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Christmas 1961 versus Christmas 1931


Growing up, all of our Christmases on Maltby Street were similarly exciting, but for some reason one stands out for me.

It must have been 1961. I remember my big brother Edmund reaching one of his long arms across the narrow margin of space between our beds and shaking me the same as he did every Christmas. "Gar," he whispered. "It's Christmas morning!"

I would have been nine and Edmund thirteen. We furtively tiptoed out of our compact bedroom, over the chilly linoleum floor of the kitchen and down the hallway of our little Maltby Street apartment.

Peeking into our parents' room, we could see that, as usual, they were still fast asleep. "Shhh," Edmund said and gave me the nod to follow him into the living room. And there before our eyes stood two splendid, unwrapped beauties among all the festively wrapped presents: two gorgeous, new Schwinn bicycles, their lustrous red bodies reflecting off the silver tinsel that we had helped drape from the pine branches of the tree only days before. The pristine chrome fenders, white-wall tires and immaculate, matching white hand grips were almost too much to comprehend.

Suddenly and without warning, Edmund grabbed the taller bicycle (he knew that one was his, after all) and hastily wheeled it into our parents bedroom, yelling "Mom…Dad…look what Santa brought…look what Santa brought!" Like always, I followed my big brother's lead, rolling my smaller Schwinn beauty (yet still a little too big for me!) on the tail of his. "Yeah, look Mom…look Dad! New bicycles! Santa brought us new bicycles!" My body trembled with excitement. Shaking the sleep from their eyes, Mom and Dad focused on the two of us. Even thinking back to that moment sixty years later, I don't think I had ever seen them look happier.

A year or two later, when I realized there was no such thing as Santa Claus, it hit me that Edmund must have been playing along, Christmas after Christmas, for my benefit. I brought it up to Mom, but she saw it differently. On that occasion and right to the end of her life, she often mused with a nostalgic smile, "I think Edmund truly believed in Santa on Christmas morning no matter how old he was." Maybe this memory stands out for me because of Edmund…because of the way he wheeled that shiny Schwinn bicycle into our parents' room, proclaiming the veracity of good old St. Nick.

I also recall that every year my father admonished us, warning that if we didn't behave, Santa would leave coal in our stockings. By the time I was in my early teens, though, I decided that Santa putting coal in the stockings of poorly behaved children was as big of a myth as his actual existence. But when I had children of my own and delved further into the lives of my parents, asking them what Christmas morning had been like for them in, say, 1931 amidst the Great Depression, I found out otherwise.

"What did you get on Christmas morning?" I asked them.

Both Dad and Mom had essentially the same answer. "An orange or two. Maybe a few chestnuts."

To me fruit and nuts were things you snacked on, not Christmas gifts. "Oranges for Christmas?" I asked in disbelief.

"That's right," my parents both replied.

"But what else did you get?" I asked

"That's it. A few pieces of fruit, some nuts…that's about all…except for coal."

Now I was truly stunned. "Get out! Your parents didn't actually put coal in your stockings. No way!"

"Yes, they did," they both replied.

"Because you hadn't behaved?" I asked.

My father answered for both of them. "Not really," he said with genuine sadness in his heart. "I guess it was because they were embarrassed that they didn't have the money to buy real presents, so they let us believe it was because we hadn't been as well behaved as the kids whose parents could afford presents."

Hearing their stories, I realized how important it must have been for Mom and Dad to create memorable Christmases for Edmund and me as they did year after year, making December 25th a very special day on Maltby Street.

Probably like your family, we Scarpas have a long tradition of oft told stories. Our family stories are interwoven into the fabric of our lives and of our children's lives. I am grateful for my memories of my late brother Edmund who woke me up year after year on Christmas morning and who was instrumental in making those childhood Christmases magical. I am similarly thankful for the fine people my parents were and for the hardships they endured which gave them an unrelenting determination to make life better for us. My love for my family of origin, even though they are gone, is simply boundless!

Edmund and I never got coal in our stockings. Not a single lump. I suppose we were probably well-behaved enough to avoid it, but hearing family stories about Christmases past, we knew there was a more important reason. Our parents erased their own memories of dreary Christmas mornings during harder times by giving us unforgettable Christmases that gleamed like the silver fenders of a new Schwinn bicycle.



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