Jolly Old St. Nicholas

December 11, 2014

The thing about Christmas when I was growing up is: my family went way over the top with celebration.  There would be a tree in the toy room, and every room in the Front Rooms (the set of “formal rooms” in the front of the ground floor, a dining room, a parlor, a sun room, a living room and a front foyer) had its own tree, each with its own theme.  Typically the Sun Room had a blue and silver theme, the dining room had green red and gold, but the showstopper trees were in the living room and the front hall.

The living room tree was the “main” tree.  This one got the largest variety of lights, the largest variety of bulbs, the perfectly placed strands of tinsel.  Most exciting to us kids, this is the tree that had the presents under it.  It was also the fattest tree, as it would be selected specifically to take up as much of the room as possible.  Given the twelve-foot ceilings, it was also generally pretty tall.  Tallness is relative though.

In the front hall, the tree was thin, but really tall.  With its base next to the grand staircase, the tree would extend up into the second floor!  The star was Santa_Claus.jpgplaced on this tree by leaning out over the banister from the second floor hallway.  It always had to be wired up to the railing to keep it upright.  I have no idea where my grandparents came up with twenty-foot tall Christmas trees every year, but they did.

Besides the trees, the rest of the house would be decorated with every kind of decoration imaginable.  There were of course cardboard cutouts of things like Santa and Rudolph, knickknack versions of every Christmas thing imaginable, spring loaded elves, garlands hanging on every mantel piece and an array of religious decorations in every room as well.

The crèche was kept in the living room, on the opposite end of the room from the tree.  The crèche at 34 River was quite large, with the figures all being around a foot in height and the manger itself being several feet wide.  Outside, there were large (3 feet tall) plastic versions of all the same figures – Joseph, Mary, Jesus, the Wise Men, the animals.  It was imperative to Nana that the baby Jesus not be placed in the manger before Christmas day, and the Wise Men not arrive before the feast of the Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas).  The Magi would be placed across the room and moved a little closer every day until the appointed arrival time.

With all this decoration, you might think we were all dressed up with no place to go.  No worries, we had yearly Santa visits that kept all us grandchildren guessing well past the age when most kids no longer believe in Santa.  My maniac family is very good at this sort of thing.  Santa would come in the evening, his appearance would always be theatrical and he would always have presents for everyone.

One year, the lights all went out, there was a loud bang, and Santa emerged from the enormous front fireplace.  Another time, he leaped down from the second floor down to the front hall.  I’m not sure who played Santa that year, but that was a dangerous jump and I hope he practiced it with a mattress first!  One year Rudolph appeared on our roof.  We all went rushing outside and sure enough there was the glowing red nose on an antlered head moving back and forth.

The best part about it, though, is the lengths my family would go to make it real.  One year I was pretty certain that I had figured out “Santa” was really my uncle Kevin (I think I was right still) and told some of my cousins.  The next year, Santa’s visit was not going well.  He came down the front hall staircase with very little fanfare, and was immediately identified as Uncle Kevin.  He removed his beard, apologized that he had to fill in as Santa couldn’t make it this year… then Santa burst in through the main front door, hohohoing as he came and baffling all of us.  I found out years later that this was a neighbor, Mr. Gans, but we were all flabbergasted.  For one more year we had little choice but to believe.

I can’t imagine the colossal cleanup effort that must have gone on every Christmas night.  We grandchildren would of course open all of our toys immediately and tear around the house shooting each other with Nerf darts, hitting each other with swords and generally causing havoc.  Wrapping paper and boxes would be everywhere.  Inevitably some of the bulbs from the tree would end up broken.  Nana was a firm believer that childhood was for playing and, while we would be drafted into many tasks at times, on Christmas we got to play until we were sent to bed.

By the time we were sent to bed, we were plum tuckered. While Christmas Eve was always marked by restlessness and long night, on Christmas night we kids would be worn out from the nonstop excitement and activity. It might have been the only night of the year that we would go to bed… and just go to sleep.

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