Whether my memory matches reality or is tainted by the slings and arrows of a long, rough-roaded lifetime, I do not have a lot of “good” memories of childhood Christmases. I recollect a rather peculiar one and I painfully remember an extremely stressful one, both of which are stories already on Legacy. (A Christmas in Hell and A Christmas at the Truck Stop.) But they took place when I was middle-aged.
I’ve been told, and because I have been forced to do a lot of introspection and analytical thinking in my recovery from alcoholism, (Fourth Step in the AA Program) I know that I was a sensitive, emotionally fragile child. WWII, in which all four of my older brothers served, with one being Killed in Action, had a profound impact on my family when I was a child. Christmases, from 1942 through 1946 were barren. I’m sure I must have gotten a few presents but I don’t recall any celebration whatsoever. I remember getting a set of “Lincoln Logs” which I enjoyed but that’s about the only remarkable gift that stuck in my mind.
For several years after VJ Day (If you’re too young to know what VJ Day means use a search engine.) my parents were still emotionally spent from the terrible trauma of losing a son. That “son” was the older brother with whom I had the tightest bond, so I was also emotionally scarred, but too young to know the source of my loneliness and (undiagnosed) depression. In those days the effect of such traumas of children was both unknown and "unworried about."
As a result, even though “The War” was over its effects lingered on. Christmases from 1947 all the way into the mid `50’s, when nieces and nephews began to be added to the family tree, were also not “Deck The Halls” or “Joy to The World” holidays. I don’t mean we didn’t celebrate at all but they were not memorable. Christmas for me didn’t “come alive” until after I met my wife (Anne), and that didn’t happen until I was a couple of months away from my 21st birthday. Anne was a “big city” (Chicago) Italian-American “Cradle Catholic.” And like most tight ethnic groups celebrating a holiday was for them a BIG DEAL, heavy on tradition and festivity.
I was a young soldier stationed at Ft. Sheridan IL, just north of Chicago in 1954, the year I met Anne. Although I didn’t celebrate the actual holiday with her that year, I was with her during the Advent season and was impressed by the liturgy and commemorative spirit of all that was going-on in her church, her family and in general, her life. I saw Christmas being celebrated as a huge family/spiritual event and was mightily impressed. In general, the whole Christmas “scene” in and around Chicago was lavish compared to what I had known. The stores in “The Loop,” the festive decorations hanging from lampposts and the plethora of genuine Christmas music being played by most radio stations combined with such impact that only a zombie could live through it and not KNOW that a major holiday was being celebrated.
A few years later, after I had been discharged from the Army, had married Anne, graduated from college and was beginning my life as a school band director, Christmas was always foreshadowed by several weeks of preparing my band for a Christmas concert. And they were unashamedly called “CHRISTMAS” concerts with the program heavily laced with music announcing the birth of Christ and the joy we felt at that forthcoming event. By the time the night of the Concert came the Christmas joy was alive and well in my mind. The season was always topped-off for Anne and I by our traveling to Chicago to attend “The Midwest National Band Clinic” and then, usually, celebrating Christmas “Italian Style” with her family: A huge Christmas Eve Seafood feast followed by the beautiful liturgy of a Midnight Mass.
But I believe the most defining moment of Christmas for me came sometime around the Christmas of 1962. Anne and I were driving westerly on Chicago Avenue, heading toward her parent’s home. It is so memorable that I even remember that we had just crossed Western Avenue. The ground was covered with fresh snow, Chicago Avenue’s street lamps and storefronts were heavily decorated and it was snowing lightly, dampening the sounds of tires crunching snow and wipers brushing it off the windshield. Anne and I were listening to WGN radio which, like most, was playing traditional Christmas music. As we crossed Western Avenue the disc jockey began playing “Silent Night.” I was so overwhelmingly moved by the sights, the sounds, and the realization of the season that I almost had to pull to the curb. My eyes were blurred with tears. I don’t remember any other specifics about that particular Christmas but that moment my soul preserved as the best representative of what Christmas IS.
Now Christmases have lost their substance. Political Correctness has terrorized the Christian holiday to the extent that it is celebrated almost as were the religious services of Christians in the Roman catacombs. As a family we carry on traditions as best we can, we have our joyous moments and feel the warmth of family. Perhaps the younger among us do feel something akin to what I experienced on that Chicago street. Hopefully they will someday write a memoir of -or maybe only relish in their minds- the Christmases they celebrated in their young and middle-aged lives. I hope so.
You, more than most anyone else, bare your soul to paint a legacy story that grips heartstrings. Tears came to my eyes as I read this latest one. If confession is good for the soul, it helps to look in the mirror once in a while.
Thanks for sharing some of your darkest secrets.
Thank you for you kind remarks. I am motivated to "bare my soul" on Legacy because "history" should be COMPLETE and ACCURATE. Life is not "nicey-nice" all the time. Many times it is dark, scary and ugly. But those moments are also history. I'm not proud of many things I did. There are things that I wish with all my heart I hadn't experienced and people I wish I had not interacted with, but all of those things and people shaped what I became. And I am not ashamed of what I am today. I'm motivated to be completely open and honest about what I did, what I experienced, and the people I encountered in the hopes that someone, somewhere may be encouraged. The willingness of many people I encountered in A.A. (No, not American Airlines. ) to share some of their darkest secrets was a lifeline that rescued me from a bottomless pit. They encouraged me by their honesty and openness. I hope I do the same for someone.