A few nights ago, I sat and watched the perennial Christmas TV Special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Not an unusual thing for one to do, except if you consider that I’m 64 years old, and I was alone! However, I was not about to break my viewing streak of 50 years! Since Rudolph was first aired on December 6, 1964, I have watched it every single year. This year marked the 51st consecutive year for me. Some people take on the Boston Marathon or Tour de France, but this little hunky tackled Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!!
I believe my real reason for watching the show year after year is a simple one. I recall watching the program with my mom in 1964. We watched it on our black and white Zenith TV set. There was a light snowfall that evening, and the temperature was in the lower 20’s making for perfect Christmas special viewing weather. I remembered the details so vividly, as that was the one and only time I was able to enjoy the show with my mother. She passed away the following August at 45 years of age. Each year since ’64, that memory returns, and an emptiness is filled in my heart.
When you get right down to it, the holidays are all about those very unique and very personal snippets of memories that occurred throughout your life at Christmastime. There were the traditions which families had continued for decades on end; such as the cutting down the family Christmas tree, making holiday cookies together, the Christmas Eve Valeija or perhaps attending Midnight Mass together.
Our family’s tradition could be easily described as the cadence of Christmas visits that began on Christmas Eve and culminated on The Feast of the Epiphany. Every evening between the two days meant a visit to an aunt for uncle or a visit FROM the entire gang. Considering that I had a total of 21 aunts and uncles living in the immediate area then add in about 30 cousins, and each night was one crazy Hunky Hullabaloo!
When I think of MY Christmas memories, I certainly remember the visits and parties, but I also recall tidbits of memories that come together to mentally form my own sensory patchwork Christmas quilt.
- Among the multitude of the patches that are part of MY quilt, there would be one patch that helps me to remember the very distinctive aroma of yeast cubes being dissolved in milk on the stove. It seems that every home in the neighborhood began preparing their poppy seed and nut rolls during the same week. If I happened to be visiting a friend or a relative, I was also quick to pick out that aroma and knew that before the visit was over, I’d be enjoying a freshly baked slice of poppy seed roll.
- Another patch would represent another distinctive holiday smell. My parents purchased their first artificial Christmas tree in 1963. With that tree’s arrival, several sets of new multicolored mini-lights arrived as well. Sadly, that meant that the blue C7 lights we used on the live trees in years prior were retired and eventually discarded. Although we were all excited about the new tree and lights, it took years before I realized how the new tree impacted a piece of my memory.
Like most families in Duquesne, we chose our live Christmas tree from one of the many lots that would spring up throughout the area. Each one looked the same with strings of white lightbulbs illuminating the huge assortments of fresh pines, and an old oil drum with a toasty fire to stand next to and keep warm. Dad would pick out the best tree, get an ok from my brother and me, gather up a bundle of extra branches, tie the tree in the trunk and then head up Kennedy Avenue towards home.
Once we arrived at home, Dad would immediately show the tree to Mom and try to convince her that it would fit in the house AND he can add branches to make it the perfect shape. Once he had moved the tree into our garage, he’d begin to drill holes into the trunk and insert the extra branches around the tree until he created the “perfect tree.” As he drilled the holes into the fresh pine tree trunk, the garage was filled with the scent of pine from the sap that was released and the heat that was generated from the drill bit as it was doing its job.
After Dad had finished shaping the tree, he would move it into the house and the next step took place. Dad was in charge of stringing the blue Christmas lights onto the tree. He would meticulously clip each light onto the tree in a precise location. He said he wanted to be sure it looked nice and full, and bright. What followed the satisfactory blue light placement was yet another very distinctive smell that to me, only meant that it was Christmas. Each year, my father would flock the tree with can after can of spray snow. Aside from the toxic fumes that were released when he was spraying (he made us leave the room and go up to our rooms,) however, it was the smell of the spray snow as it dried on the hot C7 bulbs that I recall. The fact that my dad never tried to remove the snow from the bulbs resulted in years of residue on the bulbs, however it never caused an issue.
- A piece of my memory quilt would be reserved for Christmas cards. My recollection isn’t anything unusual except when compared to what occurs now. I remember the hours and hours Mom would spend at the dining room table addressing all of the cards. Typically, she would send out 100 or more cards as a result of our large family, my parent’s many friends, and my dad’s customers from his auto repair business. There were piles and piles of outgoing cards stacked on the table, each appropriately stamped with their 4 cent stamp, neatly addressed and bundled with twine according to where they were being sent. Approximately 2 weeks before Christmas, my dad would drop the bundles of cards off at the Duquesne Post Office on Second Street.
