Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Christmas in the Hood

Christmas was always a special time for families in our Brooklyn neighborhood. It was probably the one time that people who watched their pennies all year splurged without guilt. For us kids, it wasn't just about the presents. There was a whole different feel in the excited hustle and bustle as everyone rushed around buying and decorating trees, shopping for food and gifts, building snow forts, and of course, buying out the fish store for the traditional, Italian Christmas Eve feast. (We rarely ate fish in my house, although Mom would grudgingly prepare the smelly, salted-cod dish called "Baccala" for my father.

A word about Christmas trees. Back then there were no "tree farms" whose sole crop was fat, perfectly shaped Christmas trees delivered just in time for the holidays. Trees were usually scrawny affairs, with sparse sections that had to be turned toward the wall so that they wouldn't show so much. Fast forward fifteen years and meet Belle, my sweetheart of a mother-in-law. Just as I was lucky enough to meet and marry my wife Jasmine, I was equally lucky in having such supportive in-laws like Belle and Ray, who always treated me like a son.

Anyhow, Belle was not so accepting of nature's imperfect Christmas trees. She would have Ray drill holes into the trunk of the tree and insert extra branches to fill out its shape. There is a famous poem by Joyce Kilmer that concludes with the lines: "Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree". I guess Belle never read that one.

Rewind back to the fifties. Not only Christmas trees, but Christmas decorations were far from perfect in those days. Tree lights were not the strings of tiny, low-wattage bulbs we hang now, but the large, 9 watt-per-bulb babies that got very hot. There was a particular type of light that featured a small reservoir of colored fluid at the base, topped by a tube-like stem at the top. It was supposed to look like a candle. As the fluid in the base heated up, bubbles would continuously rise up through the stem. It looked very pretty, but was probably responsible for many fire insurance claims.

It wasn't customary back then, as it is now, to start the Christmas season in early October. We had enough respect for the Thanksgiving holiday to celebrate it properly before the mad rush to Christmas. Traditionally, the appearance of Santa Claus at the end of Macy's Thanksgiving parade was the official beginning of the Christmas season. Now, greedy retailers want us to start shopping just after the Fourth of July.

Christmas Eve was spent at Grandma and Grandpa Camardi's house on Hull Street. (See 10/6/08 post: "Those Who Came Before" for their story.) Fried zeppoles were a special treat, cooked in a large tub of hot oil and sprinkled with powdered sugar. While the adults rolled up the rugs and danced, the kids got to play a great game we called "Spin for Pennies" A brass, spinning top-like device was spun by each kid in turn. Whoever it pointed to would then follow the different instructions written around the perimeter of the top such as "take one" meaning whoever's turn it was would take one penny out of the pot. The best result if it was your turn would be "take all" meaning you got the whole pot. This was the kiddie equivalent of three sevens on the slot machines. (I later found out that the game we played was a Jewish one called "Dradle". Who knew?

Christmas day itself was the same then as for kids today...fevered excitement. We had to wait until Christmas morning to open our gifts. As I think back, I don't remember ever being disappointed. I now realize how much my parents had to sacrifice to get the three of us what we really wanted, and love them all the more for it. Later that day we would gather at Aunt Anna's and eat like the Russians were in Newark. Italians ate the equivalent of at least three dinners on holidays.

My final Christmas memory is of borderline arson. People didn't keep their trees very long in those days. They dried out and became dangerous. One or two days after Christmas, trees would be put out for collection by the Sanitation Department, unless we beat them to it. We would gather up all the trees we could find and pile them up in a vacant lot across the street from my house. (You see of course where this is going.) After a while we had a crackling blaze going, with flames three stories high. Young boys are fascinated with fire, and we just kind of stood around watching it burn out. One windy year, some airborne embers threatened the neighborhood and the fire department was called. Funny how things work son Mike is now an FDNY Lieutenant, helping to put out the fires that idiot kids like me used to start. Karma at its best.

It seems like maybe three months between Christmases these days. Growing older means that time moves along at warp speed. Watching "Its a Wonderful Life" every year reminds me that I've been blessed with a great family, and nothing gives me more pleasure than spending the holidays with them. Even though its only October, Merry Christmas everyone.


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