A few nights ago, my rediscovery of our family’s Christmas heroines among four generations was a life-changing event.
My husband was knee-deep in the attic looking for boxes marked “Christmas decorations.” To our surprise, he found my old journals recounting Christmas memories from my recently passed 93-year-old mom covering more than a century of American tradition.
At eight years old, my mom experienced the heartbreaking Christmas of the Great Depression in 1929. Living with her grandmother and mother in New York City’s Little Italy, she saw the despair of mothers and children left alone to fend for themselves. Their husbands, brothers, and sons were forced to leave home seeking jobs — anywhere to send back what they could for their families’ very survival.
These three — my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother — were grounded in American family values from Victorian, Edwardian, and the Greatest Generation-to-come as stellar examples to this day. For while they were blessed with men in their lives who could provide them with money and means for a Merry Christmas in 1929, these three women understood that a Christian mission-of-mercy was required to help those left alone without food and without people to care about them.
After their own Christmas Eve celebrations, they worked through the wee hours of the morning in the kitchen, with aprons securely tied around waists and sleeves rolled up past elbows, amid the steam of frothing pots and pans. At the break of a bitterly cold Christmas dawn, a grateful hired hand manned a truckload of carefully wrapped, beribboned parcels containing a wide variety of cooked spicy meats, potatoes, vegetable casseroles, pies, cakes, cookies, and custards.
Our yearly destination was The Christian Home for Children, which housed kids of all ages orphaned by abandonment, poverty or death.
At each pre-planned destination, my three dear ones trundled through the chill to knock on doors opened to the astonished faces of women and children quickly melting into smiles, laughter and embraces for all.
Decades later, little in the way of our family’s Christmas Day tradition changed. My sister and I had the good fortune to grow up in northern New Jersey during America’s boom years of the 1950s and ’60s thanks to my dad’s hard work that afforded my family a Christmas Eve of wonder and plenty.
As new arrivals of family and friends were cheered through festooned front gates of our home, my mom brought out her famous Christmas eggnog-with-a-kick. Of course, we kids were only allowed a sip or two no matter how hard we tried to sneak a few more drops from leftover china mugs.
A huge turkey dinner followed with all the trimmings rounded off with our collective joy in decorating a 15-foot Frazier Fir tree with a mass of lights and glittering, hand-blown orbs, angels, and stars. Later, we circled around the fireplace for Christmas carols as my mom served her baked-from-scratch desserts of pumpkin, pecan, and apple pies topped with hand-whipped heavy cream.
As the hours passed, and God-bless-you-good-byes faded into a twilight’s chill, my mom sent us to bed for a few hours sleep only to be awakened at dawn. Loading us and her care packages into our Chevrolet station wagon, we embarked upon a Christmas journey that would have made her mother and grandmother proud.
Our yearly destination was The Christian Home for Children, which housed kids of all ages orphaned by abandonment, poverty, or death. Not only did we bring them large portions of Christmas dinners and desserts but also gifts collected throughout the year. My mom was well-known in our small town for cajoling folks every which way — from our town’s League of Woman Voters to The Men’s Rifle & Pistol Club and congregations from nearby church and parish groups.
With this vantage, we baby boomer kids learned to see beyond the glitzy Christmas TV commercials that too often ignored women left alone, who were once grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters but ended up divorced, or widowed; children grown, long gone, and few surviving relatives for company, let alone love.
All of these memories came flooding back with my lost journal entries, some of which captured my mom’s staunch admonishments to my sister and me when we shied away from carrying on with this tradition.
For example, as working moms we often complained that Christmas was fast approaching, and we didn’t have the time — to which Mom typically replied: “Well, there’s 10 days until Christmas, so you have time to go through those address books you’ve both kept for at least a decade — so make a list of those you know are alone. Then get a box of Christmas cards, write personal missives to each one and post them ASAP. Also you gals have phones with unlimited calling plans so for goodness sake — make a bunch of Merry Christmas calls!”
She never wavered with me in later years when financial setbacks hit our family: “I know there are other seniors in your neighborhood living alone, out on walkers, without a car, or even visitors. So why don’t you go to one of those Dollar Stores and buy some Christmas cookies, cakes, finger foods, along with canned soups, meat, and vegetables?! Then you can make Christmas Eve deliveries in person!”
At this point, I typically begged off to provide her with a reality check of the dangers today of my husband, son, and I scaring the wits out of someone not expecting door knocking or bell ringing — especially on Christmas Eve. Still, she would push on: “Then I suggest you bring some battery-operated candles and sing Christmas carols on approach to the front door. And as for my grandson who is deaf, he can sign the Christmas carols in the middle of you and your husband! Yes, with candles aglow … that would make a most lovely light.”
So, what can we do now, given this written testimony?
We three have decided that Christmas 2016 will not vary from our family’s tradition. After all, we Americans are can-do folks still able to set our sights on a mission that is far from impossible. Like the one Our Lord’s birth hailed with a hark-the-herald-angels song of truth for then and now: “It is always better to give than to receive.”
The author, a retired attorney, is a published poet, writer, and columnist based in Arizona.