On a wing and a prayer, my sister and I as young girls pulled off the best Christmas of all by doing what was once called the “old switcheroo.”
As baby boomers, we had the courageous hearts of girls that some people called “tomboys,” because we refused to give up in any competition without a fight. But at one Christmas, we needed more to get through a dismal year for our Greatest Generation parents, who were just rebounding from a financially lean decade after World War II as part of America’s victory and sacrifice.
It was no joke on Santa Claus Day for Mom’s plans in New York City.
Our first problem was that our piggy banks were empty of even change to purchase goodies for Mom and Dad’s stockings. Also, we were too young to earn money and couldn’t go out and shovel snow like the boys did because girls simply didn’t do that back then. Neither did we think our usual Christmas tradition of my vocals accompanied by my sister’s piano would render any special delight or surprise in the way of true gift-giving.
So we went about formulating a war plan of sorts. Pretending we were generals pondering battlefield plans, with pencils between clenched teeth, we made a map of people and looked at our weakest flank. This turned out to be what frustrated our parents at Christmas and how to change it for the better.
We were interrupted by Mom calling us from downstairs: “It’s time to get dressed, girls. We’re meeting your aunt and cousins at Macy’s in two hours.”
Of course! We forgot about our yearly dreaded trip into New York City from northern New Jersey to sit on Santa Claus’ lap at Macy’s Department Store amid a throng of long lines and harried crowds — not to mention all the fuss and muss involved, especially for girls.
New York City at Christmastime was beyond freezing, with bone-chilling winds and huge drifts of snow everywhere. This meant that instead of just hats and coats over our Sunday best dresses — we had to wear bulky jackets and matching lead-heavy leggings that made it difficult to sit and walk, let alone use the restroom. Heavy socks and ugly black galoshes were also needed to wear over shoes.
Sometimes, too, not only were mittens worn even inside the car, but also itchy ear muffs over our hats as well as Vaseline smeared on our little faces to fend off frostbite. We looked and felt like the sisters of Frankenstein — along with the fact that we didn’t believe in Santa Claus, given our Sunday school training in our town’s High Episcopalian church.
The other oh-no tradition was my dad’s cardinal rule on Christmas Eve, that our one communication device was to be silenced: namely, the family’s black rotary telephone. At the outset of prayers, grace, and Christmas dinner, he’d announce: “If that infernal thing rings, I’m gonna lower the boom.” When it did ring, the boom took the form of awkward moments that my sister and I tried to deflect with songs or jokes.
Yet it was no joke on Santa Claus Day for Mom’s plans in New York City. She called to us again in a clipped tone of annoyance: “Girls, I need you to get it in gear and go!”
My sister and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows and smiles. Of course! “Get it in gear and go” — that old-time phrase was our way of winning the war by getting it in gear to give instead of getting our way at Christmas … or perhaps any other time of year.
So, our first counter-attack in winning Christmas for Mom’s sake involved no whining about Macy’s. Instead, we gave her the best Christmas gift of all by performing Academy Award-style as the happiest, most joyous sisters to have the honor of following her Santa Claus tradition, along with the smiling photographs to treasure in its aftermath.
As for my dad, our second counter-offensive involved shoring up another weak flank with the inevitable jangling of that black rotary phone on Christmas Eve. This time when it rang, my sister and I jumped up: “Dad! We have a special Christmas gift for you.”
Amid his few quiet words of protest, we ran at a clip to the record player and turned on the songs that got him straight to the heart. We knew how proud he was of his service to America in WWII. And aside from music on radio, he loved to play his 78 rpms of the U.S. Navy, Marine, Air Force, and Army fight songs.
To this day, my sister and I have a kind of Morse code during trying times, especially at Christmas.
As the Navy’s “Anchors Aweigh, My Boys” began, my sister and I with toy drums at the ready marched around the Christmas tree harmonizing full tilt from start to finish. But we didn’t stop there. We continued until each and every lyric (as memorized) was sung to all, including the Marine’s “From The Halls of Montezuma,” and the Air Force’s “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder.” Our grand finale, however, was my dad’s favorite (as an Army man): “Over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trails, as the caissons go rolling along …”
Looking back, we nearly lost it in hilarity when we saw our dad laughing and clapping at the same time. But when the laughter turned to eyes that brimmed with tears, we put down our tom-toms and hugged him tight. We knew he was thinking about those dear ones in our family, like his first cousin, who was killed as a gunnery sergeant in the Air Force, as well as scores of other comrades and friends.
Years later, the odd coupling of our family’s Christmas tradition of Santa Claus and the U.S. military fight songs became a winning combination with my sister’s kids and my own. For my mom, the kids performed a Macy’s Santa Claus routine to her enthusiastic applause. For my dad, our children also performed to the boom box sounds of all four fight songs marching around the Christmas tree — whether telephones or smartphones on Christmas Eve jangled or not.
Although both our parents have passed, to this day, my sister and I have a kind of Morse code during difficult days and trying times, especially at Christmas. She will start to sing one of our dad’s military’s fight songs … and I will chime in with the rest.
After all, we know how to win.
The author, a retired attorney, is a published poet, writer, and columnist based in Arizona.