Ghosts of Christmas
It is somewhat difficult for me to avoid tasting a certain amount of sadness while savoring the sights, sounds and feasts of “The Holidays” these days. Unlike Dicken’s “Ghost of Christmas Past,” I have many memories of delightful Christmas celebrations. As a school band director (in the middle years of the 20th century) I would begin rehearsing the music we would present in our annual “Christmas Concert” (and that is exactly what it was called) early in November. So, the DJ in my head played mostly Christmas music from Mid-November until Christmas. Then, shortly after that Christmas concert, hundreds of band directors from all around the country, descended into Chicago to attend “The Midwest National Band Clinic, where we heard a dozen or more top high school bands play concerts, visited with friends, perused the exhibits, and made our way to a few “hospitality rooms” located in the hotel. Those festivities lasted three days, ending with a luncheon which concluded with our singing, a Capella, “Silent Night.” Imagine two or three hundred trained musicians singing that in four-part harmony. If tears didn’t roll down your cheeks, you had a barren soul.
In those early years, there was the business of selecting and decorating a Christmas tree for our home. On several of those years my wife, our four older kids, (none yet teen-aged) and I cut down our own tree out in the “woods.” One year, while living in Junction City KS, the kids and I chose a tree out in the pasture-land sometime in late October. We carried water out to that tree until it was time to harvest it. It kept the tree fresh, but mostly it gave us a fun thing to do together and helped our kids have “ownership” of the tree. Once erected inside the house an entire evening was spent decorating “our” tree. We learned through experience that we could not drape foil “icicles” over the tree’s branches; our Siamese cat ate them!
Then the big day came. We lived in a suburb of Chicago (Carpentersville) for several years when our kids were all below ten years old. My wife’s parents lived in the city so, come Christmas Eve day we would load the kids and SOME of the presents into our station wagon in the early afternoon and drive to the grandparent’s home in Chicago. But before backing out of the driveway my wife always made some excuse that required her to go back into our house. While inside she retrieved carefully hidden presents and put them under the tree so that our kids would have “Presents from Santa” when they returned home.
Oh, the Christmas Eve dinner was monumental. My wife had a large extended family in Chicago so there were always aunts, uncles and cousins gathered around the table for that dinner. This was in Pre-Vatican II days of The Church, so we abstained from meat on Christmas Eve. That dinner was incomparable. Linguini in a lobster-tail based tomato gravy (Italians NEVER called it “sauce.”), with toasted bread crumbs sprinkled over the top, boiled and deep-fried huge shrimp, smelt, baccala’, which is a salted cod, hard as a board when purchased. It must be soaked in water for hours to leach out the salt, oysters, both on the half-shell and deep fried, whitefish, garlic bread and wine. That dinner would start around 7:00 p.m. and end whenever . . . (the whenever usually being when enough food and wine had been consumed to make us sleepy.) A couple of hardy souls might go from there to Midnight Mass. While the table was being cleared, we would get our four kids, dress them in their pajama’s, carry them out to our station wagon and head back home. They would fall asleep within minutes. Upon arriving home, we would carry them gently into their bedrooms and tuck them into their beds before falling into our bed exhausted.
The next morning, they would bound out of bed and move quickly downstairs to the Christmas tree, under which would be nicely wrapped presents from “Santa.” The floor would soon be a wasteland of Christmas wrapping paper and ribbons. After opening presents we’d dress them in their “going to church” clothes and go to Mass.
That was Christmas with my in-laws, all first-generation Italians, when my family was young. It all ended a few years later when Chicago erupted in riots, an unfortunate by-product of The Civil Rights Movement. My in-laws fled to the suburbs, which effectively separated that extended family. But the memories of those Christmases decorate the walls of my mind beautifully.
My parents, who lived in the small town of “Caney,” in Southeast Kansas, my hometown, celebrated Christmas in a more traditional “American” style. Christmas Eve dinner would be on the table much earlier and it would be classical Midwestern fare: a ham or, occasionally, a turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and a couple of vegetable dishes. After dinner we’d go into the living room, maybe play a game or two, and then open the presents beneath the tree. It was low-key, partially because my parents, by the time I was married with children, were entering old age.
I know from family lore that before I “was” (I was the youngest in a family of six kids, with six years separating me from the older five), Christmas was celebrated more meaningfully. World War II shattered my family. All four of my brothers were “in uniform” and one of them ultimately came home from that war in a government-issued casket. The others survived the war, but after the war they scattered to “the four winds.” It was a rare Christmas when more than one or two of we “Carriker kids” were “home” for Christmas. So, on those years when my wife, our kids, and I spent Christmas with my parents, it was nice to be with them, but it would never have been described as “festive.”
As ordained by our Creator, with the passage of time all things change. The fantastic food fests at my in-law’s home faded into the halls of memory. Now the Christmas Eve dinners in their home in the suburbs were pale imitations of the glorious ones. The uncles, aunts and cousins were no longer seated around the table. Santa Claus had long since dropped out of our kids’ belief system. Whatever gaiety was palpable seemed perhaps a little bit forced. Then came years when we did not spend Christmas at either of our parent’s homes. At home by ourselves, just my wife and I and our kids carried on a much-scaled-down facsimile of the fabulous Christmas Eve seafood dinner. Eventually our kids became adults, married, and started their own families. Our parents and the aunts and uncles passed away, taking the bright and sparkling festivities of Christmas past with them.
Now I am about to “celebrate” Christmas for the 86th time. I, of course, do not remember most of them because, in fact, they were not memorable. My wife and I will go to our daughter's home where we will eat a Christmas Eve seafood dinner with our children, our grandchildren and even great-grandchildren gathered around a large table. I can only hope that in some way these Christmases will someday be remembered fondly by those little ones. But for me, too many ghosts of Christmas past will be hovering around the tree, the decorations, and the food-laden table. I will celebrate, and I will feel some joy, but there can be only so many climactic moments in a person’s life. It will be true, honestly felt joy, but it will not, it cannot, rise to the level of those Christmases we celebrated so long ago.
This should not be lamentable but it cannot help but be poignant. And so, I will celebrate; while tasting a certain amount of sadness in savoring the sights, sounds and feasts of the Christmas season in this, my 86th year.
Sic semper erat, et sic semper erit.
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