By Patrick F. Cannon
My first memories of Christmas are of our home in Braddock, Pennsylvania, and of the real tree decorated with lights, ornaments and tinsel. The lights and ornaments stayed with us for many years, travelling with us to Homestead, PA; then Chicago; and finally back to McKeesport, PA. When the tree came down with the new year, we carefully removed the tinsel to be reused when Christmas returned.
We also had a large portrait of Santa, maybe 3 by 4 feet, which was tacked to the wall every year. To this day, I’m convinced it was painted from life. That image will always be Santa to me. I wish I still had it.
I think I was probably three- or four-years-old when I became fully conscious of what Christmas was supposed to mean, i.e., the birth of Jesus. We did have a creche with the usual figures standing around the manger. I don’t remember it clearly, but I’m sure we went to Mass on Christmas day (I don’t recall going to Mass regularly until I started Catholic school). Not surprisingly, I do remember some of the presents!
My father was then a city councilman, and I suspect some of the presents we got were from “friends” trying to curry favor. I don’t really know who bought them, but one year my brother Pete and I both got hobby horses, not wooden ones, but realistic horses with hair, manes, tails and all! Pete was blessed with an excess of energy, and one day jumped on my horse and broke it beyond repair. As a result I was given his. He never did understand the justice involved! Another memorable gift was a fire truck you could actually ride on.
We moved to Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood early in 1946. Initially, my father was a branch manager for the national Holland Furnace Company, but later started his own local heating and air conditioning company. Those were prosperous years – I remember Erector, Tinker Toy and chemistry sets; functioning gas stations; Schwinn bicycles (with headlights and horns); football uniforms; and golf clubs (we lived across the street from the Jackson Park golf course. I hack away still). Then, sometime in 1949, it all changed. My father lost his business (for reasons murky to me still) and we left the upper-middle-class for the lower, and Chicago for the grime of the Pittsburg area, where my father returned to a much-diminished Holland Furnace Company.
Not too long before then, I stopped believing in Santa, as all kids must. Over the coming years, Christmas lost some of its wonder for me. My father died in 1950, and my mother just wasn’t able to cope. She worked what amounted to a minimum-wage job, and eventually we had to move into public housing. Both my brother Pete and I worked, not to make pocket money, but to earn a living. When my mother died in 1956, I moved back to Chicago to live with my sister Kathleen, who was 10 years older and married. She had stayed in Chicago when we moved. The Holidays became brighter then.
But I think it was when I had children of my own that Christmas regained its magic. Most parents focus on their kids, choosing what gifts they can afford and keeping the myth of Santa alive as long as possible. Extended families become more important too. While it’s undeniable that Christmas and Hanukah have become more secular – the percentage of regular churchgoers continues to decline – this does not overly concern me. Unlike Thanksgiving’s one day gathering, the “Holidays” as they’ve come to be known, offer numerous opportunities for families to gather and renew their bonds.
It seems to me that this is more important than whether Jesus was born on December 25, or was actually divine. Or even whether the whole thing is just another celebration of the winter (or summer) Solstice. His message, often ignored even by Christians, remains powerful. And what other holiday, I ask, has music as disparate as “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio?
Anyway, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah and Kwanzaa, and even Happy Holidays for the committed secularists!
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon
4 thoughts on “Another Christmas”
There is something spiritual about this darkest time of the year. It reminds of loss and renewal, a seemingly eternal cycle, and moves people to gather together, exchange gifts and cherish the light. Americans who monetize everything extend the season back before Thanksgiving, almost to Halloween to keep cash flowing. My Christmas tradition originated in Italy, where after the days of Advent, Christmas Day is the major Feast Day of the year on the church calendar and begins the Christmas season that runs for 12 days. There is gift-giving, but on a much smaller scale; after mass, where humility and gratitude were conveyed, family and food were the primary celebrations. In Brooklyn, we would cram grandparents, uncles, aunts, god parents and other relations into our small basement apartment to partake over the course of several hours in specialties from the old country that made their appearance only this once a year. I remember a few of the Christmas gifts I got but I remember the meals more vividly. My grandmother would start cooking a day or two before and by Christmas morning the beds were covered with spreads of drying ravioli. Was this a religious occasion? A secular one? I don’t know. It was enough to be together with people who at that moment you loved and who loved you.
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I was at Joseph’s Fine Meats this morning and the Italians were buying it out! Even though I had to wait 30 minutes, it was a wonderful atmosphere.
They do like to eat!
“Christmas” carries very different cultural connotations than the Italian, “Natale.” Christmas is specifically connected to the Christian religion, the day Christ is sent forth (Lat. missa). Natale signifies the moment or time of birth, of one individual and of everyone. So it’s religious, when it refers to Christ, but also personal. In a sense you celebrate it as you would your own birth. Buon Natale! Happy Birthday! (The Italian for “birthday” is compleanno, completion of a year, an anniversary.) Maybe that’s why Italians are usually happy at Christmas. It’s not for the gifts.
I have to confess, I don’t really like American Christmas. It’s too commercialized, it starts way too soon, it’s noisy and crass, and the day after everybody dumps their Christmas trees and rushes to the stores to exchange presents they don’t want or to look for sales. Bummer.
So, Buon Natale to you and yours!
Merry Christmas, Pat. You do a lot of good with your thoughtful takes on life, and I thank you.