WASHINGTON – Older people, maybe like Pope Francis, try to generalize about Christmas. It’s a mistake. The holiday is about the very young, and what they hope for.
For our own kids, their earliest memories center on our big 120-year-old Victorian home on Busti Avenue in Buffalo, overlooking the Olmsted Park, the Niagara and old Fort Erie.
They are building their own lives now. Yet Molly, called the First Daughter, remembers being awakened on Christmas Eve by aromas wafting upstairs from their mother’s Italian cooking.
It was Mother Mimi’s “puttanesca sauce clinging to al dente fettuccini,” Molly writes. “And I’d wake, like a starving cartoon mouse rousing on the vapors from a wedge of cheese.”
Molly crept to the base of the “secret” servants’ staircase, and waited till Mimi passed to another room to watch “Columbo.”
“Then I’d leave that staircase,” Molly writes, “and go to the main one and sit on those dark green wool carpet steps and rest my face between the thick, hand-painted wooden spindles.
“And I’d just sit there, while everyone else was sleeping, and just be with her in the quiet of the night, even though she didn’t know I was there.”
Our elder son, Christopher, remembers my failed trip to Niagara Falls to buy the last “Batmobile” on the shelves, but also the year everyone got “Hot Wheels.”
“You gave me Hot Wheels with the loop-the-loop jump track,” Christopher writes. “Aunt Caroline gave me Hot Wheels with the battery-operated little house with the rotating rubber discs that shot the cars around the track. Uncle Jerry gave me Hot Wheels with a clamp you would put on a table that would enable the car to fly through the air and land on an opposing ramp.
“Orange Hot Wheel tracks everywhere.”
Oh yes, Santa.
“I still remember seeing a half-eaten Chips Ahoy cookie by the red brick fireplace … and really believing that a man came into our house, left presents and ate part of that cookie,” Christopher said. “Obviously, this subterfuge faded as years went on. But I remember carefully concluding then that there was no other way to explain who ate that cookie. I was a believer.”
Among my own best-remembered gifts was a massive electric train, a Lionel replica of the 20th Century Limited my father gave me in 1939. Where my dad got the money during the Great Depression I can’t imagine. The real train only stopped in Buffalo on its New York-Chicago route, according to family legend, to let off my wife’s grandfather, a senior executive of the New York Central Railroad.
My brother purloined the vintage toy years later and exchanged it for some law books from a classmate who later became a state judge.
Music formed the core of the season for my teens. I remember almost levitating into the vaults at Trinity Church in Buffalo, singing the opening of a J.S. Bach chorale. The late Cameron Baird, the city’s most generous patron of the musical arts, was conductor for what was then the Schola Cantorum.
Nothing in that vein topped the anxious seconds when the tenor soloist at Lafayette Presbyterian Church in Buffalo once more attempted the high C in the hymn “O Holy Night.”
For a suspenseful moment, the tree, the ornaments, the candles didn’t matter. Chubby, with a halo of white hair, he made it, just, screaming out “O night divine.”
I hope Pope Francis finally decides how he feels about Christmas. A month ago, he said Christmas was “a charade,” meaning fake, because of all the violence. Last week, Francis said we’re not allowed to be sad now.