The day after Thanksgiving I would wake up to the same ritual every year for 20 or more years. On top of my mother’s blonde bureau in her bedroom stood the three foot white Christmas tree decorated with one string of blinking red lights with the tree yellowing from the Pall Malls my mother and step-father chain smoked. After a couple of years the tree would smell of cigarette smoke. Below the tree sat a cardboard fireplace sitting four feet high and three feet wide. It had a black cardboard mantle, where two glass snow globes that when shook, snowed on Santa and his reinder. The other snow globe was the Nativity Scene complete with the Three Wise Men and a cow. The face of the fireplace had a red brick-like facade and inside the fireplace was a cardboard cut out of orange and red flames. Over the “flames” hung “Merry Christmas” in red foil.I remember as a kid thinking that it was a good thing that the flames weren’t real, otherwise the “Merry Christmas” foil greeting would catch on fire. I never really thought about the entire cardboard display becoming a blazing inferno.
Every single year, the day after Thanksgiving, without waking anyone, my mother would get up during the night or very early in the morning and arrange this Christmas scene. It just appeared. No conversation, no ritual of helping decorate the tree or “build” the fireplace. It was her job, her duty to decorate without help from anyone.
I had my own ritual following Thanksgiving. After Thanksgiving you could find me on Henry Street, at the age of ten, pulling my old red, squeaky, rusty Radio Flyer wagon up and down Henry and Orchard Streets. I was preparing for my own Christmas treat after realizing that Santa didn’t exist anymore at the age of 7, thanks to an older brother.
I would dress myself with courdoroy pants, flannel shirt and blue leggins’ over the pants , the kind of pants in the 1950’s that you could hardly move in and were waterproof, keeping your pants dry in case of snow and warm for playing outside, which also came along with a matching blue jacket and attached hood. I don’t think my face was very visible in this get-up, but I was warm.
My goal was one thing and one thing only. Collect soda bottles from neighbors and cash them in for two cents each. Soda in cans hadn’t yet been invented and redeemable empty bottles were a treasure. I knew who to get the most bottles from. Joany McCarthy lived on Orchard Street and her family drank a lot of Cott’s ginger ale. She was good for at least five bottles, especially after Thanksgving. Joany always washed out the bottles before giving them to me. Even though she lived on the third floor of the Orchard Street apartment house, it was worth the two or three trips up the steps. Joany would also alert me to the fact that she saw some “good bottles” in the trash bin in the back of the house.
I didn’t mind poking through the trash too much. I had mittens that clipped onto my blue snow jacket and didn’t care about getting them sticky or dirty. I could usually find three or four bottles to take back.
After getting my stash from Joany, the trash bin and other residents of 755 Orchard Street, I would appear at the local deli store, Sherman’s Corner Store at Henry & Orchard. Sherman would sometimes see me coming down the street with my red wagon full of bottles and point me around to the back of the store, where Sherman would count the bottles and give me the cash. A good Saturday would find me twenty cents richer.
I would continue this routine until I had a total of at least fifty cents. That’s all I needed for my Christmas.
With the fifty cents in hand, I would board the bus, heading for lower Chapel Street into downtown New Haven, deposit my five cents into the money machine and take my seat waiting for my stop, State and Chapel to be called.
Getting off the bus at State and Chapel I wouldwalk across the street to the most beautiful Christmas window display in Shartenberg’s Department Store. I would gaze at this display which was a huge house topped with snow with puppets in the windows looking out for Santa and his sled. The puppet children would gaze out up at the sky and watch Santa and his reindeer fly by in front of a big white full moon. The lighting was spectacular. Make believe snow fell with distinct snowflakes. Noses on the reindeer blinked, Santa’s head kept nodding and smiling, the puppets mouths opened and closed with what seemed like oohs and ahhs and all the puppet kids were smiling along with their parents who were standing behind them.
The talk around town was that even though Mr. Shartenberg was Jewish and didn’t celebrate Christmas, he loved kids. Worked for me!
I would just stand outside for what seemed like hours watching what a real Christmas should be like.
But inside Shartneberg’s on the 3rd floor was where the real magic was. I would take the elevator up to the third floor with other kids and their parents, all hoping to snag the catch of the day.
For upstairs was a round wooden fish pond maybe ten feet in diameter, draped around the insides and outsides with Christmas paper and inside the fish pond were small Christmas presents wrapped, stacked about three feet high with some kind of plastic hook attached to the bow. All you had to do was pay your twenty cents, grab a fishing pole and start fishing for your present. After paying the “Fisherman” I hung up my snow coat on racks made just for the height of a kid and proceeded to the Pond.
I waited to fish in this pond all year long. There were several methods you could use to find your catch. Sometimes I would wait and watch the other kids to see what they got and what location they got it from or you could dive right in with the fishing pole hook a present and see whether it was heavy or not. The one rule of the Fish Pond was that once the present was reeled in and you touched it, you couldn’t throw it back. It was yours.
Careful consideration went into this plan. Should I just plunge in and see what I got?
Should I scout out the area like a real fisherman would to see where the big catches of the day were or should I hook one and see how much it “weighed"? Most times I plunged in after scouting out the areas.
The two favorite toys of my entire life were caught that one day and reeled in. Spending the forty cents I had saved from the bottle deposits and fishing out just the right presents, I went to the second best attraction, the Santa Claus train that took you around the Christmas shop for free.
There on that train while riding through Christmas Town I opened my catch of the day, a Slinky and Silly Putty. I couldn’t have been happier. Two things I really wanted were mine and I had earned them.
Whatever I didn’t get for Christmas would fade into the background. I had learned how to make myself happy even back then.