Pulling episode 83 out of the vault and adding a few more fun moments to muse about the Christmases of my childhood and all the weird presents we got. There’s one that we especially loved to give, however, and that was our homemade Christmas calendar.
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I’m going to backtrack and pick up a couple of the funny and fun memories from my childhood Christmases. As I think back on these, I also think about what kind of things I wanted for my kids when they had holidays and celebrated with family.
When my grandmother first came back from Europe after having split with her husband she moved in with her older sister, Mary. Mary was a colorful character – after having apparently many wild flings and affairs, which I guess she was notorious for. (She was the wild one and the maverick in her group of family sisters.) She finally settled down for the rest of her life with this wonderful man named Lou, Uncle Lou to me. He was this great, jolly fellow, I think he was Hungarian. And he just had a warmth and a fun about him that we loved so much. We loved going over to their house for meals, they had a fascinating home that was built by Frank Lloyd Wright, I believe. And it was this wild house made of cedar and stone in Old Tappan, NJ, that was carved into the side of a mountain, not a mountain, a hill, maybe. But part of the house really was stuck into these rocks in the back. And it rose out of the landscape as part of the surrounding terrain. It was a fantastic house, it had radiant heating in the floor so you could go all around in your stocking feet and be totally toasty. And there was a huge, lovely fireplace, that we all congregated around when we had meals there.
But uncle Lou was practical fellow also. And he decided at Christmas time, he wasn’t going to try to figure out what all these kids wanted, these great nieces and nephews. Instead he took us all on a field trip – My brother, myself and my two cousins, – and we all went to buy toys at Toys R Us. He let us pick out our own Christmas presents. How very smart of him! how wonderful. We looked forward to that event every year because we got to pick out exactly what we wanted, and didn’t have to trust that the adults would figure out our true heart’s desires. They never saw the same advertisements as we did and they didn’t pay attention to toys, so that was genius on Uncle Lou’s part!
One Christmas, for instance, I remember, I had asked for this particular doll. It was one that walked if you held her hand and she could walk alongside of you. It turned out she had a big battery back in her back for those D batteries. She had long golden hair. And maybe she even talked I can’t remember. But this was something that I dearly, dearly wanted. On Christmas morning, I ran in to the tree and discovered that there she was. And she was not in a package and she was just standing under the tree. Unfortunately, my mom had put her right next to one of the Christmas lights which had burnt off a big chunk of hair. Oh, poor thing. So I think I ended up giving her a haircut and cutting her hair short after all, farewell to her lovely long golden locks. They were totally spoiled and obviously we couldn’t return her because she was ruined damaged goods. But I loved her anyway. She was a typical example of some of my Christmas presents from the early days of when mom returned to live with us.
Another insane Christmas present we received (I think it was the following year), was a hand-built go-kart. Our split-level ranch had a garage that was never used for cars, and that December it was pronounced off-limits to the kids because my mom’s partner, Virginia, was working on a special project and couldn’t be disturbed. On Christmas morning that project had been wheeled out to the living room to be parked underneath the tree. It was a crazy jalopy of a car that sat very low to the ground and had one seat made from some reclaimed tractor seat. It had a motor that had once belonged to a lawnmower, so it had to be started with a pull cord and fed gasoline. We were very impressed! After the rest of the presents had been opened, we pushed the go-kart out the door to the driveway – good God it was heavy! The body had been built from 2x4s, perhaps they thought the weight wouldn’t matter since it was being propelled by gas power… But, as often happens with Christmas toys, DIY or not, the jalopy had a breakdown after a few runs. Virginia said she’d fix it later in the week, but I believe it never got fixed. My brother and I were determined to celebrate Ludlow Lane Nascar glory, however, so we pushed that 100 pound car to the top of the hill we lived on and just rode it down on pure gravity-power. Sadly the turning radius wasn’t too good either. I think we wrecked it. Maybe not on the first run but eventually. Ah, well… it was a nice idea.
Mom and Virginia had to improvise a lot in those early days because mom was the sole breadwinner and she was working as a part time teacher, and she just, she made about $5,000 a year at that point. Later when I was an obnoxious teenager I came to deeply resent Virginia for not pulling her weight. She was a perfectly able-bodied person who could have helped to support the family, but… well, as this is a Christmas episode I won’t go into that. But, one Christmas just after my mom came back to live with us it was looking like we were not going to have a Christmas tree at all, which made us think that presents were a longshot. It was getting to be very close to Christmas and there was no tree and there was no tree. It was perhaps the second Christmas after she first came back to live with us, so I would have been 12 and a half. But one night, I guess my mom in Virginia decided to take matters into their own hands and find a tree some other way. They went out in their car late at night – their little red Toyota – and they drove out on the parkway near us the Palisades Parkway. They pulled over next to a pine tree, and they climbed up it and sawed off the top, and brought it home. And then put it up as we were sleeping. And it was the wonkiest craziest Christmas tree because it was obviously not shaped like a Christmas tree. But it was a pine trees so it passed for a Christmas tree. But it had this long branch that stuck away out on the bottom, like an arm reaching for the door. But we loved it. And we were so happy, “oh my god, we have a Christmas tree!” And we decorated it, I think it was Christmas Eve that we woke up to find it. And that was so magical and wonderful.
