by William Battis
Volunteer Staff at Creative Writing Institute
where every student receives a private tutor!
Christmas as a boy, in the 1930s, wasn’t just one day… it was a season! It started at Thanksgiving when the merchants decorated their store windows with the most magnificent displays. Mannequins moved and little Santa figures waved as we stood spellbound while the cold wind blew around us, and snow whirled about our overshoes. Our hands were chilled in our mittens and our ears tingled as we said, “Please, Mother, can’t we watch the train come out of the tunnel one more time?”
We had to earn the money to buy gifts for our family and parents. My family had eight children – one older sister – and all the rest were boys! Grandmother lived with us, so we had to plan a gift for her, too. My favorite money task was shoveling snow from the neighbor’s sidewalks and driveways for fifty cents or a dollar.
Preparing for Christmas meant helping Mother make cookies and fruitcake. I was in the middle of the pecking order, so I became the chief baker while Mother made and cut out the cookie dough. We had fun delivering homemade fruitcake and cookies to the nuns and priests who didn’t have local families.
For outside decorating, we attached seven-watt bulb strands of lights around the edge and up to the second story. Just imagine how excite we were when we lit them for the first time! I helped my big brothers with that until I was old enough to do it alone.
One year we made a large candle out of a cardboard tube, painted it red and installed a bulb on top as a candle flame. We were so proud of that candle decoration!
My older brother and I made a crèche (nativity scene) out of a walnut stained wooden orange crate with a slanted roof, star shining on top, and light inside, ready for the tiny figurines and the baby Jesus. It has survived to this day.
Frozen Christmas trees were displayed on tree lots, and we shopped for it as a family. The trees were stiff, crooked and flattened from travel, and we had to imagine how it would look in the house with lights and ornaments on it. Dad was a whiz at straightening crooked Christmas trees. He cut off a branch, drilled a new hole and reinserted it so the tree looked balanced.
We strung sets of lights on it, and hung tinsel to mimic icicles. It took hours to get the perfect effect. Finally, it was time to put the shining star on top.
Dad had a green Oakland car that was large enough for our big family. It had red wire wheels and a spare tire mounted on both front fender wells. Very classy looking.
The only time we saw horses and carts was when the rag man or the milkman came by. The rag man bought used clothing, scrap metal and broken things, then resold them for salvage or repair. Metals were usually melted down and sold yet again.
Grandfather was a locomotive mechanic and always had to work Christmas Eve day, so off we went to get the grandparents when he got off work. When we arrived home, Mother would announce, “Oh, children, you just missed Santa Claus!” There in the living room around our Christmas tree nestled several small gifts for each child. The youngest would open his presents first, then the next oldest, and so on. My stack would usually have a toy truck or car, plus socks, mittens, or underwear. As I became older, perhaps a tie, fancy handkerchiefs, a watch or other practical gift.
When Dad took my grandparents home, Mom put the little ones in bed, unless we walked to Midnight Mass. I loved walking late at night and listening to the crunching of snow as I looked at the bright stars.
Sometimes I’d sing in the choir on Christmas day or be an altar boy. At church, I gawked at the flickering flames, smelled melted candle wax, inhaled the fresh scent of evergreens, and stared at giant poinsettias. My spirit felt so elevated and peaceful as we worshiped Christ’s Birth with Silent Night, Holy Night.
On behalf of Creative Writing Institute and my family, MERRY CHRISTMAS!