Probably my earliest memories revolve around Christmas Day on Kennedy Drive in Waldwick, New Jersey, where my older brother Angelo got all the cool presents and I just got to break them! That was in the late 1950s, so there was a mix of space-age gadgetry like ray guns and robots and traditional cowboy garb like hats and chaps. Roy Rogers meets Flash Gordon!
Fortunately, I’ve got a few pictures from that era, so as my memory starts to fade, I’ll still be able to be transported back to that simpler time by looking at those black and whites. I’m the chubby 3-year-old kid with the ridiculous curls! My brother was not just 4 years older, but a lifetime more experienced, so he got to handle the controls of our Lionel train set as well as everything else with moving parts. Mom was the typical can-do-anything-and-everything mother from the era of “Ozzie and Harriet” and “The Donna Reed Show,” and after the presents were open Christmas morning, she retired to the kitchen to prepare the feast with Grandma, typically for a dozen aunts, uncles and cousins.
Not all of the memories of Christmas are good, of course, but they are still indelible. My father had multiple sclerosis, and when I was about 10 years old, he moved to the first of several Veterans Administration hospitals where he would spend the last 10 years of his life. The first couple of years, he was able to return home for a few holidays, but after that it was our family duty to ride up the Hudson Valley to the Castle Point VA hospital in Wappinger Falls, New York, to bring what little Christmas cheer we could muster to his bedside: A new electric shaver for the nurses to use on his bristly beard. A bottle of Old Spice cologne. A farewell kiss and a good long cry on the way home. No, those memories won’t die, although Dad’s been gone since 1975.
There were many years after that with no Christmas memories at all — years I spent alone, far from family, touching bases with a collect call home, drinking a toast to myself with a Jim Beam and Coke, remembering better times, but unsure how to make new ones of my own.
And then what I can only call my miracle. Not a Christmas miracle, but more of an Easter miracle — a rebirth, a resurrection, a surrendering to goodness and a giving up of the selfishness of drinking a wee too much. Next thing I knew, I was married with two children, and Christmas had taken on a whole new meaning. The spirit of Santa didn’t exactly take over this cynical, middle-aged curmudgeon, but it was suddenly a whole lot more important for my kids to have a merry Christmas than for me to have a bloody Mary.
Carmen and Meredith got to be the center of my attention for many years at Christmas time, and then as the happy result of my second marriage, it is now my youngest child Huzhao, a sweet 7-year-old, who gives us the gift of joy every Christmas morning. His mom works just as hard as my mom ever did to make the day a delight, and she does so because the spirit of Christmas is eternal. Those memories will live with us forever, and teach us valuable lessons about what’s important in life itself.
Christmas is truly at its best a children’s holiday in honor of the man who said the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are converted and become as little children themselves.
My wish for each and every one of us is that we should be worthy of the joy that Christmas brings to any and all who seek it. And may your Christmas memories be bright.
Frank Miele is the managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. He can be reached at email@example.com.