Written by Jack Garland Thursday, 26 December 2013 00:00
Everyone enjoys reminiscing. It is practically impossible to attend a wake and not overhear reflections upon the “good ol’ days”. However, I don’t think anything stirs up the memory pot better than the holiday season. Growing up in Mineola with a loving family made my childhood Christmas memories most enjoyable.
Shortly after Halloween, household preparations would get into high gear. My mother, being of German descent, was not the least bit politically incorrect when she announced each year that it was time to give the house a “German cleaning.” Family members would quip, “The holidays must be approaching; Mom is out Simonizing the driveway.”
Our home was the traditional gathering place for Thanksgiving celebrations and, caught up in the momentum of having prepared turkey dinner for 14 people, Mom would soon begin the yearly task of baking Christmas cookies. Using the 1942 edition of The Good
Housekeeping Cook Book (which now has a place of honor on my shelf), every available counter and table in the house would be covered with trays of gingerbread, animal cookies, springerle, and pfeffernuesse in various stages of preparation. The total batch would fill several gift tins and provide desserts for the family almost until Groundhog Day. This massive baking project would be interrupted only by the sound of a mail delivery.
People have been exchanging Christmas cards for over 150 years and probably the only major difference in this custom between my childhood and now is in quantity. Our mail carrier, Ed, and his colleagues would travel their routes on foot in a military-style uniform carrying the mail sack on their shoulders. In those days, the first class postage stamp was the familiar purple one bearing a picture of Thomas Jefferson and priced at three cents. Probably because of this price, and the fact that e-mail was yet to be invented, many families including mine would send and receive hundreds of greetings. In an attempt to keep up with this volume, there would be two mail deliveries each day during the month of December. In our home, all scheduled activity would stop in order to open and review the morning and afternoon deluge of cards.
Although there were opportunities for buying gifts in the village, serious Christmas shopping sometimes involved the need for large scale stores. There were no crowds such as we see today at Roosevelt Field, because it was still an airport; additional shopping meant a trip into Garden City and Hempstead. As we drove south along Washington Avenue, we would always admire the Christmas display at the intersection of Stewart Avenue.
At the municipal parking field in Hempstead was stationed quite an elderly gentleman whose job it was to direct and supervise parking. Though not very tall, this dedicated uniformed agent would be on duty in all sorts of weather and would make his presence known by loudly coaching and critizing the parking techniques of all visitors. In his judgment, each repeated corrective maneuver would only make matters worse and he seemed to have particular issues with female motorists. Because of his commitment to duty, he must have had the tidiest parking lot in the county, but sometimes it was worth walking a couple of extra blocks just to avoid an encounter.
Some of the stores that I remember in these neighboring villages include Lampson’s, Lerner Shops, Kresge’s, and, with locations in both Garden City and Hempstead, Abraham and Strauss. Apparently, soundproofing was not a developed art in those days; upon entering one of these large stores, one would be struck by a tidal wave of several hundred conversations going on at once.
Of course, one of these shopping excursions would include an audience with Santa Claus. Each year I would be reminded by my parents and older sister not to overwhelm Santa with a long list of presents, but to ask for just a few important items. As I patiently waited on line, I would silently edit and rehearse my list of requests, hoping that I would not forget an item in the excitement of the moment.
When the shopping was completed, we would occasionally stop at the corner Nedick’s for a hot dog before returning home.
The ritual of wrapping each present was an extensive one. Wrapping paper was fastened with many individual stickers – color coordinated with the design on the paper, of course. The gift was then tied up with ribbon and topped off with a hand-made bow. It’s amazing to think how much time we had on our hands before television.
When the big day approached, as with all youngsters, the suspense for me was unbearable. In the first few years of my life, I would hang up my stocking on Christmas Eve, head for bed, and leave all the rest to Santa Claus. True to form, as I slept, he would put up the outdoor lights, deliver the presents, and set up and trim the tree. On Christmas morning, I was too enchanted by the transformation that had taken place in my home to notice that my parents and teenaged sister seemed to be a bit sleepy. As I got a bit older, I welcomed my family’s suggestion to assist Santa by selecting and decorating the tree a few days in advance.
Today, sixty–something Christmases later, it’s interesting to ponder the traditions which have remained intact, and those which have changed. The price of a postage stamp has increased more than tenfold, and the passage of time has brought the holiday card list down to a fraction of what it was years ago.
I have stubbornly managed to continue one tradition, however – that of carefully wrapping all gifts rather than tossing them into a brightly colored shopping bag. I will admit to have abandoned the stickers and have “gone modern” with scotch tape.
We all know that the holiday season can push some sentimental buttons in each of us; for example, of the fourteen people that I recall seated at that dining room table on Thanksgiving and Christmas, I am the only one still living. Let us consider, though, that perhaps the most valuable Christmas gifts we have ever received are our memories. I don’t think a year goes by when I don’t pause, think of Christmas on Berkley Road, and indulge in the nostalgia.