Every time I hear the 50s classic, Song from Moulin Rouge, I think of Christmas. I can’t help it. A version of the song, expertly strummed by country guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, played on Pop’s hi-fi the night John and Lorraine got engaged and on every Christmas tree decorating night until we moved from Canarsie.
John never dated in high school, at least as far as I knew. He always had his head in a book. John was so studious he owned—and read—the Great Books of the Western World: Fielding, Swift, Gibbon. He even read The Canterbury Tales without waiting for it to be assigned in English class! Who would date a guy like that anyway?
When he returned from the Marines he was more rugged and a little less bookish, and his days of formal education were behind him. He finally developed an interest in girls. First there was Gabrielle, who lived in the apartment below the Kriegels. She was cute, and our parents got along well. Of course, they were members of our church. That was the primary criterion for dating a Baisley.
At Grace Church we learned the importance of dating good Christian girls. Were a boy from Grace to have a relationship with a Jewish girl, or even—God forbid!—a Catholic girl, they would be reminded of the scriptural admonition, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” Girls like that would corrupt our pure Christian faith, perhaps leading us into idolatry. Keep away! Nevertheless, the Catholic girls in the Gang, and the Jewish girls I’d occasionally hang out with, were always welcomed by Mom and Pop. Still, they’d have preferred John and I date fundamentalist Protestant girls.
I don’t know why John and Gabby broke up, but a year or so later John began talking a lot about someone named Lorraine. Her family was on the periphery of Grace Church, probably members but not regular attenders. If Lorraine had attended regularly you might still not have noticed. She was very quiet and shy.
John was in love within a few dates, and he picked just before Christmas of 1966 to pop the proverbial question. Employing a flair for the romantic I never suspected, John invited Lorraine to our house to help decorate the Christmas tree. Having friends over for tree decorating night became a tradition after that, but never again resulted in a wedding.
I thought Mom and Pop put up the tree too late each year. Even in the 1960s most people had their homes decorated shortly after Thanksgiving. Stockings hung by fake chimneys long before they’d be filled on Christmas Eve, but not at our house. Some years we didn’t even put the tree up until the night before Christmas, and never more than a few days before. That came from a very old tradition of leaving the tree up at least until Twelfth Night and sometimes until mid-January. The holidays came late to the Baisley household, but they hung on with a vengeance.
By 1966 John had left rock & roll behind and taken to the country sounds of WJRZ, Radio 97 out of New Jersey. Hank Williams was gone, but the other Hanks—Locklin and Snow—were big, as were Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells. Chet Atkins was one of John’s favorites and his easy style caught on at our house, so much so that Pop went out and bought the guitarist's From Nashville with Love album for his own record collection that fall. When Lorraine came over to decorate our tree, Pop was playing that album.
I didn’t know it at the time, but John had revealed his romantic scheme to Mom and Pop a few days earlier. The plan was to be decorating the tree and have Lorraine hang an ornament on a branch from which an engagement ring already dangled. To give the lovebirds a little privacy, Mom said she’d come up with a reason to excuse the rest of the family for a while. Sure enough, while unpacking the ornaments, our old glass star came up broken.
“Art,” Mom called, “We’re going to have to go to Kenney’s to buy a new star for the tree. Phil, you’ll come too.”
At fourteen, I didn’t really want to spend much time shopping with my parents. Neither did I relish watching my brother and his girlfriend make goo-goo eyes at each other. I, wisely, decided to go to Kenney’s Department Store before Mom had to find a way to force me there.
Kenney’s was only two blocks away, and I knew from walking by a few days earlier that they had plenty of Christmas stars. It should have been a quick trip, but they decided Kenney’s might not have a good selection, so we ended up at the Times Square Store a few miles away.
An hour later we returned to 1304 and found John and Lorraine beaming brighter than the tree lights. Lorraine showed us what she’d found in the Christmas tree, and we stopped for a congratulatory toast of ginger ale. They were married at Grace Church the following September.
Christmases were memorable at our house long before there were diamonds in the tree. For one thing, that was when the ribbon candy appeared.
Ribbon candy is an extremely sweet confection that actually looks like ribbons of color. I could Google the intricacies of how the candy is made, but I prefer the mystery. It tasted like peppermint and spearmint and root beer and lime, and it visited our house every December. That’s all I care to know.
I never liked ribbon candy all that much. Even as a child I was developing taste buds geared more to sour and spicy than sweet. But ribbon candy meant Christmas, and Christmas meant gifts and days off from school and times when church actually felt good. Christmas without ribbon candy just wasn’t Christmas.
They say confession is good for the soul, so I’ll confess it was the presents, especially the toys, that meant the most to me on my first fourteen Christmases. Mom and Pop spent way too much on my toys. I know that now. And I think I know how they paid for some of it. It has to do with the evolution of Baisley Christmas trees.
When I was small
And Christmas trees were tall
So sang The Bee Gees in their 1969 song, First of May. We all go through the realization that as we get bigger, the things that used to look large seem to grow smaller. That’s just an illusion. It’s we who were growing; the objects remained the same. Except at our house. As I grew taller, our Christmas trees really did get smaller.
When I was very young, Mom and Pop would take me shopping for our Christmas tree. We’d always go at night after Pop got home from work. The string of incandescent bulbs over each row of trees on the lot gave a magical look to the place. And the scent of pine filled the cold night air.
We always bought our tree early in December. Pop wanted to go to the lot before the selection was picked over. He would hold out trees for Mom and I to agree on. We never looked for the “perfect” tree because we knew such a thing didn’t exist. Instead, we looked for one big enough to fill the space from floor to ceiling—about eight feet—and between the refrigerator and the telephone table.
In those days we lived primarily in the dining room. The kitchen was tiny, and there was no room for the fridge. There was space in the corner for a table and two chairs. Mom and Pop ate breakfast there together. When I got up, after they were finished, I ate breakfast there as well. The fridge sat right outside the kitchen doorway—there was no door—separated from our living/dining area by a plastic, trellis-like room divider. Eventually, when Mom and Pop moved their bedroom upstairs, the living room moved to their old bedroom, and the all-purpose home of the fridge became our single-purpose dining room. The fridge still looked funny sitting in the corner behind its plastic wall.
I had some great Christmases in that room. After an almost sleepless night, I’d wake my parents, who’d been sleeping in the room between mine and the living/dining room. Five a.m. was the usual time. They’d escort me to the tree. Presents were never wrapped; I always assumed Santa saw no purpose in wrapping gifts that would be immediately unwrapped. It was always stuff I’d seen in the Sears Christmas catalog, such as a World War II battle set with hundreds of soldiers and tanks and scenery. One year I got a Civil War battle set with spiked fences on which many blue and gray bodies I impaled.
From then on, including the famous engagement ring Christmas, we would celebrate the holidays under--rather than beside--the tree. The brick-like skirting even provided a hiding place for less-valued gifts like socks and underwear.
A few years ago I was reminiscing with Jen about those wonderful Christmases beneath the tree.
“How tall were those trees?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said, “The table stood about three feet, so I guess the trees were about five feet.”
And then it hit me. The height of our trees diminished in proportion to the price of my Christmas presents. Mom and Pop didn’t have enough money to buy an extravagant tree and extravagant gifts, so they focused on me. Ungrateful me, I never realized it let alone thanked them for it.
Christmas has always meant more than toys and gifts. It’s traditions and family and friends. You’ll hear more in Part Two of Ribbon Candy Christmases in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.