My earliest memory about Christmas is from when my older brother Chris sat me down to tell me the truth about Santa Claus. I was 6 at the time. I can remember exactly where we were when he told me, and how it felt. Even though a belief had been shattered, I wound up feeling privileged, like I had been let in on a secret society.
I thought it was pretty cool, actually. I felt like a big boy. Many of my friends still believed, but Chris had been very clear that I shouldn’t ruin it for anyone else — everyone learned the truth when the time was right, and it wasn’t my job to straighten them out. So, I always felt secretly more mature and “in the know” with friends who still believed.
I’m not sure why it was deemed important to bring me up to speed on the truth about Santa at that point, but after putting up a strong defense of my beliefs, which Chris handled very deftly and was able to let me down gently but firmly, I still held an ace in my pocket.
Once I finally accepted what he was saying, Chris seemed to be relieved that he’d gotten through the talk without me completely losing my mind. Then, I pulled out my ace — “at least, there’s still the Easter Bunny, right?” Chris just looked at me, sighed, and got a puzzled look on his face. He had neither the heart nor wherewithal to take that one on, after my hard-fought defense of my Santa belief. He let it go.
I still do have fond memories of Christmas growing up. They usually begin with just how very joyful a time it was for my little sister Maryrose (now goes by Mary). I had been the sixth child born in eight years in my family. My early years were a wild, raucous affair, that I don’t have a too many specific memories of, outside of the occasional incident that stands out in my mind, and the family stories that I’ve heard from those years that have created pseudo-memories — things I know happened because I’ve heard about them so often.
Getting a little sister when I was 5 ½ seemed like a miraculous thing. She was always special to me. After being the baby of the big family my whole life (all 5 ½ years of it), being a big brother was a big deal to me. She was a kid sister you couldn’t help but love. She just got such a kick out of everything, and she was so smart. She figured things out quickly — she was way smarter than me, but I never had a problem with that. She always deferred to me as her big brother, and always looked up to me. What wasn’t to like about that?
Maryrose was especially fun at Christmas time. She reflected the wonder of it all. We would take her out on Christmas Eve, after dinner, to look at the lights around the neighborhood. Sometimes, after my older brothers started to drive, someone would drive and we’d go all over Brookline and Dormont looking at the lights.
Mom and Dad would always have to stay behind to handle things around the house. When we got back from looking at the lights, someone would excitedly announce that Santa had come while we were out! Maryrose’s eyes would just light up as she’d run into the dining room, where the tree was set up in the corner, and look in awe at the huge piles of presents scattered all about under and around the tree.
With seven children, there were a lot of presents. Maryrose’s pile was always the biggest. This wasn’t because Santa brought her more presents than anyone else. She had all the presents from Santa, plus all the presents from all of her siblings, on top of it. We all loved to give her presents.
We all worked — some of us had paper routes, some earned money baby-sitting, some of the older boys had restaurant jobs. Mary was the happy beneficiary of our collective incomes at Christmas time.
By age eight, I had my own paper route, consisting of 65 customers. Christmas-time was a glorious time of year to have a paper route. Beginning a couple weeks before Christmas, customers began to give you your Christmas Tips when you collected for the money they owed you for the week’s paper deliveries. After a couple of weeks of collecting Christmas Tips, which could be anything from $5 to $10 per customer, I would just be rolling in the dough. That’s a lot of money for an 8 year old to have at his disposal!
This would require numerous trips to downtown Pittsburgh on the streetcar or bus to roam the aisles of Gimbel’s and Kaufmann’s Department Stores, up and down the escalators, to find presents for the whole family. I would always wind up getting more than it seemed possible to carry back home on the bus or the trolley. People going home from work always looked at me funny, wondering what an 8 or 9 year old was doing with all those bags.
I dearly loved it when Dad would declare me “the last of the big-time spenders”. I always wanted to make sure everyone got something from me. Mom was always the hardest person to find something for, and it sometimes took several trips into town before I found what I considered to be that perfect present for her. She always at least acted like it was the perfect present, too. That was the best feeling of Christmas, that and little Maryrose’s sheer joy and wonder at the whole affair.
After the opening of the presents, we usually played some games, more often than not a game of “Bugger-Rum” or maybe Mah Johnng, or played around with the new presents. I didn’t get many “toys”, per se — I was never much of a “toy” player. I was into sports and games, so I usually got things like a baseball glove, a bat, a football, a basketball, maybe a pair of ice skates, or a cool game.
The other thing I remember about Christmases growing up were the electric trains and plasticville sets. We had three different electric train sets, and a whole town’s worth of plasticville houses and stores and people and vehicles. Dad built a huge three-tiered platform to set it all up on. Each tier had train tracks running around the outside of it, then the top tier had the whole Plasticville town set up inside the train tracks. This was the coolest thing in the world.
Originally published at cowbird.com.