The Ghosts of Christmas Past

The holidays are a season of traditions. Our own Alan Williamson, AdServices’ Senior Copywriter, looks back wistfully on one that was once a favorite of his.

It always snowed on Christmas Eve when I was growing up. Or at least that’s the way I remember it. Snow falling down. Relatives falling down. Snow letting up. Relatives getting up. Me, standing at the picture window, a little too entertained by the ice capades in the driveway as my aunts and uncles arrived and made the delicate journey to the front door.

Some did better than others. My Uncle Allan, an athlete in his younger years, glided gracefully from car to house, steadying my Aunt Jean with his free hand. Uncle Sam, an avid golfer, had trouble with his short game in the poorly lit driveway, often taking up a big divot where his rump rammed into the ice. Par for the course for him, I’m afraid.

They came from the suburbs and cities, my relatives, making the trek to the mountaintop home my dad called the Ponderosa and where my parents hosted Christmas Eve dinner each year. We lived in the rural New Jersey town of West Milford, about 40 miles northwest of New York City. To many in the family, it was a place to enjoy the fresh air and wide open spaces of the country. Or, on Christmas Eve, to squeeze into our cramped 1,000 square foot ranch house.

As tradition had it, the kids were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. It was your tough luck if that turned out to be socks or pajamas. Before you took a moment to sulk, you were expected to hold up the socks or pajamas, wave them excitedly in the air, and yell across the room, “Wow, thanks, Grandma – they’re just what I wanted!”

The adults would exchange gifts, too, often relaying a colorful story to underscore the specialness of their selection.

“I stopped at six stores to find that snow globe,” someone would announce heroically. “They don’t make that one anymore.” Maybe that’s for a good reason, I would think.

Sometimes a hot new toy would grab the spotlight, like the year my brothers Bob and Jim got some Matchbox cars and a ten-foot-long strip of plastic racetrack. Again and again, they would perch their miniature cars at the top of the elevated plastic track and watch them scurry along on their predictable journey to the end of the coffee table.

Though they are grown men now and would deny it vehemently, in the heat of their Matchbox mania they could be heard to yell things like “Wicked!” and “Wow – Cool!” and even “In your face, herk-a-merk!” (I have no memory of the origins of the term “herk-a-merk” but knowing the banter of brothers I have no doubt that it was meant to be hurtful.)

Surveying the proceedings from the sidelines were the revered elders of the tribe, Grandpa Herman from my mother’s side, and Grandma Bessie from my father’s side.

Grandpa Herman would sit silently for long stretches of time, sipping his Pabst Blue Ribbon and smiling softly at the commotion going on around him. Lulled by his Zen-like stillness, at some point in the evening I would slide into the next seat, greeting him with a casual, “How you doing, Grandpa?” In response, he would grab my knee in a vise-like grip, his eyes gleaming wickedly as he squeezed until all feeling left my leg and I lost consciousness.

“You’re his favorite, you know,” my mother would say later, after they revived me and packed my leg in ice.

“I know,” I’d say. “It’s when he stops crushing my kneecaps that I’ll worry.”

Grandma Bessie was also content to watch from the periphery of things, a piece of pie or a slab of cake at her disposal. I’d slide into the seat next to her, hungry for her wisdom and inquisitive nature.

“Do you think your parents would mind if I took my girdle off?” she would ask me, shifting uneasily on her creaking folding chair.

“You mean right here?” I blurted.

“No, no. I meant in the bathroom.”

“I don’t think they’d care,” I ventured. “But there’s a line for the bathroom and the estimated waiting time is 35 minutes.”

“What if I do it behind the pile of coats in the bedroom?”

“Go for it,” I urged supportively. “I’ll save your seat.”

Actually, as I look back with nostalgia at those Christmas Eves of my boyhood, in my mind I’m still saving a seat for everyone. For Grandma Bessie and Grandpa Herman. For Aunt Sue. For Uncle Allan and Aunt Jean. For Uncle Bobby and Aunt Gail. For Aunt Shirley and Uncle Sam. For Aunt Janet. For Cousins Allan and Dawn. For Cousins Jenn and Diane. For my brothers Bob and Jim. And most of all, for my parents, Al and Marge, who made the West Milford Christmas Eves a holiday tradition that will warm my heart and burn bright in my memory for as long as I live.

And some day, when my turn comes again to open just one Christmas Eve present, I will hold my socks or pajamas high, wave them gleefully in the air, and yell with joy and gratitude…

“Wow, thanks everyone – it’s just what I wanted!”

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