Believe it or not, the best things that happened at Christmas when I grew into my teen years were not the ribbon candy or the expensive gifts. Rather, they were Pop’s poetry and Mom’s hospitality.
My dad was quite a poet, not always original in terms of rhythm and rhyme—he wrote a lot of parodies, often based on A Visit from Saint Nicholas or The Raven—but people loved to hear him read. His greatest work he saved for me, every Christmas from the time I was thirteen until a few years after Sandy and I got married.
When you’re thirteen, it’s hard to get excited about Christmas. Yes, the gifts get more expensive, mostly electronics, and that’s kind of nice. But the magic is gone. No Santa Claus. You’re not even young enough to fake believing in him anymore. And with the passing of Santa, Christmas becomes just a glorified birthday; only it’s Jesus’, not yours. You just get the presents.
Pop decided to create some magic of his own at Christmas. He started hiding my gifts, and Mom’s too. Now hiding Christmas presents was nothing new. Mom and Pop always hid my gifts because they knew my curiosity and greed would lead me to hunt for them. Oddly, one Christmas my hunting paid off.
I was probably ten at the time. The “Magic 8 Ball,” which had been around for maybe a decade, was having a resurgence in popularity thanks to heavy advertising. Of course, Kurt, Judy, and I all had to have it. And, in the course of my pre-Christmas searching, I located the prophetic sphere behind some undershirts in Pop’s wardrobe. It wasn’t a major gift. Little more than a stocking stuffer. But I knew I could fake suitable happiness at receiving it.
Christmas Day came that year with its usual array of presents under the tree, but no 8 Ball. Curious. Maybe they bought it for one of my aunts to give me. That afternoon we went to Aunt Midge’s for the extended family gift exchange, but no one presented me with the little black and white oracle.
Back home at the end of the day, I decided drastic measures must be taken. I didn’t want to appear before my friends without a Magic 8 Ball. I needed a completely believable ruse to get Mom and Pop to produce the present without my giving away that I’d been hunting for it (and found it).
“Gee,” I mused for all to hear, “I was hoping I’d get that Magic 8 Ball for Christmas. It‘d have been fun to fool around with.” And then I busied myself getting ready for bed.
Out of the corner of my watchful eye I saw Mom give a little look to Pop. Then Pop went up to their bedroom. He came down a minute or two later exclaiming, “Hey, Phil! You’d never believe what I found just lying around.”
And he handed me the 8 Ball.
“I guess it must’ve fallen out of Santa’s bag,” Pop added.
I thought I’d better humor him. “Yeah. I’m sure glad it turned up.”
A few years later the need to humor my parents about Santa Claus was gone, and Pop’s poems began. Each little masterpiece contained two clues within its verse: a clue to the item’s identity and a clue to its location. This was way better than a jolly old elf in a red suit.
I wasn’t allowed to look for the gift until I’d figured out what it was. That was pretty easy for things I’d asked for, like a stereo receiver or a new set of speakers. It was harder for a pair of slippers. But it made for a fun Christmas for a kid who had almost outgrown the holiday.
The other family tradition that began when I was a teenager concerned decorating the tree. It started the night John and Lorraine got engaged and continued into my college years. The tradition was basically this: I could invite a reasonable number of my friends over to decorate the Christmas tree with the Baisley family.
I wonder if allowing me to have friends over for decorating was to help Mom and Pop get over John’s moving away for good. By Christmas of ‘67, John and Lorraine were living about a mile away from 1304 E 93rd Street, too far to return just to hang ornaments on a five foot tree. Anyway, it was time for them to start their own family traditions.
Our new tradition began with having Judy and Kurt over. They were like family anyway. The difference was, as much as we had played together, we rarely worked together. And this was like work: placing dozens of antique glass balls strategically on the boughs of a pine tree in a way that Mom would approve.
