Christmas Envy

5289004467_38cc74b8f4_zPhoto by Chris Goldberg via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

When the air turned brisk and sharp in December and the drab streets of Washington Heights suddenly blossomed with color and lights, my imagination sparked. An adolescent girl growing up within blocks of an ornate RKO movie theater showing double features, serials, along with cartoons; a kosher delicatessen for our Tuesday and Thursday take-out dinners, when my hardworking father was still “downtown” clocking overtime; a wondrous Horn & Hardart cafeteria where for a couple of nickels you could choose your meal through twirling windows giving you a visual taste of what you would soon “bite into”; a Nedick’s hot dog stand where one could sit tall on stools — a castle perched on the corner of 181st Street and Broadway where my father’s sly warning that the “dirt” of the frankfurters gave them that special delicious flavor; and mid- block was F.W. Woolworth’s Department Store, the culmination of my seasonal fantasies — where every Christmas I could again marvel at “The Tree” decorated with glass ornaments, dazzling bulbs blinking on and off, awarding my eyes a retinal feast.

My family celebrated Hanukkah but it was different. We too had lights in a stately menorah with candles of a single color, never glowing or twinkling, but the menorah did not subsume me with the magic of the Woolworth’s towering tree, which could set my heart to racing in rapture and generate feelings of entering uncharted magical terrains.

There was something beige and dry about our family’s celebration — receiving presents was exciting, but usually handed out “bare,” without being wrapped up in elegant boxes with designs of Santa encased in red and green ribbons, which like curls would wrap themselves around my fingers.

My twin sister Florence and I sat cross-legged, our long braids sweeping the hallway floor, engrossed in playing “spin the dreidel” (a gambling, top-like toy) the goal being to accumulate a prize of walnuts, which were later traded in to the adults for pennies; we were waiting — not for Santa or looking skywards at reindeer flying over Apartment 1B on 180th Street — but anticipating which of us would come out on top and win the game and a possible jackpot of coins. Aromas of familiar foods, hot apple pie made with butter and cream cheese rich enough to cause bedtime stomach aches, permeated the warm and peaceful space — a welcome respite from the anxieties and nervous tensions that so often filled our lives. My parents were German Jewish refugees having immigrated to the United States, fleeing Hitler’s Nazi Germany to build a new life in New York City. For much of our childhood, news of the death of family members including our paternal grandmother and grandfather took its toll on the family psyche; the palpable sadness of loss was constant.

It seemed to me that practically everyone in my Upper Manhattan community celebrated Christmas. Buildings and walls awash with decorations; the perpetual music in the air filling my childhood head with fanciful spectacles. I remember skipping down the street, curious to glance onto the grounds of one of the more rustic neighborhood churches, the one with the high beautifully designed gates surrounding its premises, inviting but also denying entrance, where I saw a manger with “baby Jesus” surrounded by hay and living, breathing baby goats — the smell and grunts of another universe just out of reach.

Today, years later, as the November autumn days waned, the sun settling earlier, I begin to see deflated plastic snowmen and Santa Clauses lying on suburban lawns waiting to be blown up, an indication of the season to come. I still look forward to the wonder of Christmas when people open their hearts to nostalgia, the joy of giving and to the dusty memories of prior observances — merry or solemn. Trees for sale at street corners, filling up empty lots, all ready to be dressed up. Still I have never seen a tree, whether at Rockefeller Center or The White House, that can compare to the ones that a New York City “five and dime” store on 181st Street, just off Broadway erected for Christmas, covered with glittering baubles, and flakes of snow, with the height and mass of a mountain crowned by a brilliant golden star. A tree that tapped into a child’s hunger for inspiration and enchantment.

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  • grace graupe-pillard December 25, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    Geri – like to hear your story as well as others since I wrote this article. Sparked some memories which pleases me. Thank you for commenting.

  • geri alperin December 24, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    Hi Gracie;
    So good to hear from you. I couldn’t have put those times in better words.
    Our candles were always waxy orange.
    My Hannukah gifts were also so predictable and boring-flannel pjs and/or bubble bath in unwrapped boxes.