I always looked forward to the reciprocal nature of sending cards back then. In the weeks before Christmas, our mailbox would be overflowing with incoming holiday greetings. My job was to open them up with my mom. She in turn would check off the sender’s name in her red Christmas card ledger book and make sure the return address on the envelope was the same as the address she had sent hers to. We would stack all of the cards that we received into a small wooden sleigh that sat on our buffet during the Christmas season. By Christmas Day, it was overflowing!
What a contrast to today’s society, myself included. I probably send out a sum total of 20 cards. One box of cards is always enough. Of course, the cost of the postage for the 20 cards alone is more than double the cost of sending out 245 cards in the 50’s. I certainly miss receiving the cards. Opening an email with a Christmas greeting is great, but it isn’t the same as opening an envelope and getting a cascade of glitter in your lap!
There are so many other bits of sights, sounds and smells that add more and more substance to my quilt of Christmas memories including:
- The sound that the foil Christmas bell decorations made each time they hit the window when the wind blew.
- The whistling sound of the wind through our windows on snowy nights in spite of the storm windows that were hung each year.
- Watching my mom make some of the traditional food that we had for our visitors each year. Grinding beets, making stuffed cabbage, cooking and slicing a huge ham, peeling green onions and so on. Mom always found a way to allow me to help and always made me part of the fun, although I doubt she would have called it that!
- Driving past Holy Name School and seeing all of the classroom windows that had been decorated with poster paints in an array of Christmas themes.
- Attending children’s Christmas parties at the Duquesne Annex, the Slovak Club, the Croatian Club or the Moose and coming back with a bag of goodies.
- Listening intently to the radio each day for an occasional Christmas song to validate that the holiday was really coming.
- Watching Christmas cartoons while lying on the living room floor with my feet propped up on the wall over the heating vent. (This always irritated Mom.)
- The beautiful amber glow of snowfall when looking out our windows at night on Thomas Street.
What a wonderful time to think back to all of the special memories that make up your own Christmas Quilt. Share with us if you would like by commenting on this post. Perhaps the mention of your own special memory will trigger warm memories for someone else. Let’s keep the spirit of community alive!
Beautifully written…can almost smell snd see the scenes described. Have a blessed new year.
A former Duquesne Duke.
I’ve been gone from Duquesne since 1965 but yes the memories are awesome. The lights going up Grant ave, the nativities near town hall and St. Joe’s and yes the Christmas show on the upper level of St. Joe’s. Most of all my LIONEL electric train #2026 which I received for my first Christmas. It took me to some wonderful places and it still does. It’s 68 years old now and runs under the tree every year!
Christmases of the 30s, 40s, and 50s continue to this day. I still have some of my families original tree ornaments and they are hung with great care. I also display our original nativity scene complete with the animals. These have to be going on 100 years old now as my Mom bought them before I was born, and I’m 79.
One of the things I remember not going over so well was the snow that my sister concocted from a recipe she found for Ivory Snow soap. It created a mess in the kitchen, was terrible to apply, flaked off all over the floor, but was beautiful when first applied to the branches.
Does anyone remember sledding down Pitts Ave. which was between Friendship St. and Wilmont Ave.? I ran into someones car doing that. He was struggling to get up Wilmont and I couldn’t stop.
Lesson learned. It ruined my Flexible Flyer.
We started on Rossner St. down Pitts crossed Friendship and ended up on Wilmot..
Thanks for the details Ken and for straightening out my spelling of Wilmot (not Wilmont)
I remember my Dad and my uncles going up to Seven Springs in late November or early December to collect mushrooms for the Christmas Eve soup. They used those old wooden bushel baskets. When they returned the trunk and the backseat of the car were filled with bushel baskets of mushrooms. They then put them in the attic in our garage to dry. My Dad and my uncles are gone but those bushel baskets are still in the garage attic. My brother wishes that someone had taught us how to recognize the right mushrooms to pick. None of us knows how.
Also, wasn’t there a room or a window at Schink’s where you could view all the toys that were available for Christmas gifts?
Thanks for the memory quilt.
Greetings Jim, many, many thanks for taking the time time to walk down memory lane. Virtually all of the responses capture the memories I experienced as a child. Just thinking of Duquesne as it used to be brings back warm thoughts. I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Safe, Healthy, and Happy New Year!
