Friday, January 6, 2023

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

 by G. Jack Urso

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past (photo credit Pixels).

While cleaning out the garage one spring a couple years ago, I found tucked into a forgotten corner a small red plastic flower (see image right). It took a moment, but I recognized it from a distinctive string of red lights, each decorated with the same red plastic flower, creating the effect of small, glowing poinsettias. I thought I had tossed them out over fifteen years ago.

I found the lights in a leftover box of Christmas decorations after I first moved into the house in 2002. My Aunt Anna and Uncle Frank lived here for fifty years. After they both passed, I bought the house from my cousin. The lights worked for a year or two before they finally quit. I thought I threw them away, but somehow one of the small red plastic flowers must have come off and got left behind. For some reason, the flower brought back a flood of memories. I pocketed it and put it away like George Baily pocketed his daughter Zuzu’s flower petals in It’s a Wonderful Life — to remind him of a past he was frightened would be forgotten.

A number of items of my aunt’s and uncle’s Christmases past were left behind as well. A silver bell (see image left) dating back to the 1940s or 50s with the words “Merry Christmas” engraved in hand on the side was left in the abandoned China closet. Two other items, however, a set of small screwdrivers and a serving tray with a Currier and Ives print, became prize finds. These were items they bought from me back in the fall of 1977 when my Boy Scout troop was having a fundraiser. We received a large box of sample gifts. Prospective customers (all invariably relatives) would peruse the items and order what they wanted — much like Girl Scouts sold cookies. The orders would arrive just in time for Christmas.

My aunt ordered the Currier and Ives serving tray (see image below) and my uncle the screwdrivers, the same items my mother and I ordered. In fact, I still have mine. It is missing a few items, but I keep it for the memories rather than any actual usefulness. My uncle, in keeping with his orderly nature, still had the screwdrivers, though clearly unused (see image left). My cousin left all my uncle’s tools, and as a handyman of some considerable ability he had no need for a cheap set of screwdrivers. He bought them because he loved me and as a child of the depression was too damn cheap to throw them away even if he had no use for them.

Currier and Ives serving tray, author’s collection.

The Currier and Ives serving tray was one of my mother’s most prized Christmas decorations, as odd as that may sound. Every year, she would bring it out, prop it up against the wall on a buffet table, or maybe put some cookies or cheese and crackers on it. My mother had some sort of attraction, obsession almost, with these kinds of idyllic scenes. A vagabond due to her circumstances and nature, in the thirty-five years after the divorce my mother moved no less than seventeen times between twelve different addresses. I think these scenes of a simple life in simpler times, however much of a fantasy, gave her a sense of permanency she lacked in real life. That old tray got beat up, dented, and scratched in the many moves over the decades so when she found the same one my aunt bought, and in nearly pristine condition, she felt like being reunited with an old friend. It soon resumed its role as a featured player in her Christmas celebrations.

“Long Past? No, Your Past.”
Author, Christmas 1971.
Christmas is very much a family holiday and without a family celebrating it seems more like an exercise in self-abuse. As a child, there is certainly a magic about it that seems as real to us as the grown-ups’ fascination with the spiritual implications of a dearly departed first century itinerant Jewish preacher. It may take some deep reflection, but most of us who come out of the Christian faiths can remember the tangible belief in Christmas magic. The image at right of me and Santa Claus was taken circa 1971 at Colonie Center in Albany. I can remember being too excited beyond words and barely able to get out what I wanted. I remember asking for — believe it or not — a General Custer action figure (Marx Toys produced a line of Western-themed toys in the 1960s and 1970s). I didn’t get that, but my parents and grandparents were pretty generous and I seldom went without an item I wanted, within reason.

Our kitten Merlin, Christmas 1971 on Norwood Avenue.

Yet, the magical part of the visit was afterwards when I got off Santa’s knee and reached into my right coat pocket and found a candy cane! It was like it just appeared out of nowhere. In reality, Santa slipped it in while holding me up (you can see his hand by my coat pocket in the picture above). I remember being nearly speechless at this miracle. It was actual, honest-to-goodness Christmas magic.
Author’s collection.
I don’t have anything left from those Christmases of my childhood. A board game I have, 3M’s Ploy dates back to the Christmas of 1972, but that was a gift for my brother, Joe, which I co-opted as a kid because I liked it so much, but that’s it. It’s not that I want to play with a bunch of toys from my youth (though that actually would be awesome), but just to hold something in my hands from a time in my life when magic was real and miracles could happen.

