I was approaching the ripe old age of four on the first Christmas I can really claim that I remember. The big gift that year was a lollapalooza, my very first set of American Flyer trains! The locomotive must have weighed in at about ten pounds – all metal and about a foot and half in length with its attached coal tender. The transformer looked like something Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein would have used to bring his monster to life. It also weighed about ten pounds and was connected to the track that powered the locomotive. It also supplied electric power to light the inside of the single green New York and New Haven passenger car that my dad had added to the set. If you think such a grand “toy” is a little over the top for a kid who was not yet four and likely pronounced his new acquisition as “twain,” you would be correct. This was every bit my dad’s train set. About as close as I could get to running it that Christmas was sitting on his lap as he powered it around the four-foot oval track. I watched in wonder as whatever chemical dad had poured into the smokestack belched a light gray stream of faux smoke into air already saturated with the stale smell of his spent Camel cigarettes. The locomotive even emitted a high pitch whistle that annoyed our dog to no end.
American Flyer trains were built by the A.C. Gilbert Company in New Haven. The set my parents had purchased for me set them back $39.95, not exactly a small sum of money at the time. At the time the Gilbert Company had much of the male child toy market covered, manufacturing everything from these trains to their world-famous erector and chemical sets.
By the time my dad tired of playing Casey Jones, I was on to something that I was allowed to play with – my first set of Lincoln Logs. Packaged in a cylindrical cardboard can with a metal lid, Lincoln Logs were made of real wood (plastic was not yet in vogue). Each log was notched so that it could linked to another in the hopes that the finished product might resemble a real log cabin. Not yet having turned four, I seriously doubt that I would have managed that on my own. The roofing material was made with interlocking green strips of wood. A really neat toy for budding builders that had been designed in 1917 by John Lloyd Wright, son of Frank.
That was also only the second year in our very own home. I remember my dad building a giant snowman in the back yard after the first snowfall that year. At about five feet in height, the icy creature towered over me with his tree-stick arms and eyes of stone. He was great fun during the day, but as soon as the sunlight faded and I looked out the kitchen door window at dad’s creation in the dimming afternoon light, I began to scream. The winter wind was making his arms move and Frosty was scaring the bejesus out of me. I wasn’t about to calm down until dad went outside and slayed the monster.
And so it began, a mental scrapbook of childhood memories of my Christmases in Connecticut.
Our living room was centered around a large fieldstone fireplace that was likely made from stones found on the property when the house was first built. It was originally used as a summer cottage by a family from New York that preferred swatting mosquitoes in the country to trapping rats in the city. The Christmas tree always sat to the left of the fireplace, placed just far enough from the flames so as not to spontaneously combust from the extreme heat.
In those early days, I don’t recall my parents purchasing our tree. Instead, my dad would take the dog, along with a cross saw, and traipse off into the woods surrounding our house – mostly Bridgeport Hydraulic land – and return within an hour or so with a tree that would fit into the corner of our living room. He would usually do this sometime around Thanksgiving before the snow fell – perhaps so as not to leave a trail of footprints leading from a small stump back towards our house for the BHC warden to track him.
Since the 80-plus degree heat from our fireplace often led to rapid needle loss, our tree remained outside hanging by a rope under the portico on the back terrace until a few days before Christmas. Once it made its way inside, it was time to fit it into its stand prior to decorating it. Easier said than done. Fitting the trunk into the stand almost always required trimming a few more of the lower branches and shaving a little girth from the trunk. While my dad usually factored this in before bringing the tree inside, the need to make fresh cut on the trunk so that it could “drink” the water in the stand, generally meant that there still wasn’t enough clean trunk to fit all the way into the stand. After some more trimming and knocking several hundred more pine needles onto the living room carpet, it was ready to go.
First to be installed were the tree lights. While a few families we knew still used real candles on their trees, we lived far enough from the all-volunteer fire department to take the risk of being homeless for New Year’s Day. Our lights were electric. And big. Bulbs back then were between an inch and half and two inches in height and screwed into individual sockets along a string of live wires that carried a full complement of 110 volts. The pointy shaped light bulbs were frosted (painted) in red, yellow, green, and blue. When lit, they looked just real candle flames. Okay, maybe not.
Dad was in charge of stringing the lights. If the bulbs weren’t unscrewed from their sockets every season and properly stored in the boxes they came in, it was easy to scrape the frosted color off the bulbs. Bulbs that were missing their frosting were bright enough to read by, so proper storage was a must. Since they were real glass bulbs, they could produce a lot of heat. While not as apt to ignite the tree as real open-flame candles, they could still cause a fire if one of them was touching a branch of quickly dying pine needles. Each socket had a metal clip that attached to a branch and allowed the installer to make certain that the bulb wasn’t in direct contact with other branches or needles on the tree. In our house, the tree lights were unplugged whenever the room would be vacated for more than a few short minutes.
I think every kid has his or her favorite ornaments. Mine were likely reflective of the times – red or blue orbs adorned with the planets and spaceships. Shades of Flash Gordon. Luckily for my parents – who cherished the more traditional Christmas ornaments – mine hung rather low on the tree since I was only allowed to hook them onto the branches I could reach. Hanging the ornaments took concentration and patience. The lousy little wire hooks were connected to lousy little tin caps that were shoved into the top of the fragile glass ornaments. If one of them accidently fell while you were hanging it, it usually shattered.
