I remember going to the old Tivoli Theatre across from Westminster Church to a Saturday matinee as a young boy. Every Saturday there was a double bill of two movies with cartoons, newsreels, and several serials that we all loved to cheer or jeer at.
One Saturday, as was our usual trek with our allowance burning a hole in our pockets, my brother Chrys and I were off to our Saturday movie. Much to my surprise the movie was called “O. Henry’s Full House” and what stayed with me was a charming vignette called “The Gift of the Magi” with Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger. As I have always been a very sentimental person, I loved the story and the fact that they both gave up something that was precious to themselves to get a gift for one another.
For me Christmas has never been what gifts were given to me but what delight I can bring to others.
Rummaging through boxes of old photographs is something that I am doing regularly. I have been taking photos out that mean nothing to our children and started mailing them to friends all over the world. Hidden in amongst my mother’s stash of photos is a series that brought a great smile to my face. My mother, Isabel, was a prodigious knitter all her life and there we are in a colour Christmas photo wearing matching turquoise sweaters with a white deer and white snowflakes on the front. She was far ahead of her time, making us Christmas sweaters. In the photo we are about six and seven, respectively, filled with anticipation for the wonder of Christmas.
We lived in an apartment on Westminster just around the corner from my grandparents who lived on Lenore Street. Christmas morning, after we had opened our stockings and presents at home with our parents, we were filled with delight in going to the big house on Lenore and seeing all my mother’s family.
Chrys and I were the only grandchildren for many years and the only children amongst a sea of adults. It was the most exciting day of the year for us with our aunts and uncles and grandparents together celebrating the holiday. My grandfather believed in hard work in the family restaurant, so Christmas was the only day of the year that it was totally closed.
There was always a gigantic real tree in the living room filled with lights and all kinds of lovely decorations. Bowls of nuts with a nut cracker were set out on the coffee table just waiting for us to get the pecans and the walnuts. Sweet smells came from kitchen with the turkey already in the oven and our greatest treat was a dish that my grandmother brought from the old country. She and my grandfather were Greeks who emigrated from Asia Minor so there was a definite Turkish influence in her cooking. This dish was made with rice and cinnamon and the juice of the turkey and we couldn’t get enough of it. My mother learned to make it very well also and passed the recipe to Barbra. Our children love it even to this day.
But before we got to the dinner table there was a mound of presents under that tree that almost filled the living room floor and we could hardly wait to get into them. Chrys and I loved all the attention while we were the only children at the party. We were showered with books and games and all kinds of delights from the adults.
When it was time to sit down to dinner, the dining room table was extended as far as it could go and everyone was seated according to whether they were serving or just eating. The joy of sitting at this big table surrounded by all the people that we loved was almost overwhelming. The table would be groaning with food and filled with my grandmother’s best dinner plates.
Dinner would be a fun-filled affair with everyone talking at once and we children just drinking in all adult conversation which we loved. We felt so grown up and adult to be just sitting there with them as they bantered back and forth. Dinner would stretch on for several hours as they loved the opportunity to relax with their siblings. It is a magical memory to think back at the times we were all together on Lenore Street. Some of my aunts and uncles were very young, between 17 and 29 at that time. They were filled with vibrancy and cheek and always full of fun.
The one pervading theme of the holidays was very similar to the story by O. Henry. All of our family took great delight in finding the thing that brought joy to their sisters and brothers. It need not be something big but something that they had expressed a desire for. Money was not as plentiful at that time in the late 1940s but imagination and thought were the operating principles. To find that special little something was more important than the size of the gift. And the presentation was as important as anything.
Over the years we have tried to instill in our children the principle that thought out-weighs expense every time. Christmas and giving are synonymous but it pays to listen to what your partner has been saying all year and to find that sweet delight for them. It may be just doing something around the house and not necessarily a thing that you can wrap.
To me there is no greater delight than looking back on old memories of Christmas and seeing all those wonderful faces that are no longer here and imagining them sharing the joy of the holidays.
I personally love the holidays and my greatest pleasure will always be to find that thing that makes Barbra and my children smile. With our grandson at age four this year we anticipate an even greater sense of the holidays. We hope that to be surrounded by those that he loves will make Christmas a favorite of his as well. There is very little that we need but the joy in his face will be sufficient to give us a wonderful memory of Christmas in years to come.
Jim Pappas is on the CJNU board.