    My mother did,surprisingly, take me to see Santa in Wertheimer’s and give him a quarter in return a little gift.
    Do you remember when we went to that Woolworth’s for root beer floats?
    Best in the coming year and please keep in touch;

  • grace graupe-pillard December 23, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    Miriam – Inwood was the next neighborhood up from us. I love what you wrote…so true.

  • Miriam brumer December 23, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    You evoke vividly what I remember feeling as a kid.
    Everybody around me, especially in our building in Inwood, seemed to have a Christmas tree with presents glowingly arrayed underneath. A real contrast to our sedate, modest ceremony of lighting the menorah and singing the Hanukkah songs. I used to ask for a Christmas tree. (“Oh Mom, they’re so pretty – it’s just a seasonal thing. Why can’t we……?) She was always adamant:”No – it’s not just a seasonal thing – it’s a ritual connected to a religion we don’t follow.” And that was that. Did I understand what she was saying? Of course.Did I still envy the lushness and color of a Christmas tree with all the trimmings? Of course.

  • grace graupe-pillard December 22, 2015 at 11:51 pm

    Joanne – You know that color and tone are important for any artist be they writer or visual. i appreciate your comment and thank you.

  • grace graupe-pillard December 22, 2015 at 11:50 pm

    Susan – thank you very much.

  • Joanne DeMarco December 22, 2015 at 11:50 am

    You are also an artist with words Grace. I can picture the setting and what you describe because of the detail you describe. Nicely written.

  • Susan seaman December 22, 2015 at 10:11 am

    Christmas in New York, always special. You seem to have found both inspiration and enchantment in your life and your work. Writing seems to be another manifestation of your art. Wonderfully conveyed memories.

  • grace graupe-pillard December 21, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Alessandra -I am imitating you my friend. Your curated Egon Schiele show was a knockout at Neue Galerie ; your Megan Crispi mystery novels are intriguing; and your voice – a surprise….sometimes I listen to you sing with your father and I feel that this was
    performance art!

  • Alessandra Comini December 21, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Beautifully written, Grace. Your observations echo some of my own memories of beautiful, enchanting Xmases past, and I know that neighborhood of 180th Street well, as I had a friend who lived on that street when I was attending Barnard.
    It’s wonderful that you are creative in so many fields. KEEP IT UP. Your fans love these presents!

  • grace graupe-pillard December 21, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    Sandy – we Bronx girls stick together. Thanks a lot.
    Phyllis – See we all went to Woolworth’s….almost like the Family Dollar store!
    TY for commenting.
    Lisa – good point about time. It can sharpen and clarify the nostalgia we feel.
    Suzan – As always your words touch me.

  • Phyllis Rosser December 21, 2015 at 11:16 am

    I loved this story. It takes me back to the magic of Christmas in childhood and the joyfulness of the season. Also, the cornucopia of wonders I would carefully scan and sometimes buy at Woolworths.

  • Lisa Lucas December 21, 2015 at 10:59 am

    Thank you for sharing your treasured memories. They are more powerful with time.

  • Sandy Gellis December 21, 2015 at 8:54 am

    Stirs all of those childhood memories up. Also from nearby Bronx. Warm, long ago, fondly remembered.Thanks, Grace

  • Suzan December 21, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Those memories from the first sight of something seemingly magical lodge indelibly in our brains. Thank you for painting a vivid description of your memories with your wonderful holiday piece and triggering mine.

  • Grace Graupe-Pillard December 21, 2015 at 8:01 am

    Carl-what a lovely comment. TY.

  • Carl E. December 21, 2015 at 6:45 am

    “Real” writers can bring anything alive….a single rock, a hole in the ground—whatever. Obviously, Grace, you are a ‘real’ writer. You retrieved a set of poignant memories surrounding the glitter and flash of this particular holiday—one that isn’t really within your own cultural tradition—and made it personal for yourself and accessible to any reader. Congratulations.