“…Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David's town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there…
The night sky was almost purple and the stars were about as visible as I remember ever seeing them here. Back in Tennessee, when I lived in the country I would go out on clear winter nights and I could easily see the Milky Way. But here, 12 miles south of Philadelphia, you don’t normally see this many stars at night.
I was looking skyward for a long time and thinking about how, when I was a boy, I would always look for the Christmas star as the holiday drew nearer. I never understood that the star was an anomaly and that God had done that on purpose to guide folks to His son. I thought it came with the tinsel and the tree ornaments.
Tonight as I gazed skyward, from the small deck next to the apartment, I was caught up in those memories. Home was a long way away on this night. Even though I was home at the time. Since my divorce in 1999, I alternate Christmas holidays with my daughter’s mom and so I only see Morgan every other Christmas. And this was not my year with her.
Christmas rarely has felt normal for me since the divorce. I am very much a traditionalist at Christmas and being an intact family really mattered to me. It still does and I hold out hope that one day I will be part of a family again. I still have a lot of Christmas left in my soul.
This night though, I was lost in thought about this season. All that it used to mean and which of those things still remain now that adulthood has taken over and life has taken her best shot. What is it about Christmas that I miss the most? What were the things that made it such a favorite holiday?
The easy answer, I supposes, would be the Christmas presents. That’s the part that every child loves, (and most adults if we’re honest). But there was always so much more to this season than just unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning. As I sat there in the little plastic chair on my rooftop deck, wrapped in a blanket against the December chill, it was that which I longed for. Those memories and that feeling…that thing in your heart that started feeling really great around Thanksgiving and built to a crescendo until December 25 and came in for a soft landing at New
Some of the answers were easy. Christmas was the one time when there was any sort of prolonged peace in my house. Everyone got along for the entire month of December. It was about the only time we did anything as a family. We put up the tree, decorated the house. One tradition we had when I was very young was going to Philadelphia by train the day after Thanksgiving.
Every “Black Friday” my mother, my brother, my Aunt and Cousin and my grandmother would board the train in Ridley Park. We rode the 15 miles or so to Suburban Station on the North side of City Hall on Broad Street. Then we’d walk down to the Wannamaker’s Store on Broad and see the wonderful light display with a spine tingling narration by the great John Facenda.
It’s old and outdated not but it still operates during the season and families still bring their kids there to feel the same magic we felt and our parents and grandparents before them felt.
When we were kids, there was a wonderful monorail that circled the toy department of Wannamaker’s. The toy department was that big. Your parents would put you on the monorail and you would be up there at ceiling height, circling aisle after aisle of toys while they went and did some secret shopping. Then they’d get you and take you to get your picture taken with Santa and you’d walk around the toy department for hours wanting everything you saw.
We’d walk down the block to Gimbels and see their walk-through Christmas land display and by 6 p.m. we were exhausted and our heads were spinning from trying to process so much Christmas magic.
Sometime in early November the “Sears’ Christmas Wish Book” would arrive by mail and my brother and sister and I would take turns going through it and writing our initials next to what we hoped Santa would bring us. For me it was GI Joes, slot cars, and sports equipment.
Christmas Eve would find us usually at my grandmother house in Philadelphia. My grandfather would usually be dressed in a sweater and looking his best and smelling like Aqua Velva. My grandmother would be teary eyed when we walked in the door. She was a Christmas lover too.
In later years we moved the Christmas Eve party to our house in Wilmington. Open house, come as you are, and stay as long as you want. People would come and go throughout the evening. I would usually sneak off for a few hours to visit with some other families who also had Christmas Eve parties. Christmas Eve wasn’t Christmas Eve unless I saw the Winward’s for a while.
There was almost a hint of sadness to the night. Deep inside I knew that in a day, or two or a week, the world would go right back to what it was for the other eleven months of the year. We wouldn’t be getting along nearly as well, we’d hardly do much of anything together, and life would just roll on. But for this one night, there was a palpable magic in the air.
As I got older, got married, divorced and settled into adulthood, I found myself missing those Christmas Eve gatherings more and more. When I was introduced to most of my father’s family about four years ago, I was invited to the Christmas Eve (Festa Dei Sette Pesci) Feast of Seven Fishes. Nobody eats for the holidays like an Italian and my family does it best.
The first one I ever attended was the best. I was sitting with cousins I had only recently met and with my Uncle Fran and it felt like I was part of something I’d been yearning for my whole life. It was as if a hole had begun to fill in my soul somewhere.
That is the yearning I felt this night. I was missing all that had gone before and all that might still be. There is something about my hometown at Christmas. Philadelphia really gets it right.
There is a wonderful tradition of music. WMMR is the leading AOR station in the city and at Christmas they really caught the spirit. I remember wonderful songs like Bowie and Bing singing “Little Drummer Boy and “Peace on
Earth”. Or The Waitresses “Christmas Wrapping.” “Run Run Rudolph” by Chuck Berry. But I always knew it was officially Christmas when two songs played. When I first heard Bruce Springsteen’s raspy intro, “It’s all cold down along the beach…and the winds whippin’ down the boardwalk…” Nobody does “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” like The Boss.
And the most poignant and emotional moment for me would always come when Pierre Robert, MMR’s midday jock, would play the only known version of Allan Mann’s amazing “Christmas on The Block.” The first time he played that song and told the story of the blind couple portrayed in the lyrics, I wept openly. It moves me like nothing else. Because it so perfectly captures the truth that Christmas is what you see in your heart about the holiday…not what the world shows us in decorations or newspaper advertisements.
Memories were flooding my heart now. The houses along Boathouse Row, Christmas caroling on my street, climbing up on the rooftop with sleigh bells so Morgan would think Santa had arrived, the lights at Longwood Gardens, the massive pipe organ at Wannamaker’s, cookie trays from Termini Brothers bakery. There were things about this holiday that marked my soul and I was missing them badly.
Little things that you don’t think about until you miss them and need them. The way a Salvation Army band sounds on a street corner. Or the way the bell sounds when you have dropped a few dollars in change into the kettle. The way little kids sing their songs at their Christmas programs…off key and staccato but precious and beautiful.
For me, towering above all the Christmas memories was always one. It’s that moment during A Charlie Brown Christmas when Charlie Brown senses he has lost his cast and they aren’t listening to him as director of the Christmas Pageant and he is feeling his mounting disillusion with Christmas (ever the amazing introspective nine year old) and he cries out in frustration “Isn’t there anyone…who knows the real meaning of Christmas?”The answer comes from his best friend Linus. “Sure Charlie Brown,” Linus says, “I can tell you the true meaning of Christmas.” And then he walks to center stage asks for a spotlight, and quotes line by line the Nativity story from the book of Matthew. Every year that plays out on national TV and every year…even at 49…I will get tears in my eyes and I will know…Christmas has arrived on schedule. And just in time.
"Where we love, is home. Home; that our feet may leave, but not our hearts." -Oliver Wendell Holmes