Well, it’s that time again; time when “that damn George Michael song” stealthily glides from store to store like a sleazy private eye following a cheating spouse. Nat King Cole croons about chestnuts and fires while Johnny Mathis hears the bells on Christmas Day. And Baby, It’s Cold Outside gives us our annual glimpse into the predatory male psyche.
While the song is questionable (and that's a discussion for another day), it's not wrong in its titular claim of being cold outside. As with many places, Canarsie Christmases were cold.
When I was very young, I remember Mom dressing me to go outside. Yes, I looked almost exactly like the little brother in
A Christmas Story. Since I was two years younger than my closest friends, I was still wearing woolen mittens while they had advanced to leather gloves. You can make a decent snowball with gloves even when the snow is less than packing-perfect. With mittens? Not a chance. On snow days it was like I had a target on my chest and no way to fight back.
Eventually I was able to dress myself for winter. I didn’t do badly most of the time. I could walk to and from P.S.114 and Bildersee Junior High without freezing to death. Can’t recall ever complaining about the temperature. Except on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve was Grace Church’s annual night of caroling and cocoa. About twenty of us—adults and teenagers—would pile into Pop’s station wagon and a few other vehicles, all lined up on East 92nd Street, and we’d drive to the homes of various shut-ins and other older folks.
I never really knew cold until those nights. It would start okay. We’d sing a half-dozen carols to Mrs. Barnett. In junior high I didn’t know all the words, so I’d take off my gloves to flip the pages of the mimeographed song sheets. I don’t know why the colors red and green are so closely associated with Christmas. Mimeograph purple certainly deserves a place in the holiday spectrum.
After the third song my fingertips would be stinging. By Silent Night they’d be blue. As the last notes of We Wish You a Merry Christmas wafted into the night sky I’d be struggling to make my fingers work well enough to reattach my gloves.
Toes were worse. I didn’t take my shoes off to sing, so they couldn’t be rewarmed after each house. They just got colder and colder. With so many stops, the cars never got warm enough to provide real heat. Three or four homes in, I’d be swearing (well, good little Fundamentalist boys never swore, but you know) I’d never go Christmas caroling again. By the time we got to the church parsonage for Mrs. Watt’s cookies and cocoa, all I wanted was to stand barefoot over the heat register.
Something changed when I was in high school. I really don’t know what caused it or exactly what year it first happened, but I remember the first caroling night I didn’t feel I was on the verge of frostbite.
We’d just finished singing to Helen Van Houten. Her neighbors, including a girl named Claudia I knew from school, leaned out their upstairs window to enjoy the music. I don’t know in whose car I was riding, but I got into the back seat and pondered my toes. Please understand that I was not caving in to a teenage foot fetish; I was just noticing that my feet weren’t cold even though the temperature was about the same as every Christmas Eve.
When my Jewish friends reached age thirteen, the boys got to say, “today I am a man” at their bar mitzvah. I must have matured later because I think it was that night of Christmas caroling, maybe age fifteen, when I first felt like I was no longer a little boy. My brain was man enough to have memorized all the verses of every carol in the song sheets. My hands were man enough to remain gloved. And my feet—my manly feet—had finally managed to remain comfortably temperate during an entire night of singing on snowy sidewalks.
Baby, it was cold outside, but when we got to the parsonage for snacks I was ready. I even passed on the cocoa in favor of a steaming cup of coffee. Cream and sugar, please.
I’ll be continuing these Tales of a Canarsie Boy throughout the coming year. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey with me. Happy holidays!
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.