To you as well Mike. Should I tell Rosemary and her family Merry Christmas for me. I just went by your old house on Martin Street yesterday while visiting the Duquesne area. Oh the memories.
Thanks for your reply. Virtually every time I see a new piece you have composed I tell Rosemary. I will tell Rosie that you wished her and her family a Merry Christmas as well. I am going up to Pa during the Holidays and will drive through Duquesne for the memories and what memories they are! Again Jim, a Very Merry Christmas to you and your family. I hope it snows when we are there, I truly miss the snow.
OK, I’ll play the Grinch. What about the things you’d rather forget, but can’t? Let’s start with aluminum trees lit by a rotating red-yellow-blue-green spotlight. There’s a seizure waiting to happen. Or maybe plastic mistletoe.
I remember during Christmas break visiting the aunts,uncles and cousin;s houses that lived in the area. Between both sides of the family I had 14 Aunts/Uncles and 28 (17 Mom’s side , 11 Dad’s side) all near my age (+10 -4) ,to have fun with, Some lived out of town but made it back to Pittsburgh near Christmas. The small houses would be filled. After a buffet dinner sides would be chosen and huge game of charades would begin. This brought out all the hams in the family
Thanks Jim for hitting one out of the ballpark once again. You brought back so many great memories: In the weeks leading up to Christmas, practicing the songs for the Christmas program in the auditorium on the uppermost floor of the old St. Josephs School. A calendar which you opened a different “window” each day leading up until Christmas. The Daily News running a serial Christmas Story that I rushed home to read after school each day. And that coming home on the last day of school at the start of Christmas vacation always being the sweetest .
My father wasn’t the easiest person to get along with, no one ever heard of PTSD after WW 2, according to my mother he was just “different” after the war. But despite all his anger and lack of sleep he made Christmas something something special for my sister and I. No matter how slow work was he showered us with gifts. The back story behind one such gift that I received in the early 50’s comes to mind. Sometime after my Dad passed in 1979 my mother told me how while laid off from the Union Railroad ,working alone he built a large cyclone fence for a neighbor to earn the money to buy me my 24″ Columbia bicycle with the balloon tires. If you ever had the occasion to dig holes for fence posts or anything else in frozen ground in a Pa. winter you know doing so is no easy task. On occasion I drive through Duqusne,60+ years later in an alley behind Grant Avenue the fence still stands. Like a lot of the town it’s not in the best of repair but seeing it still brings a tear to my eye.. I guess that’s my favorite “Christmas Memory”.
What a nice story Cliff. Thank you for sharing. Our fathers worked so hard to provide for us. I have such fond Christmas memories.
The post office was on first street
I stand corrected! In fact, I stared at it every day when I exited Holy Name School. Thanks for clarifying!
I’ll have to check with my brother, Tommy, but I think the Post Office was originally Dr. Schink’s office.
Croatian boy here, Jim. We lived directly across the street from St Joe’s on Auriles Street, and I loved the oversized crib and manger setup that St Joe’s put up every year inside that great spike topped iron fence surrounding the fron church yard. What a shame that fence was removed !. And when it snowed all over, it made the scene extra special. We loved the job of breaking out the train platform from the basement, placing the homemade christmas tree turntable underneath that and then trimming the tree while it turned !! My Dad was a one time president and treasurer of the Croatian Club, and he hand built that turntable using an old Maytag motor and gears. I still have it. Those large C7 christmas lights, snow chains on cars, navigating the old streetcar tracked wooden Kennywood bridge, midnight mass, nutrolls, lekvar, schmeercase, Mom’s cinnamon buns … the food the smells … what a glorious time it was to be a kid. Hi Becky !
Thanks for the memories Bob. I had forgotten about the streetcar tracks on the Kennywood Bridge. That explains why my dad cussed and my mom screamed every time we crossed it!
Your not Ouchie that played baseball with Paul Jugan and me and the Zemps???
I remember the “platform” with the train display and the choirboy wax candles and the Oplatky for Christmas Eve ~ it was not only a more simpler time it was our youth! Forever a part of our Life Quilt ~ so tender to look back on such priceless memories! Thanks Jim for reminding us to remember…
Thanks ever so much for spinning a story very similar to the ones I remember growing up in the 50’s, only with a German touch. You brought back fond memories of days and people gone by TY!