When the ornaments were hung, it was time to garnish the tree with tinsel. Tinsel had been around for over a century. It had started life made from real silver to reflect the candle lights on the tree. That meant it was a product for only the wealthy. It was later made from copper, but that too became expensive as time wore on. Aluminum was next but that was rather flammable. So, in came lead! What could be safer than lead??? Heck the carton it came in said, “Fireproof,” so what else could there be to worry about?
A carton of real lead tinsel weighed almost as much as my first American Flyer locomotive. Besides the fact that it didn’t burn, its advantages were that it didn’t tangle, it hung straight, and it wouldn’t fall off when the dog bumped into the tree while chasing the cat. It wasn’t particularly expensive, but we still reused ours every year – except for the pieces the cat ate and then coughed up, and the few strands that somehow evaded capture before the tree went out the door on New Year’s Day after being defrocked. Because tinsel was so safe, innocuous, and easy to use, my parents let me hang as much of it for as high as I could reach. Thanks Mom & Dad!
Decorating the tree was usually an event that consumed most of a Sunday afternoon. Mom was really big on taking a few steps back every few minutes to critique the symmetrical balance of the thing. With mom in charge, it would have taken a crew of 100 workers a month or more to decorate the tree at Rockefeller Center. By the time the task was complete we were all ready for some spiked eggnog. While my dad would have likely acquiesced to my request for a little taste of rum, mom wouldn’t hear of it.
On the Christmas before my all-important fifth birthday – all birthdays were a big deal at that age – the gift I remember the most was the one that wounded me. Since the manufacturers of kid’s toys considered safety measures a totally unnecessary expense in the 1950’s, pressed metal toys with sharp edges were not uncommon. I received a complete service station setup that had a ramp to the roof where I could park my toy cars. The entire building was made of metal, but that ramp had sharp hidden lower edges that must have rivaled a box cutter. As I was wheeling one of my new Dinky toy cars up onto the upper deck, my wrist made contact with the bottom edge of the ramp and that was it. I don’t think my poor mother had ever seen quite that much blood before. By the time I was patched up – after my wrist had been thoroughly bathed in mercury laden mercurochrome – that service station had disappeared. I survived, but that the scar on my wrist lasted longer than any toy I ever received for Christmas.
In our house, you opened your Christmas presents in the morning – after Santa had delivered them and devoured the cookies and milk you had put out for him before retiring the previous evening. I sometimes wondered if the dog got to those cookies before the old man in the red suit arrived. In any event, someone had eaten them! The rule was you had to stay in bed until it was light outside. Christmas day was the only morning in December when the sun was up at our house by 5:00 AM – at least in my mind.
My little Catholic friends all got to open their gifts upon returning from Mass on Christmas Eve. Somehow, Santa made stopping at Catholic homes a priority – kind of like the Amazon Prime of the day. I was all set to switch religious ships until I learned that I would need to join my friends every Friday afternoon for several months of Catechism instruction before the Pope would okay my transfer papers. After giving it some careful consideration, I guessed I could wait six extra hours to open my gifts on just one day each year.
Speaking of church…I finally got to go to Christmas Eve service when I was about nine or ten. None of that meet in the church basement with your Sunday school classmates before marching upstairs to sing an out of tune Christmas carol in front of the congregation and then disappearing back into the bowels of the church to await retrieval by your parents. Nope, that year I got to sit upstairs with the adults!
Well, that year it snowed. A lot. Chains required. Grumpy dad included. Add to that, the church furnace was on the fritz. With the extreme cold and the real candles placed in all the church windows, it must have been just like it had been when that church was first built in the mid-1800’s. I thought it was neat, my parents, not so much. That was the end of that short-lived tradition.
During my first year of elementary school, the week leading up to our Christmas break saw our kindergarten teacher whipping out the colored construction paper, a few pairs of round-nosed scissors (Miss Frances’ favorite Ding-Dong School tools), a bag of flour, a bucket of water, and a few small paint brushes. We were going to make paper chains to bring home to decorate the family Christmas tree!
I soon learned why school floors were covered with linoleum tile. Twenty precious tykes dipping paint brushes into a homemade glue concoction of mixed flour and water certainly made for one sloppy mess. We were soon wearing more glue than was going on the strips of construction paper we were using to make the links of our chains. Some of the kids – the ones who had obviously played with too much tinsel – were eating as much paste as they were spreading on their chains. I have no idea if that project was considered a success, but I am pretty certain the school custodian went home late that day after mopping the place up.
As a little kid, buying Christmas presents for mom and dad meant two shopping trips, one with each parent who had to tactfully talk their son out of purchasing whatever gaudy item I had chosen to bestow on their soulmate. I didn’t much appreciate their input at the time, but as I reflect back on those times as an adult, I imagine my dad talking me out of buying that one-dollar, economy sized half-gallon bottle of perfume for my mother was probably sage advice.
As I grew a little older (maybe ten or eleven), I was handed ten bucks apiece to spend on each of my parents and then set loose in Read’s in downtown Bridgeport. By then, my tastes and judgement had improved enough that I was able to choose something for my mom that she didn’t have to feel guilty about lying to me when she told me how much she “loved” it. From Read’s I would make the trek over to the Sears and Roebuck store where I would spend about an hour scouring the tool department in an attempt to find my dad a tool he didn’t already possess that was within my ten-dollar budget. Not at all an easy challenge!
I think all of us look back at our childhood with fond memories. At least I certainly hope so. Holiday memories are usually at the forefront. Certain interactions with grandparents and other family members usually evoke memories of favorite foods or certain places where those gatherings took place. I hope everyone reading this finds at least one line that sparked a pleasant memory from their past, and I wish each and every one of you a happy and healthy holiday season!
Now, where did I put that tinsel?