Wether on 290 W. 12th St. or 418 W. 17th St., the night we went out and purchased and put up the Christmas tree was extra special for us as kids.
I know there must have been some mild or warm evenings when we did this, but my memory only reflects a nice cold and even possibly snowy night. The ritual started when dad got home from work. We kids waited excitedly for when he would come in the door change clothes and say, “Let’s go pick out the tree”.
Picking out the tree consisted of a rather long walk (of course) through the city streets until we came to one of the many places that sold fresh Christmas trees. The walk itself was exciting and we anticipated the fun that awaited when we got home and began decorating. The place that we bought from usually changed every year: it could be a Christmas tree stand,a grocery store or just a corner fruit and vegetable market that brought in some fresh Christmas trees for the holiday season.
The tree we picked out was usually no more than 4 feet in height, as at 290 W. 12th St. it would be placed on a windowsill in what was at the time, Aunt Fils room. When we moved to 418 W. 17th St., it would be placed on the entertainment center that housed our television set. Invariably, dad would haggle with the attendant about the price of the tree. If the tree was $15 dad would offer ten, if the tree was 10, dad would offer 8, etc. This went on until the two came to an agreement and dad would hand over some hard-earned cash. One of the things I remember most was the wonderful aroma of fresh pine. To this day when I smell the Christmas tree pine, I’m taken back to this very special night of my childhood.
We would walk home with the Christmas tree in hand: Dad carrying the tree as we kids anticipated the fun that awaited once we got back to the apartment. Once back, it was dad’s job to place the tree in the stand and get it set up in its place on the windowsill or the entertainment center. It was also his job to get the lights strung before the rest of us began to decorate with the ornaments and the tinsel.
The lights were the old-fashioned, large colored bulbs, but to us they were magical and beautiful. After dad finished stringing the lights we could “have at it” with the ornaments. We never had many ornaments, and none of them really matched,but again, to us, they were breathtaking. I also was honored with the job of putting up the manger scene. The manger we had would probably be considered a collector’s item if we still had it today. Beautifully crafted and painted ceramic figures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus ,The shepherds, The wise men and many different animals including a Camel. We even had real straw to decorate the floor of the manger. I am sure to you, the reader, this may seem like a small thing, but to a young child this was very special. It officially began the Christmas season for me and put me in that very unique mood that only a child feels during Christmas.
Once the tree was completed with lights, ornaments (and tinsel thrown somewhat haphazardly on the branches) it was time to enjoy mom’s homemade Zeppoli’s. This was another tradition that stays in my mind until today. While the boys got the tree ready for the Christmas season, mom would be in the kitchen crafting her homemade treats. We would enjoy a bowl of these delectable donut like pastries with powdered sugar and a cup of coffee. Then we would sit back and admire our handiwork.
But, the evening was not complete until Sinatra’s Holly Jolly Christmas album was playing in the background. Zeppoli’s consumed, tree adorned and lights off in the living room,we would sit admiring the tree as The Chairman of the Board crooned Christmas songs that are as part of Christmas for our family as anything else could possibly be. The New York skyline as a backdrop, we were transported into a Christmas dream. When he told us about the possibility of being home for Christmas (I’ll be Home for Christmas) or wishing us a Merry Little Christmas(Have yourself a Merry little Christmas), there were few dry eyes. On one song , he would close with a rousing “Merry Christmas!” to his listeners and to a one, we all declared back: “Merry Christmas,Frank”. Dad would lift a glass of Scotch or wine in a clear “Salute!” to the Chairman and we would sit in silence as Frank completed the album.
To this day, so many years later, I have that exact play list on my phone…..and to this day, I sit in front of our decorated tree and wish Frank a Merry Christmas… and to this day, when I hear the opening strands of that album, I’m transported to that living room, NY skyline shining though the window, and our family …all together… Home for Christmas.