Putting It All Away

As was my mother’s custom, the Christmas decorations went up the day after Thanksgiving and stayed up until January 6. In her later years, when she lived with me as her health grew weaker, we would decorate the house, my aunt and uncle’s former home, much as we did when I was a child and she a young mother, and I indulged her decorating whims. Not one, but two Christmas trees, garlands of evergreens, seasonal plants, and lights all throughout the house, from the attic apartment upstairs where I lived to the kitchen downstairs, the dining room, living room, bedrooms, the enclosed front porch, and the open back porch.

Author, Christmas 1972.
My mother enjoyed decorating the tree with red bows, and gold, silver, and red bulbs. The manger would go out, save for the baby Jesus until Christmas Day. My Siamese cat Edmund would lie under the tree and gaze at the lights for hours like they were so many tiny magical fireflies before settling into bed with my mother. On Christmas Day, we would make the meals she cooked when I was a child and the family together, not broken up by distance, divorce, and death.

The last year of her life, my mother’s interest in Christmas changed dramatically. She didn’t want to decorate that much and instead of live wreaths, we settled for artificial ones. The real ones created too much of a mess and my mother just didn’t want to be bothered.

The morning the day after Christmas 2013, I woke to find my mother had already taken down most of the decorations, including much of the tree. As we would usually leave them up for another two weeks, I admit I was angry. Why was she doing it? Deep down, I knew she didn’t have much time left, and so did she, but I wanted every moment to be as it always was, especially if I was never going to have that moment again.

Boxing Day

The Urso living room, 42 Norwood Avenue, Christmas 1972.
My mother died about nine months later in September 2014, at home and in my arms. I exchanged a few gifts that year, but I kept the decorations in their boxes. The Christmas trees were tossed long ago. I just couldn’t bear to keep them around, but the boxes with the bows and bulbs and manger scenery remains. They were too close to my mother for me to toss away. 

Some old Christmas gifts can return like a haunting. In 2019, while visiting old family friends Joe and Janet Allegretti, both in their 90s and who still lived near my old family home on Norwood Avenue, they produced for me a painting of a clown, one of two given to them as a Christmas gift from my mother in 1967. After Janet passed away in 2021, Joe found the second one and gave it to me. They are paint-by-number sets, and I actually do have a vague memory of my mom painting them and explaining that Red Skelton also painted clown pictures. It is a surreal, almost religious experience at over fifty years later to hold something my mother made by hand. 

Mom's clown paintings from Christmas 1967 (author’s collection).

Janet wrote the date on the back of the paintings when my mom gave them to her in 1967 (see image below). I was surprised and overwhelmed by their kind gesture. That they thought enough about my mother to hold onto a Christmas gift for half a century and re-gift it back was like one last bit of Christmas magic reaching out from past.

Janet Allegretti's note on the back of the clown paintings (author’s collection).

Among the other things Joe found in his wife's memorabilia was a short note written by my mother to Janet on the day we moved off Norwood. Janet, it read, you have all my yesterdays.  

Now, Old Scrooge, My Time is Almost Up.

Nearly a decade later, I still don’t decorate the house. I don’t have a family of my own, so it seems like a pointless exercise for a single man to engage in. Yet, in a way, Christmas is with me every day. A stack of dishes with Christmas trees on them (see image left), leftover from my aunt and uncle when they lived here, remains. As best as I can make out, they date back to the 1960s or early 1970s. As I need only one dish to eat, I use them for everyday meals. I don’t entertain or throw parties, so I see no need to purchase a full set of dining ware. Yet, how odd is it for someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas to use a Christmas tree dish nearly every day?

All my mother's Christmas decorations are packed away in the cellar. I suppose at some point after I die they'll get pitched into the garbage. As a point of honor, I should do it myself, but I just can't let go, not even of the stuff I no longer have any use for. 

I kept those artificial wreaths I bought that last Christmas of 2013. I did not decorate the house in 2014, nor have I again, but in 2015 I put those wreaths up on the front and back doors and there they have remained ever since all year round. While I no longer celebrate Christmas and prefer to be alone during the holidays, I still leave those wreaths up, as I do my mother’s name on the mailbox. In a way, I’m fixed in time and stuck at a point in my past, as much as the Ghost of Christmas Past was with Ebenezer Scrooge.

Author’s back door.

Whether I’m the Ghost or old Scrooge himself, I can’t say, but in a way I think when it comes to Christmas and getting older we all become a little bit both like the Ghost of Christmas Past and Scrooge — and hopefully the version of Scrooge the day after. We pocket away memories like so many small red plastic flowers we save to remember a past we fear we may forget.

                          
 

2 comments:

  1. I am touched by your post and very much moved. One of the best Christmas reflections I've ever read. Love the picture of the kitty under the tree. If I may say, when things get down a bit remember your smile on that boy's face with Santa.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I certainly will remember that!

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