This time of year, we’re geared up for the biggest holiday season. Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Three Kings Day, Our Lady of Guadalupe Day or another special occasion, we look forward to creating lasting memories with family and friends.
But over our lifetime, with so many opportunities to raise a glass, we sometimes get thrown a clunker — that one day when things didn’t go as planned. How we handle those lumps in our pudding can make all the difference in attitudes going forward when that special holiday turns the corner, yet again, and heads our way.
With a sense of humor and patience, we gather strength from loved ones, think about others we want to make happy, and celebrate with all the optimism we can muster — for what better way to end the year and start a new one than with feelings of good cheer?
We asked readers to tell us about their most unforgettable holiday past during this season of gatherings. Their stories speak of love, resilience and the worthy goal of being happy.
Good Holidays, everyone.
TRUDGING THROUGH SNOW TO MAKE CHRISTMAS MAGIC
Christmas was always a special day for my family, but when memories bubble up at this time of year, there’s one that rises to the surface before all others.
I’m a teenager living in Bayside with my parents and nine siblings, three older and six younger. It’s Christmas Eve morning. Mom and Dad are up early and set out on foot in the newly falling snow. We have no car.
Their mission is to collect the toys and gifts purchased over the course of several months on the layaway plan at the discount store around the corner from our house. My older sister and I are left in charge of six younger siblings, ages 3 to 10 years. Mom and Dad are gone for hours, and my sister and I, a little worried and UP TO HERE with our siblings, are so relieved when they finally return. We distract the little ones so Mom and Dad can squirrel away several bundles in their not-so-secret hiding places. One look at their faces tells me not to ask questions, so I run upstairs to get ready for a friend’s pre-Midnight Mass party that evening. When I return after Mass, Mom fills me in on their adventure.
She tells me they waited 20 minutes while the clerk went to collect their Santa stash, only to be informed their order is missing — no trace of it anywhere. The manager suggests they buy replacements from the available inventory, but they can’t find anything from the original order. The store promises to make good on the order after Christmas, when supplies will be replenished. Or, if they prefer, a refund check will be sent to them in the mail. Exasperated, and with only one charge card for them to use, they take the bus to Sears in Lake Success and hope for the best.
The bus ride, normally 30 minutes, takes an hour and a half in the snow. Sears is jammed with crazed last-minute shoppers filing zombielike, past empty shelves or waiting on unending lines. Their quest for the Easy Bake Oven, Chatty Cathy doll, Rock ’Em, Sock-’Em Robots, Hot Wheels and more from the wish list becomes a test of endurance. They search, they bargain, they plead, they substitute and, finally, five grueling hours after they set out, laden with more parcels than Santa could fit on his sleigh, they make the slow, snowy trek back home.
And now, with only a few hours before the first squeals of “Santa was here” herald in Christmas morning, it’s time to get some rest. As I pass the living room on my way up to bed, I’m awe-strick by a dazzling display of toys and gifts for all, and the love that made it possible. Mom and Dad, who struggle all year to make ends meet, have created Christmas magic once again.
New Hyde Park
THE JOKE THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
My family has gathered for a Hanukkah party at my sister’s home for 35 years. As the family grew with nieces and nephews, we all gave the children gifts. In addition, we all picked a name of the adults to give a gift from a Hanukkah “Secret Santa.” My younger brother always complained about his gift to the point where he wasn’t going to participate.
We all persuaded him to go along with the tradition. My daughter came up with a gag gift and then would present him with the real one. We all knew the gag gift was a $2 toothpaste squeezer, to get every last bit from the tube. When the time came to unwrap his gift, we waited for the expression on his face.
When he opened it, he tried to keep his anger in but then finally said, “That’s it! I’m not doing this anymore!” We all broke out in hysterical laughter and finally, his gift of a very nice sweater was given to him. And so the tradition continues.
I wonder what’s in store for him this year.
THE HISTORIC CHRISTMAS EVE
The night of Christmas Eve 1968 was like our own story from Bethlehem. I was 14. My sister, Julie, a Rotary exchange student, was in Bolivia. My mom, Madlyn, was a single parent doing her best to hold down a job while raising two teens in the turbulent 1960s.
It was a frigid night with temperatures in the 20s. The winds were howling and we had run out of heating oil. Mom desperately called every local oil company trying to get a delivery, but it was Christmas Eve. An oil delivery was not going to happen.
Mom wanted to go to her brother’s house so we wouldn’t freeze, but I protested. It was Christmas and I wanted to open my presents in the morning at home. She, of course, sacrificed for me.
This night also coincided with the unforgettable evening when Apollo 8 had reached the moon — a first for mankind. There we sat, huddled in front of our kitchen oven to keep warm, as we watched the grainy, live feed from the orbiting spacecraft on our little 12-inch black-and-white TV.
