A New York Kid’s Ethnic Christmas

[This article first appeared in 2004 when my daughter and I had a website together. I hope that new desktodirt readers will enjoy it, and that long-time followers will appreciate it as a classic. This piece will appear each year at Christmas and the holiday season.]

Ah, the yearly ritual! The family would pack into the sedan and off we would go to visit the rest of family and friends scattered around New York City. This was during the fifties, into the early eighties.

I can remember sitting in the back seat of the car nose all but pressed to winter’s window, eyes open so wide that they were about to burst seeing the homes in rows lit up with Christmas lights. They were like so many multi-colored jewels, one after the other after the other along the length of Cross-Island Parkway. It was as if even Scrooge himself had to light up his house.

One of the stops was Aunt Anne and Uncle Bill’s in Forest Hills. Their neat and cozy house had a finished basement that was crammed full of assorted Hungarian characters, food, cookies; cake’s and those special Christmas tastes and smells. First things first: if you didn’t make a mad dash for the table, you would only see the powdered sugar left from Grandma’s apricot cookies!

Grandpa and Grandma were always the honored guests, having left what was then Hungary during the great European migration just after the turn into the 20th century to begin their life in America. Four daughters, their families and friends, were the prime reason for the room full of Christmas joy.

Uncle Joe had also left Hungary for opportunity in America. Booming voice, both spoken and singing, puffy white hair bunched up over his ears, he was reported to have yelled from the balcony in his native language to visiting Hungarian performers at a New York concert, “DON’T GO HOME!”

That was during the dark old days of communism in Hungary. I didn’t know what communism was, except that it was bad, and that outspoken Uncle Joe and the rest of the family hated it.

Of course, presents always appeared from outstretched hands. Uncle Lou without fail each year gave me a ream of paper and a box of brand new Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. I remember opening the box to get a whiff of the cedar hugging the lead, almost wanting to start sharpening them just for the smell! [Years later we came to know that he was in charge of a company’s office supplies. You think that maybe they were considered surplus?]

Then at some point the five of us packed back into the car and tootled off to Aunt Fran and Uncle Gene’s out on Long Island in Westbury. The special Christmas bells clanging upon opening the front door still ring in my ears; more great home-made food, but with a different collection of Hungarians. If he wasn’t already there the gang anxiously awaited the arrival of Aunt Fran’s and best-family-friend Bert. When he got to the door it was as if a rock star had just arrived!

I can still see this handsome, tall mustachioed man walking up the driveway with a bottle in hand, wrapped in a plain brown paper bag. The booze was Bert’s Special Calvert Manhattan that had come from a stash in the trunk of his car. The cocktail, you see, had already been specially mixed. When everyone was well-oiled and the supply ran out, he simply walked down the driveway to the car and got more!

What a unique character that can only be described as a master of humor and sincere affection. Oh how he charmed the ladies, in a way that only European men of the times could, making each one feel so special. [In later years, after his death, it became known that Bert, a self-made man, had gone to great pains to thwart the I.R.S. in its’ claim on his estate: he had twenty or so bank accounts scattered around New York, left no list of them, and in so many unspoken words, told the Federales, Go find ‘em!]

But Christmas was also a time to include people who were alone and who had no other “family.”

Aunt Fran had a friend who was, in the terms of the times, a spinster. She lived by herself in a small apartment in New York City. We looked forward to seeing each other at least this one time each year. Perennially in her black lace dress, which Aunt Fran stubbornly tried to, but rarely got her to change, Josephine was always smiling, animated and happy to exchange stories about the events of the year just ending. And in subsequent years when her health was failing, Aunt Fran or Uncle Gene would go into the city to get her. When she wasn’t there, she was missed.

As the party wound down and we returned home to Long Island’s North Merrick, it wouldn’t be Christmas until and unless Dad got out the 8 millimeter movie camera and took pictures of Mom mouthing “Merry Christmas” from behind the storm door. [There was no sound on the camera.] It was a family ritual.

During the thirty-something intervening years, with most of the family now gone, I can only savor the memories of Christmas’ past.

Looking back over those years I realize just how much New York and Christmas-time formed who I am, celebrating ethnicity and all the food and culture that came with it. Add the genuine characters of the first magnitude, which were loved for who they were and not for what they did or had.

And most importantly, for the opportunity that America presented to all of those foreign-born people, and their kin, who asked for nothing more than the privilege to become and embrace being an American.

Merry Christmas to them all, and to you!

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