And in those days, when my mom was living from paycheck to paycheck, we actually didn’t go Christmas shopping until the very last minute sometimes. So we would be those kids, those family, that family that was at the mall on Christmas Eve. And remember, the mall was kind of a new thing, then. We would go to the Nanuet mall, at the last minute on Christmas Eve when my mom had just gotten her paycheck, and we’d split up. My mom would go in one direction, and she’d buy some things for us. And we’d go with Virginia and you know, buy some other things for her and for other people. It was a little haphazard and crazy at the last minute, but it worked out.
Often we just made handmade gifts out of plants and bits of wood, or I sewed something or crocheted. One of the handmade gifts that we made annually as a family was actually a tradition that was started by my Uncle Jim, of all things. It was the christmas calendar. He began by making calendars for my grandmother with pictures of his kids on each page. And he would draw out, you know, a little rudimentary grid for each calendar month, and he put a photo of his kids or his wife or something beautiful, he was a really good photographer and he had a darkroom where he developed his own film and printed his photos. So he started that tradition, but somewhere along the line, it became a family project that as many people in the family as possible participated in. After a year or two it started getting more and more elaborate. Each artist would request a particular month they wanted to work on. My cousin Laura and I are both born in June, so we would vie for the right to do June each year: “I’m going to do June this year, you did June last year.” My brother was born in February, so he always got to do February, and my cousin Phil born November, so he got to do November. And we would come together in an afternoon with photos that we had gathered from the year – photos that we were willing to sacrifice because we had to cut them up. And we would make these elaborate collage pictures for each month of the year. We’d start off all gung ho with the one month that we really, really wanted to do. And then we’d split up the rest of them, and if someone else was there doing it with us, my mom or other relatives, they would they would pitch in and do a page. And I remember we’d get to the end of the day and go “Ugh! We still have August! Who’s going to do August?” And it would get to be exhausting by the end, doing all this cutting and pasting and drawing up the grid for the month. But they are fantastic records of each year, and each year they got more and more elaborate and more exciting. After a while, friends of ours would be like, “did I make the calendar this year?” It became something that spread to not only family but also friends and we’d strive to include as many people as we could in the collages. “Look in that corner, there’s that funny guy we hung out with at the beach this summer…”
Every year that my grandmother was alive the calendar was presented to her on Christmas morning. It would be the last thing that was opened, after everyone had opened all the rest of their presents. And once or twice we’d even tease and say “What calendar?” and she’d look very sad and say “What? What do you mean there’s no calendar?” And then we’d pull it out from the very back of the tree, of course, and present it in this elaborate way. My grandmother would sit in her chair in state like the Christmas Queen, opening the calendar and leafing through it surrounded by a whole family peering over her shoulders and exclaiming, “Oh my gosh! That one came out so good! Oh, look at what you guys did there! Such fun!” Each year, they got more and more elaborate as we became older and more accomplished.
This charming tradition continued, even into when my kids were small and they started to contribute to the Christmas calendar, but then my grandmother died when my son was about two and a half or three. After that there was a pause because if we don’t present the calendar to Nana then who gets the calendar? So one year it was my mom, and then another year, it was my aunt and back and forth. Finally enthusiasm for the project fizzled out when everybody was going in different directions for Christmas and coming together for an afternoon to work on a project seem to be too much organization for us. So we dropped it.
My mom actually has the last calendar that was presented to her still hanging in her kitchen, even though I think it’s outdated now by at least 10 years. But it’s still hanging with December showing it and it has been there for years and years, if not a decade. It’s a reminder of some very good times. Afternoons spent in collective creativity. Now and again I get the impulse to try and organize another calendar, but then I lose steam. Someone else will have to light that fire. I will hold out for being the Christmas Queen myself one day and have a calendar presented to me. You never know. It could happen.
After all, this day is a day for starry-eyed optimism. We have passed the longest night and spring is on it’s way! Happy season of lights to all and I’ll see you next time.