Mom usually finished her holiday baking a few days before Christmas, with airtight containers holding nut and poppy-seed rolls and cookies with prune filling, all made from old Hungarian recipes. We would put up the tree a week before the holiday and hang strands of tinsel, saved from previous years, on the branches, along with ornaments from the five-and-dime.

Now, decades later, an especially bright moment still stands out in my memory bank. On Christmas Eve, as on most holiday evenings, Dad would go to the Eagles — a men's social club in Whiting, Indiana, where we lived — and come home in the early hours of the morning. One particular year, when I was about 4 years old, he wanted to share something with me at about 3 a.m. Lifting me up from my bed, he headed to the kitchen and held me up to the window over the sink, whispering that it looked as if Santa was finally on his way to our house. If I looked closely enough, he added, I could see him on the rooftop a few houses away.

Well, I looked and looked, but I couldn’t see anything resembling a sleigh, reindeer or a guy in a red suit. I really tried, but I just couldn’t see that elusive figure.

Dad carried me back to bed and left the room giggling quietly to himself.

In spite of my wishful thinking, every Christmas turned out to be pretty much the same. I went to church on Christmas Eve and sang the usual carols with the rest of the congregation. Mom always came, but Dad never attended services, opting instead to spend the evening with his buddies at the Eagles. He would make it home, not too steady on his feet, before dawn on Christmas morning.

A couple of hours later, we would head to the living room where a few packages, simply wrapped by Mom, lay under the tree — a doll and other playthings for my younger sister and baby brother, and some underwear for me.

Gift packages from relatives were also filled with underpants and slips. Every year. No guesswork involved. I knew what was in that box for me from Aunt Helen. No doubt either about Aunt Isabel’s gift. And the card with money from Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve came with a note: "Buy yourself some nice underwear!"

Mom attempted to soften the blow each year, knowing I’d find few packages under the tree. She insisted that having nice things wasn’t all that important and that there were more profitable ways to use your time than playing with dolls and dollhouses. Like going to the library. In Mom’s mind, books were the key to everything. Her words must have made an impression on me though, as evidenced by the fact that today there are bookcases, sagging under the heavy weight of paperbacks and hardcovers, in just about every room of our house — with more books likely to be added after the upcoming Yuletide holiday.

Irene McCoy,

Rockville Centre

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