I loved this post- it helped me remember a time, in the 1960s, when I was small and the world seemed so full of older relatives- looking through my mother’s notes in our baby books (which she kept up until we turned 6) we often had Christmas with my grandparents, the focus being “a delicious roast beef dinner” (my grandpa was the meat manager at the local A&P).
Ah- that you had a real tree! My little sister and I wished for one of those fresh scented wonders! but Dad, being a practical sort, had purchased an artificial tree whose bristles, though dark green, seemed awfully similar to the ones on the toilet brush in the bathroom upstairs! We kids worried a bit that Santa might notice that our tree was fake! But once Dad fit the many green wire branches onto the pole and it resembled a tree, we were soon distracted Mom opening the cardboard box of assorted glass ornaments. Every year she added more that she had stitched out of colorful felt adorned with sequins and beads. And we loved setting up “the manger”- the nativity set from Italy, supplemented with Woolworth chalk angels and shepherds from the 40s and 50s that had been handed down, chipped but loved.
We also watched Frosty, Rudolph and the Peanuts Christmas special. Pittsburgh weather never failed to provide the snow we felt was required for the holiday, just like we saw in our favorite shows. How hard it was to wait for that magical day and we were sure that elves were indeed peeking in the windows, taking notes on our behavior, to report back to the jolly man in red.
I remember first grade- the year we made real gifts, not useless things out of construction paper and glue. We made.. clay ashtrays, painted to look like giant leaves. Most grownups smoked- and I was as proud as could be to place a wrapped, useful gift under the tree. I can’t imagine kids doing the same today.
Merry Christmas and, as always, thank you for your wonderful blog.
My quilt would be similar to yours, Jim. I remember the smell of that cake of yeast. I make nut rolls, too, but the powdered yeast doesn’t have that same aroma. That smell of pine when my dad drilled holes in the tree. People stopping by to visit and going to peoples homes to visit them.. Kids in my neighborhood would knock on doors and ask of we could see their tree. Of course, we were welcomed and each left with a little bag of cookies. Also, remember the windows at Holy Name. Thank you for bring back those great memories.
Definitely one of your best reflections, Jim. Love the photo of you and Steve together. Enjoy making new memories, too, with your growing family!
JIm, thanks for the wonderful memories! I, too, am a big Rudolph fan and love it probably more than any other Christmas show. You are right: the holidays DO fill that void and bring back so many warm memories. Merry Christmas and God bless you and yours!
Lou, I’d agree about RAD-ee-ator…I’ve been all over the place and never heard it pronounced like we do!!
I thoroughly enjoy your stories….grew up in McKeesport. My mom’s family was from Duquesne so we spent many holidays with family there. Thank you for sharing your memories with us.
Wow, Jim! You took me way back! Times were wonderful then! The snow, the cooking aromas wafting through the house, the wonderful smell of fresh evergreen inside, testing tree lights, deciding how to string the outside lights this year, and putting tinsel on the tree, one stip at a time! Such excitement! My favorite memory was going “up the mountains”, i.e. Donegal, to cut down our tree! Maybe two or three, for the living room. We had a little 1-1/2′ – 2′ path around the train platform to walk through the room. Two trains, tunnels, lakes (aka Mom’s sheet cake pans) and the water wheel. Clubfoot Moss we picked when cutting the trees made the forests around the lakes. Lights in the little cardboard city buildings and little pellets added to the Lionel smokestack would make the scene complete.
How I miss those days!
I do believe every memory you described were the same anyone growing up in the 50s would have. Oh how I miss those days! I tried as my own children grew to ingrained some of those same memories. The world is traveling much too fast now, there is no time for all those memories to be made. It’s heartbreaking when I think about it. I would encourage everyone to take just one of those memories, and make it a family tradition. I think it might help, and it certainly won’t hurt. Merry Christmas to all….
Beautiful writing, so interesting. I forgot about the paintings on the classroom windows at Holy Name School nice memories of Duquesne.
Is this Sally…the greatest female athlete in the history of Duquesne???
Sorry, I think it was Conboy!!
Well, Jim, I can only repeat my very first post from December 7th, 2010:
“…Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end….
One distinct memory I do have is the smell of wool socks drying atop the hot water “RAD-ee-ator” (is this pronunciation particularly Pittsburghese?) after soaking them while walking home from St. Joe’s on a day I refused to listen to Mom and wear my boots,
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