And then, as those images of the moon’s surface were passing below, the three astronauts — William Anders, James Lovell and Frank Borman — began reciting from the book of Genesis and wishing us all “blessings on the good Earth.” It was both a moment in history and an amazing Christmas memory from a very difficult night.
To this day it still gives me chills whenever I relate the story. I don’t even remember the presents I got that year, but I learned what sacrifices parents make for their children, and an appreciation for the simple things in life.
On the back of a picture I took of my mom Christmas morning, she wrote, “7:30 a.m. and 90° below in the house.”
My mom passed in November 2014 and this was one of the stories I told at her memorial service.
A CALL IN THE NICK OF TIME
Our Christmas memory took place on Christmas Eve 1994. My wife had recently begun her career as a nurse at St. Francis Hospital and worked the night shift. Since she was new on her job, she found out she had to work Christmas Eve. This really disappointed our four children, ages 11, 8, 6, and 4.
My entire family, which is quite large, always gets together on Christmas Eve, and my children not having their mother with them to share it left a pall over a holiday — usually the most joyous night of the year for them. As we packed the car with gifts to bring to my sister’s house in Oceanside, my wife was getting into her nurse’s uniform for her 7:30 p.m. shift.
The kids were teary as they hugged and kissed their mother and told her how much they would miss her. As we headed out to our separate cars, the telephone rang. We were not going to answer it since we were just about out the door, but my son ran in and told my wife that it was the hospital calling.
She went inside to take the call and I heard her give out a shout of pure joy: Her unit was overstaffed and they ran a lottery to see who would get the night off. She had won! When we found out, there was hugging and kissing to last the entire holiday, a moment of great joy for us all. It really helped to put the holiday into perspective, especially for our children. It is a holiday moment that we will never forget.
‘SILENT NIGHT’ AND ANGEL HAIR
My earliest Christmas memory was when I was about 5 years old, and my sister Mena was 4.
My parents had moved to Mineola from their wedding in the Bronx, and for the first three or four years of marriage, lived in what Mom always referred to as “the bungalow.” Though I don’t recall it, that was my first home.
Eventually, we moved into a three-bedroom apartment where Mom had their third, fourth, fifth and sixth child.
On that particular Christmas, my dad, driving his ’39 black Chrysler to a tree lot, picked out one for a couple of bucks and tied it to the roof of the car. We were so excited, my sister and I, to see Daddy drag that tree up the stairs and into the house, leaving a trail of pine needles along the linoleum kitchen floor.
In one of the front rooms, Daddy set up the tree in a wooden stand, placed it in a bucket filled with water, and entwined the tree with large colorful bulbs. With Dad’s job now completed, it was time for the decorating to begin.
Mom got out the delicate glass ornaments, garland, tinsel, the tiny old-fashioned Santa ornament in his long red coat, and the prickly angel’s hair. There was a large, fancy angel with a golden halo, for the tree top. Mena and I started hanging ornaments, with Mommy guiding the placements, then we diligently placed tinsel on each branch. Mom had to take over the angel’s hair placement when we got splinters from the fine glass.
When it was all decorated and lights turned on, the magic happened. It was so beautiful, and Mena and I felt the Christmas spirit. We held hands and sang “Silent Night” swaying to the tune.
The special moment, me and my sister decorating, Mom handing out the ornaments, the feel of angel hair — they are as clear to me as they were that day.
Antoinette DeRosa D’Ammora,
ACROSS THE POND
On Christmas Eve we had gone to bed early. “Now go to sleep quickly,” my mother told us, “or else Father Christmas will not fill your stockings.” We were rather scared and buried ourselves deeply under the covers. He was so big and so fat we were sure he would get stuck in the chimney. The stockings were ones that my father wore before World War I. They were knee-length, hand-knit bicycling stockings, expertly and neatly darned at the heels and toes. I still have those stockings — they must be getting on toward their centennial year, now slightly green with age, but two of my boys used them when they were small. The other two bemoaned the fact that Granddad did not have four legs.
We did not open our stockings right away as we always waited to go into my parents’ bedroom and sit on their cozy feather bed under the plump eiderdown to share our stockings with them.
We pulled out all kinds of useful objects and were thrilled with each one — a new comb, a pencil box, a box of crayons and a coloring book. There was always a little golden mesh bag of chocolate coins, each one in a gilded wrapper. Further down toward the toe we came upon an orange and right at the bottom were two pink-and-white sugar mice. What treasures to play with during the day.
We were not allowed to open our Christmas presents until after the King of England spoke on the radio at 3 o’clock when everybody stopped what they were doing to listen. Our presents were not like the ones of today — they were modest and we were pleased with them all. A new book, a box of hankies, a warm scarf, new gloves and maybe a box of chocolates from a favorite aunt.
