My desk all decorated for Christmas, 1981

by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter and Boston City Paper 12/2016

It’s early December and I am wondering in a store or two, looking at the rows of decorations, wrap, candy and Christmas merchandise lining the shelves. I find myself lost in nostalgia this evening, recalling a time, as a kid, when I would race to the stores and just window shop for hours, looking at all the Christmas decorations and then excitedly continue preparation for Christmas at home.

I remember feeling JOYFUL – literally ready to burst every Christmas season. I couldn’t wait to start decorating, couldn’t wait to start celebrating.

Christmas — a whole season of all five senses – weeks of anticipation, building up to what I remember as perfect joy.

As a man of a certain age I know that childlike joy fades. Happens to all of us. We grow up. We learn the truth about the guy in the red suit. School becomes more of a priority, as do work, relationships, love, marriage, kids, job, mortgages, errands, deadlines… Every step toward adulthood, real life… And that magic fades.

But just for tonight, I decided to make a list of what I remember from those Christmases – the things where I found joy in my childhood… My ghost of Christmas past if you will.


Buying red and green and white construction paper and creating candy canes, bells, trees, and red and green chain decorations.

In school, creating snowmen out of Styrofoam, coloring pictures of bells, Santa and the nativity scene.

Going to Kresgees and Diskay and Bradlees to see the Christmas decorations and lights for sale. Christmas was coming!

Clearing off the Duncan-Fife table, placing a white sheet and cotton on it and setting up the Nativity Set. First purchased by Mom’s mother (Memere) in the 1950s or 1960s, my Mom bought Mary for the set, her brother bought Joseph and together the bought Jesus and the crib – that was the start. it was slowly added to, set up for years and then Memere gave it to Mom. It was the first thing we set up every year. Theresa and I put frosted mini-wheats cereal on the set to look like hay with snow on top.

Decorating my bedroom for Christmas. I had a two foot plastic tree with sets of lights and little handmade “presents” underneath on my desk.

Making my special “Christmas Jell-O” – half strawberry red, half lime green with whipped cream on top.

Theresa and I making Christmas decorations with water, flower, and paint.

Christmas Carols on the radio.

Making an advent wreath.

Spray snow in a can – trying to write “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New year” backwards on the window so it would read correctly from outside.

Setting up the two foot tall aluminum Christmas tree (the first Christmas tree Mom and Dad had the year they married) and decorating it with red bulbs. We always placed it behind the manger scene.

Decorating Nana’s living room with a little plastic Christmas tree and even some lights in the mantle, stockings and a plastic wreath in the window.

Putting up our tree in the living room and bringing out the vintage glass ornaments and winding the lights that these days could not possibly pass a fire safety code.

Nana buying us a new tree top when the old Santa one broke.

Saving money for months and going into downtown Boston with my Mom and Theresa for an afternoon of Christmas shopping at Grants, Woolworth’s and Kresgees. Those trips were pure magic. I vividly remember my excitement building as we left Washington Station by way of the Hawley Street clackty-clack escalator – the first thing I could hear was the Salvation Army bell. We always donated something.

Aunt Florence in Maryland sending us $10 in a Christmas card.

Aunt Noelie remembering every one of her many nieces and nephews with a Christmas card and a dollar in it.

Checking the TV guide to see when the Christmas specials would air. We watched Rudolph, Frosty, Santa Claus is coming to Town, and my VERY favorite, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” That was the first TV show I ever taped on a cassette recorder.

The cat hacking up tinsel at least once in a season (that wasn’t awesome but happened every year and I wanted to see if you were paying attention).

Seeing all the houses in Dorchester decorated — electric candles in windows with the orange bulbs everywhere.

Nana introducing me to Mince pie — we got it ever year and to this day I buy at least one per season.

Buying Nana a box of her beloved ribbon candy.

Getting the American lung association Christmas seals in the mail.

Uphams Corner all lit up for Christmas with colorful strings of garland and light across the streets and a big wreath in the center. In the snow, even the red and green traffic lights felt Christmassy.

The “big” order of food from the Elm Farm market that included the turkey with all the fixings and treats we didn’t have too often – red and green M&M’s Christmas candy, peanuts.

Watching “A Christmas Carol,” the 1938 version with Dad for the first time. His favorite and mine.

The Day Before!

Christmas vacation begins! Saint Kevin’s School let us out for Christmas break, we had mass, sang Christmas carols and got a box of Christmas candy to take home.

Stopping at the Strand Pharmacy to pick up a roll of 24 exposure film and two no-name batteries for my little 126 camera – I’d be taking pictures!

The two or three years that the nuns brought clothing to us – Dad was out of work due to ill health and we were too young for Mom to work just yet – the bounty the nuns brought us was very needed and welcome – and when we got back on our feet, Mom made sure we “Gave back.” To this day, she reminds us, “You have to give back.” We still do.

Christmas Eve!

Putting the extra sleeve in the kitchen table to make it bigger and covering it with the paper Christmas table cloth.

Mom coming home from work on Christmas Eve and Dad saying, “Now Christmas can begin.”

The feeling all day Christmas Eve of excitement and happiness until we were ready to burst.

The WPIX Yule Log playing on the TV.

