“Christmas is a feeling filling the air. It’s love and joy and laughter of people everywhere.”
These words written by composer Natalie Sleeth in 1975 still ring in my ears from my childhood. I remember learning the song in junior high school chorus a very, very long time ago. I’m not sure why this tune has survived the test of time in my brain’s soundtrack, but it has. Of course, back in the 1970’s Christmas really was “a feeling” and not just packages, gift cards, spending money, and frantically decorating. Back in my day, Christmas was special. It was something that you couldn’t put your arms around, but you knew it was there keeping you safe and warm like a winter coat on a cold day.
When I was a little girl, my parents used to take me shopping in downtown Pittsburgh. We would spend the day looking at the animated Christmas windows in Kaufmann’s Department Store. They were a sight to behold! I always looked forward to getting my picture taken with Santa Clause at Gimbel’s Department Store and shopping for gifts in the children’s toy land section of the store. We would always stop for a Christmas cookie from the local bakery and would wait to see the Christmas lights come alive in the city at night before starting our long trek home. I loved Christmas as a child. It was the perfect time of year.
My parents were big on decorating. Every square inch of our home was lite up with lights and tinsel. My parents always continued the tradition started by my paternal grandfather of creating an old-fashioned village underneath the tree. We never had a live tree, but instead had a shiny aluminum tree complete with a rotating multicolored light wheel that made it and its ornaments shine like diamonds. My mom would allow me to skip school to help bake cookies with her. I really loved that! My mom was an excellent cook and baker and we would make dozens of filled, chocolate chip, tassies, nut rolls and so on. My father looked forward to taking a large tray of cookies into work where he would be deemed “hero for a day” by his grateful co-workers. The days leading up to Christmas seemed to last forever!
Back in the day, people were not in a hurry for Christmas to arrive. They enjoyed the days leading up to the big day. Christmas cards were handwritten and we received tons of them. I recall that if you didn’t seal the envelope, the cards were only 3 cents to mail. My mom decorated our closet door in the entrance of our home with the dozens of beautiful cards were received from friends and family. My parents always put up a large nativity scene that they had imported from Italy. The statues inside the manger stood about a foot tall each. They were beautifully crafted and hand painted. The manger itself came in pieces and once assembled, it took up a good part of our living room. I would always get the honor of placing the baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve.
Christmas in our house was a religious experience. My parents taught us to keep the reason for the holiday always prominent in our thoughts and deeds. My dad was the soloist in our church, and that meant listening to hours of holiday hymns and carols as he rehearsed for Midnight Mass. I remember sitting in church struggling to keep my eyes open, waiting to hear my dad’s solo. My father was a trained vocalist and had a magnificent voice. Listening to him sing the “Ave Maria” at mass was the highlight of my holiday. Something I miss till this day.
I think I enjoyed the holiday so much more as a child because I didn’t have the pressures that come with being an adult during Christmas. I didn’t have to worry about earning money for presents because my dad made sure I had a little envelope with some cash in it to buy presents for my family at Gimbel’s Santa’s Workshop and Santa Land. The Christmas decorations magically appeared inside and out without me lifting a single box or untangling a single strand of lights. My job was to help bake and eat lots of cookies and to watch the countless Christmas shows on our black and white TV. “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty” were fairly new shows at the time. When I reminisce I recognize that it was truly a grand time of year and a special time in my life.
My brother, who was a professional drummer traveling the country on tour with George Benson at the time, would sometimes surprise us with a visit home for Christmas. He wouldn’t tell anyone he was coming. It was a big deal when he came home. To surprise me, he would hide in his room. When I got home from school my mom would send me back to the room on some bogus mission and he would be standing there when I turned on the light. I was always thrilled to see my big brother! It was a wonderful Christmas present. Sadly, this will be our first Christmas without him.
My grandmothers, aunts, and uncles were all alive then too. The entire family would come together on Christmas Day to enjoy a feast prepared by my wonderful mother. On Christmas morning I would be up at the crack of dawn much to the chagrin of my parents. I would run out to the living room and find a sea of presents that Santa Claus had magically delivered in his sleigh while I was asleep. I knew he was there because the cookies that I left for him the eve before were gone and in their place was a note from Santa himself thanking me for his treats. It never occurred to me that Santa’s handwriting and my dad’s were very similar.
As I sit here in the silence of my beautiful home decades later, I reflect on how things have changed over the years. I am married 26 years now, have two kitties, and a wonderful life. My mom is 91 and still with us. Unfortunately, my father and brother are no longer with us. My dad left us six years ago, and my brother joined him this past summer. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles have also passed on along with my husband’s family members. I once cooked dinner for 22 guests. This year, it will just be the three of us – me, my wonderful husband, and my amazing mom. I am grateful for everything I have and for the people that are still part of my life. This year, I have an extra reason to be grateful as I am now a pulmonary embolism survivor, for which I am very happy to be alive this year. I have my house decorated, my cookies are baked and boxed to give away, and my presents are wrapped and under the tree. The Christmas cards have been mailed out and the lights of my tree and garland sparkle in a dark room as Christmas carols play softly on the radio. Yes, my home is ready for Christmas, but I would be less than honest to say that the feeling of Christmas past is still alive and well in my life. The feeling of Christmas has changed for me. For a very long time it has not felt the same as it did back when I was a child. I know many adults my age that feel the same way. I think that time changes the way we feel about the holiday. The age of technology has taken some of the nostalgic Christmas magic away. I don’t receive as many handwritten cards as I did. They have been replaced with a quick text or Facebook post from friends and family. The stores are filled with people racing to save $50 on an overpriced, oversized television. Now a days, Christmas does seem to come from a store! Times have changed for sure. There isn’t even the snow on the ground that was always present in Pennsylvania when I was a kid. As I sat writing this blog, I wondered, “Has that Christmas feeling left my life for good?” Will I ever feel that special feeling that I had when I was a girl?
As I was sitting at my computer, I suddenly heard Santa Clause coming around our neighborhood on a firetruck. They always sound the sirens to alert us to his presence. I put on my coat and went out to greet him and the other firemen with a box of my homemade cookies. They were so very happy to receive my homemade gift. Their faces lit up when I handed them the Christmas tin filled with goodies. They offered me a bag of candy that they were handing out to the kids. I thanked them and told them to give mine to one of the tikes in our neighborhood. Their happiness made me smile. There they were, braving the high winds and rain that was raging on outside to provide a few moments of happiness to our entire community. What a great gift to give that didn’t come wrapped with a bow. My husband then drove me around to deliver boxes of my home baked cookies to my neighbors. They also were happy to get a surprise when they opened their doors. They thanked me for thinking of them and sharing my treats with their family. It gave me a warm feeling to know they appreciated my efforts.
The best part of my day, however, was when a friend of mine who dances with me sent me a picture of her nephew. I had gifted her a tin of cookies and she shared them with him when he came to visit. In the picture, her 10-year-old nephew was holding one of my peach cookies with the biggest smile I have ever seen! In his smile was the feeling of Christmas that I knew as a child. That innocent happiness that we find once a year that doesn’t come from a store. His smiling face holding my cookie like it was a gold nugget made me tear up. I guess Christmas is still a feeling that fills the air this time of year. I realized that the feeling of Christmas hasn’t left me at all but rather appears in unique ways throughout the season. As Dr. Suess’ Grinch said, “It came without ribbons, it came without tags. It came without packages, boxes, or bags. Maybe, Christmas (he thought) doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more.” I wish all of you a very happy holiday filled with the feeling that is Christmas! May that feeling last all year for you. 💋