Christmas began many weeks before the big day, starting with my mother making Christmas puddings. It was a family affair. We all had to stir the pudding and make a wish which would come true. The fruit was cleaned and chopped, breadcrumbs made, eggs beaten and then everything was put into basins and steamed for 12 or more hours until they were black and luscious with fruit and brandy. The house was filled with the wonderful spicy aroma of Christmas. Served with their crown of real holly on the top on Christmas Day, they were a work of art.
It took weeks for us to make presents for everybody — we never bought them and created bookmarks, hemmed hankies and made lavender sachets. Hours were spent making paper chains to decorate the living room, suspended from the center of the room to each corner. We had no electricity, so chains of lights were not heard of. I never remember anybody having a Christmas tree. The only party I once went to boasted a tree that was lit by dozens of lighted candles which we danced around in our filmy party dresses. Everybody froze in the unheated room, but it was fun.
The day after Christmas it was the tradition, and still is, to take the children to a pantomime at the theater. I still remember seeing “Peter Pan,” “Cinderella” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Then we had to come home and sit down to write thank-you letters — all a part of Christmas that seems to have been forgotten today. Some memories of childhood stay with us forever and are particularly precious when compared to the commercial, materialistic Christmases of the modern world.
A FESTIVUS TIME WITH CO-WORKERS
There have been many memorable holiday events, both fanciful and forgettable; miserable relatives, etc. But my most favorite is celebrating Festivus at work!
Festivus, originating as a holiday “for the rest of us,” on the “Seinfeld” TV series, was an unholiday holiday. One year, several co-workers discussed the merits of bringing Festivus to the office, trying to fit it into one afternoon’s 15-minute break.
We would need a handful of ingredients to create the perfect Festivus: A theme color; an aluminum pole; a way to air our grievances without fear of reprisal; some kind of feat of strength, and of course, celebratory food!
So, we chose purple as our color (a combination of Christmas red and Hanukkah blue); I supplied the aluminum pole from a discarded patio umbrella; our first grievance list was a pair of papers posted with blank lines for anonymous entries; the feats of strength were sidelined, due to lack of time; food was grapes, olive spread on crackers and Festivus wine (grape juice).
Over the years, the event and its participants morphed into a major event for us. We kept minutes, which were shared the following year; a Festivus Saint was chosen (a deserving employee); the grievances were submitted on muti-colored Post-its and stuck onto the aluminum pole, then read aloud before being entered into the Festivus book; arm-wrestling became our demonstration of feats of strength. And because the food and Festivus wine kept flowing, those initial 15 minutes became 45 minutes.
A true Festivus miracle!
Linda J. Sardone,
LETTERS TO CHEER SERVICEMEN IN WWII
December 1944 was the year with the most memories. World War II had been going on for three years.
I graduated in June that year and went to work at Grumman Aircraft Corp. We were asked to write a letter to a serviceman to be inserted into packages Grumman was sending to sailors serving our country. We all received many replies and continued to write to them to keep their moral up.
I grew up in Hicksville, a town then of maybe 5,000 and knew most of the families and the boys who were going into the service. Some enlisted before they graduated high school and the others went into the service within a week after they graduated. Every one of them walked to the Hicksville railroad station to go to either Fort Dix or the Great Lakes. It was such a sad time for all of the families. Meanwhile, we girls would write to all the fellows we went to school with.
Working at Grumman, I was only allowed to work 40 hours because I was 17 at the time. Everyone else worked 60 hours a week. I would take the train from Bethpage to Hicksville after work. I would walk down the village, past the L.I. National Bank, Beatty’s stationary store, Schulz Deli, Guckenberger’s Ice Cream parlor, a dress store and Smile’s 5-and-10-cent store.
At Christmas, most times, a light snow would be falling, and I would hear Christmas songs coming from loudspeakers attached to the poles decorated with garlands and holly. It was magical.
At last I arrived at my destination, the Hicksville Sweet Shop operated by Mr. Econopoly. My best girlfriend, Gloria Looney, would meet me there and we would order an “atomic bomb” sundae — toasted pound cake, ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream for 35 cents.
The happiest part of this season was Christmas Eve. That afternoon, my mother would cook one of the turkeys that my sister Fran and I had received from Grumman. We would all go to Midnight Mass at St. Ignatius and afterward everyone would go to my house and have hot turkey sandwiches. We sat at the large kitchen table — Catholics, Protestants and Jews — and celebrated Christmas and enjoyed each other’s company and beliefs. We were one.
My mother was amazing! She loved Christmas and instilled into the five of us the same feeling.
Flo Caruso Gries,