Setting up my cassette tape recorder at 4pm sharp to begin taping the WJIB Christmas festival of music off the radio.

The Christmas Eve when I introduced Mom and Theresa to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and turned to them at the end to see what they thought of the film – and seeing them both crying.

Christmas Eve Mass – and praying it would be Father Buschette. We loved Father Kierce and remember him fondly – a true saint on Earth — but his sermons… Well, they were… Complicated. And a little confusing. Father Buschettes’s Christmas Eve homily reminded us it’s Jesus’ birthday and the true meaning of Christmas.

The Gospel of Luke 2:8-14 at Mass: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” I miss that translation, the one I grew up with. My very favorite passage in the Bible, the announcement of the birth of the Savior.

Putting baby Jesus in the crib at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Leaving out a piece of pie and milk for Santa Claus. Leaving a carrot for the reindeer.

The year I SWEAR, I SWEAR, I heard reindeer bells on the roof.

Waking up at 4AM to see if Santa had delivered presents.

Christmas Day!

Theresa having a piece of custard pie for breakfast Christmas morning.

The “big” present. Maybe a clock radio. Maybe a new cassette recorder. Or a new camera with a roll or two of 110 film! And flashcubes!

Our stockings, as kids filled with candy and goodies (and often a quarter or two) and an orange or apple and ALWAYS – the dreaded popcorn ball.

Christmas 1974 – Theresa and I praying and praying for a White Christmas – it was NOT predicted – and waking up Christmas morning to a snowstorm.

Christmas 1982 – the coldest Christmas ever (-7 that morning) and Dad saying, “My entire family is together. It’s all I want.”

Theresa always going all out with stationary as my gift – paper, markers, crayons, color pencils, all the things I needed to draw and create things.

Going crazy overboard on Theresa’s gift for over a decade to assuage my guilt at giving her only a picture of the S.W.A.T. TV cast and some candy one year. Still feel guilty about that one. I could have at least framed the thing.

The AM Transistor radio that Memere gave me when I was 10. It as $5.00 radio and I loved it and listened to it all the time. That radio sparked my love of the early 70s music on WEZE. (I still have it).

Brach’s raspberry candies – you could only get them at Christmas.

The magnificent turkey dinner with all the trimmings that Mom worked so hard to make. It was always AMAZING.

Setting up and playing with our new toys and games. We loved the games. Trouble, monopoly, scabble, Othello, cards, light bright. We really enjoyed the new toys and games; the clothes could wait until later.

And so much more. So very much more.

Christmas Evening, watching TV, being together, not wanting the day to end.

Feeling totally joyful.

Years later.

Realizing that those Christmases were so joyful largely due to Mom and Dad. Not knowing then what I know now — at the time how much work Mom and Dad put in, and the sacrifices made – to make Christmas perfect for us.

And appreciating, in hindsight, that I had 20 Christmases with Dad before he passed away. I still miss him, especially at Christmas, but he’s in my heart and well-remembered, and the next generation and new friends and family are there these days to provide that same light. He’s still with us.


Mom’s Nativity Set

Two weeks ago, my Mom started decorating for Christmas. We got the artificial tree out from the attic and she decorated it beautifully. She changes things up each year, retiring old decorations and seeking out different ideas and decorating her house so tastefully, and also with whimsy (she’s acquired a fondness for mechanical Christmas ornaments that light up and feature dancing penguins, snowman playing Christmas tunes, trees that spin and light up — Mom’s house has taken on an Enchanted village feel).

But one thing has NEVER changed. On that very same Duncan Fife table – that same Nativity set.

Two weeks ago, while my wife and sister chattered with Mom, I plugged in the lights to the Nativity’s little red lightbulb and the little church that also belonged to her mother. And for ten minutes I just stared at that set. Now more than 60 years old, and still the centerpiece of every Christmas. I took my time and held many of the worn pieces. Many are the originals Memere and Mom collected in the early years. Baby Jesus and his crib were replaced with newer models as they wore away (but Mom still has them) and some of the sheep are also more recent. But the key figures – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the kings, the crèche itself – all the original.

And I realized – all those other decorations that came and went, all those trees decorated differently, all those childhood crafted things somewhere in a landfill – that still here, sixty years later – the same Nativity Set. That family Nativity Set is a touchstone — a direct connection to my childhood and all Christmases past.

The real meaning of Christmas, always the centerpiece of my childhood Christmas memories.

I always knew that crèche was important – but to see it as a link to the past like that – it was an eye-opener.

I just smiled happily and then joined the family at the table.

To make new memories. To celebrate this Christmas.

On Christmas Day at Mom’s, her kids, our spouses, cousins, and the grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) will be at Mom’s. And I suspect a lot of perfect memories will be created.

I found my joy again!

And I realized, a little like Ebenezer Scrooge — we need to honor Christmas in the Past, Present and Future.

So rather than being all maudlin and wishing for joys of Christmas past, I’ll remember them, cherish them, visit them every now and then, and keep them in my heart. BUT – I’ll take more time to enjoy the people around me now – and also look forward to many more years of happy Christmas memories yet to come – yet to be experienced – and keep finding the joy.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanza, and Happy Yule, Happy Holidays and Happy Solstice to all. May you take some time to re-visit the joys of your past holidays, and may your present and future be bright.


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