I am sending this message from Belle River, Ontario where there is very little snow. …..and….this just in…. I hope to go to a hockey game here in the next few days – to see teams from Israel and England square off…another myth shattered. Enjoy the snow!
Very nice walk down memory lane!
Great Christmas stories. I was trying to put off getting in the Christmas spirit this early but my will power gave in upon reading these.