Mom liked the balls arranged in order from largest to smallest as they went up the tree. The shortest boughs, the ones at the top, were for her favorites: two glittery birds and a pink glass pine cone. Each year she ascended a step stool to place those herself, in just the proper spots.
The rest of the tree we all were allowed to decorate, within reason and under Mom’s watchful eye. All the while, Chet Atkins strummed Song from Moulin Rouge, and Perry Como sang about turtle doves, drummers drumming, and a partridge in a pear tree. My friends and I strung tinsel, one or two strands at a time, and then hung ornaments that went back a generation or two in Mom’s family.
Kurt and Judy were our first decorating guests, but they weren’t the last. The next year it was Scott. Scott was Jewish, but he was about my best friend at the time; and he’d never decorated a Christmas tree. As much as I valued his soul and wanted it “for the Kingdom,” as we said, what I really valued was his companionship, and that meant joining me in a very special family ritual.
Scott came over to decorate the tree and have a snack with my family. He even told Mom and Pop how some Jews erected “Hanukkah bushes” in lieu of Christmas trees. No conversions that night, but a lot of love was shared. If love, as the Bible says, “covers a multitude of sins,” then 1304 East 93rd Street was a house of salvation for all who entered regardless of their theology or lack of it.
In 1969 the house got a little crowded. First I invited my track teammate and best-friend-in-progress Morty Epstein. Being Jewish, like Scott, Christmas was a bit of a mystery to him. Like all New York Jews, he got the part about Santa and shopping, but the religious significance of Christmas was as unfamiliar to him as the Hanukkah miracle was to Christians.
Judy was home from college and didn’t have a special person to share that holiday with, and I’d missed her; so I invited her over to decorate the tree. The other invitee was Cheryl Lopez. I don’t know when or how I developed a crush on Cheryl, or how, in spite of it (maybe because of it) we became friends, but I know that I wanted her to experience a Baisley Christmas. I invited her to join Judy and Morty at my house for tree decorating night. We had a blast.
Pop was at his best that night. We laughed so hard. I enjoyed Morty’s company so much that I forgot he was there for the express purpose of being evangelized. Isn’t that what Jews were for? Judy didn’t know Morty before that, and she enjoyed watching him experience Christmas for the first time.
The thing I remember most, however, was Cheryl’s arrival at about 7:30 in the evening. Morty had arrived much earlier. He might’ve come for dinner. Judy came over after her family had eaten. When Cheryl arrived she hugged Judy and then she hugged me. Matter of factly, like it was just the way we’d always greeted each other. I’d never been hugged by a girl before that, not even Judy. I felt warm, secure; not like part of a great love affair but like I was someone as special to her as she was to me: no strings of any kind attached.
Cheryl and I continued to hang out when spring returned. I left for college the following August. By the time Christmas came around again, Cheryl was no longer part of the Grace youth group, even though she was still a high school senior.
The following year, when I was home from Bible college for the holidays, Helene Weintraub joined the tree decorating tradition. She was a senior at Canarsie High and used to date one of my track teammates. She decorated her first Christmas tree with Morty and the Baisleys that year while Perry Como crooned and Chet Atkins strummed and picked.
Como and Atkins accompanied our last Christmas in Canarsie as well: 1971. Morty, who by that time had converted to Christianity, made his third holiday appearance that year. I don’t remember much else. I finally got the dating thing figured out in college, and my mind was in New Jersey with the freshman girl I’d be spending part of Christmas break with. Holidays were never the same after that. I guess we all grow up sometime.
Hardly anyone remembers Perry Como these days, but I still think he did the best ever rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas. A couple of years ago I downloaded Chet Atkins’ From Nashville with Love album. Good music, but I don’t play Moulin Rouge for Christmas anymore. Just the other day I Googled “ribbon candy.” The same company still makes it, and you can order it online. I wonder what Morty is doing.
Even though I was the proverbial “picky eater,” food played an important part in my growing up, as you’ll hear in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.