As a little kid growing up in South Bend, Indiana, Christmas was a big deal. It started Thanksgiving weekend when Daddy made fruitcakes which he then aged with periodic splashes of bourbon. Mom spent days stressing out over baking and decorating cookies, shopping, wrapping presents and sending many cards to friends all over the place. Big brother Mike and I had Christmas Club accounts at our local bank so we could save up to buy presents. Decorations had to be perfect, even though we lived in a modest post-war house in a blue collar neighborhood on O’Brien Street. There was usually one adult party, but the highlight of it all was Christmas Eve and Midnight Mass, and a visit from Santa.
Somehow Mom managed to get us to take a nap the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Since Mike is 9 1/2 years older than me, it was probably easier to get him to sleep. Sometime around 8 p.m. we were awake and dressed up and had a light Christmas Eve dinner that always included shrimp cocktail (a big deal in 1960’s Indiana). I don’t remember what else we had, but the shrimp cocktail sticks out in my mind, and it’s not a Christmas Eve without it today. Mom made a big fuss with the good china and crystal and lit candles on the table. We’d watch TV, put out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, then leave for Midnight Mass in time to be in our seats by 10:45. Mom always referred to those people who only show up for Mass at Christmas and Easter as the “Poinsettia and Lilly Brigade” and you had to get there early or they’d beat you to a seat.
Even when I was little I always stayed awake through Midnight Mass. I loved the pageantry, even though I had no clue what was going on because in those days it was all in Latin. The candles, the poinsettias, the lit trees, and the nativity scene were always so vivid at night. When they put the baby Jesus in the manger at Midnight it was really Christmas. The incense and music made the whole evening so special I forgot about Santa. It was long, but it was lovely and I was entranced with it all.
Some time after 1 a.m., Mass was over and we’d head home. I remember clear, cold, starry nights that were always silent and magical. Sometimes we’d drive home through the rich neighborhoods to ooh and aah at the spectacular lighting displays on the houses.
Arriving home, Dad would unlock the front door, look inside and go “Wow! Look who’s been here!” We’d rush into the house and there, under and around the Christmas tree, would be a fabulous array of wrapped presents and toys, displayed beautifully under the twinkling lights on the tree. We would stand there and admire the presents with anticipation, waiting for Mom or Dad to say it was OK to open them.
Mom would start calling friends to tell them we were home. These were folks who had been pre-invited to our “midnight breakfast” and they were up waiting for confirmation that we were home. Daddy would start making omelets and hash browns as people came to the door. Drinks were mixed and champagne flowed.
The first folks to arrive were always the Zubkoffs, the Jewish family next door. Harold and Birgit (who had a concentration camp tattoo on her arm) were always very interested in the packages under the tree, quizzing us about what we thought might be within. Interestingly, there was always a package under our tree for their daughter Karen (a year older than me) and son Ian (a couple years younger than me). Birgit explained that because they didn’t really celebrate Christmas, Santa didn’t come to their house, but always left something for their kids at our house because he knew we were friends.
Once all the adults arrived and food was served we kids were allowed to open one present each. Sometimes the adult guests brought us presents, which we could open, but most of the presents from Santa had to wait until morning. Sometime around 3 a.m. the last guests said their goodbyes, and we were left in the quiet house. Depending on Mom’s mood we might open the rest of our presents then, or we might go to bed knowing we could open the rest of the presents when we awoke. Either way, the years when Santa visited during Midnight Mass were the most special of all.
It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I figured out Harold and Birgit probably had a key to the house, to let Santa in, since we didn’t have a chimney. That’s why they were always the first to arrive for the midnight breakfast, and why they always knew which present we should open first. Who knew Santa wore a yarmulke?
I look back on these Christmas celebrations with warmth and joy. Our small family had a large extended family that included friends near and far. That my parents figured out a way to include our Jewish neighbors is a testament to how we should all join together in love, understanding and peace.