A NY Holiday Story
by Ana L. Palles
While it was the women in my family who were the healers, administering tonics and swabbing tonsils during our numerous bouts with colds, creating magic during childhood moments was always the domain of the men. This wasn’t the brooding magic that scuttles around dark doorways and hidden castle passages during Saturday afternoon movies. This was a shower of sparkling fairy dust that just seemed to float in the lightest of breezes and tickle our faces. My dad always told us that all sorts of wonderful things were possible. And flurries of activity over the Christmas season kept my sister, brother and I in a crystalline air of anticipation and wonders yet to behold.
When I was eighth years old, we lived in a 5th floor apartment in a building that while it had not been condemned yet, was getting pretty close. It had no elevator and my mother had the inordinate task of carrying the big baby carriage up and down those stairs four times a day. My sister had just celebrated her 3rd birthday and my brother was still a few years away from coming on the scene. I went to a little Catholic school that stood six, long, New York City blocks away from that apartment on 171st street. My mom would walk me to school and pick me up again in the afternoons pushing my baby sister along in the carriage.
My dad was working two jobs to try to get ahead of the bills, so we saw little of him except on the weekends and on holidays. He was a very quiet and happy man, his eyes always sparkling in secret amusement. We never really realized the challenges he underwent largely because he was always so happy. It was our mother who told us that he needed new soles put on his shoes because he was covering the holes with folded pieces of cardboard. It would be many years before I would understand what that meant.
The year of my eighth Christmas was all about the magic.
Christmas Eve was always the most exciting. It was a day of many preparations. Our apartment was tiny and we had a rectangular dinette table where we would have our meals. I remember yellow vinyl chairs that my mother was always washing down. Christmas Eve meant that our table and chairs would be sparkling clean I sat watching in fascination at how bright she was able to make them look with her pail of ammonia water and a scrub brush.
Ham was a traditional meal for us on the 24th, and my mom would go all out decorating it with cloves, pineapple rings and cherries in the center. It always looked so festive. She would always have a small table with cheese and crackers, a bowl of assorted nuts and the traditional holiday Nougat imported from Spain. t was our connection to tradition and my parents were proud that no matter how hard the times were, they could still lay a bountiful table.
My grandfather Thomas would join us for Christmas Eve dinner. I was always surprised that he and my dad did not look at all alike. My grandfather was a very short but strong man who often wore a black beret as they did in the old country, and who generally smoked a thick cigar out of the corner of his mouth. He had dark hair and eyes which contrasted with my dad’s blonde hair and ocean green eyes. My dad was also taller and leaner taking after his mother who everyone remembered as a tall red head with a big mane of hair and piercing green eyes. But there was no denying the father and son relationship on Christmas Eve when both would get into the spirit of magic.
My sister and I barely able to contain ourselves as we sat and listened to father and son telling stories of magical adventures and surprise presents for good girls and boys. Our mother would occasionally cast a stern glance at us and motion her hands down to earth hoping that she could dampen the flights of fancy with a bit of practicality. But it was no use. We traveled with them on the back of Santa’s sleigh and watched with joy as boys and girls all over the world were gifted with love.
If you could see past the clotheslines strung on pulleys between the high rise brick buildings you would get a surprisingly clear view of the riverside park just a block away. On this particular night, the moon was a full gleaming pearl white, veiled in sheer clouds that softly shimmered in the night sky.
Our double hung kitchen window whose molding was coated in thirty years worth of enamel paint did little to insulate against the biting wind outside, but my sister and I didn’t care. Our grandfather pointed out the window and began telling us about the lights he had seen dancing across the sky and landing somewhere amongst the trees.
“Didn’t you see them?” he would ask us. “They just flew by right now!”
Both he and my father would stop and tilt their heads motioning to us to listen for the jingle bells. We would scrunch our faces up tight and listen intently until suddenly, we heard them, too. Faint tinkling bells as if suspended on the collar of a reindeer softly lapping snow in a silent clearing as two children peered intently hoping to catch a glimpse from a 5th floor kitchen window in a warm, one bedroom apartment. Our grandfather would pull his cigar out of his mouth and knowingly say, “It’s time. Santa’s arrived in NY!” He would stand at the window, wave and chuckle and our dad would look at us, raise his eyebrows and smile. “It’s time,” he repeated, “Santa’s here.”
Christmas in New York usually meant snow and that year was no different. Here on the edges of Manhattan’s Upper West side, the softly falling flakes suspended time itself. It fell quietly transforming the bustle of the city into a winter fairy land. Against a backdrop of a slate grey sky with swirling white flakes, our kitchen window showed tiny fingerprints and condensation from the breath of two faces pressed against the icy cold glass.
It was an enchanted scene as we looked in between the buildings and squinted our eyes to see the activity going on in the park. We could just make out hints of red peeking through the dense patches of trees. Santa was there resting his reindeer and soon he would come to our home and bring us surprise toys. We knew in our hearts that Santa had watched us throughout the year and he had been setting aside something special for us. We never knew what it would be, but it was always the most magnificent toy ever.
“Time for bed,” we were told. “Santa only comes when children are fast asleep, and he has a lot of ground to cover on Christmas Eve night.”
”But how does he know where we are? How can he get into our apartment? We have no chimney and our door has many locks!”
“Not to worry,” said our dad. “Santa is magical. He can make himself very, very tiny and come in under the door. He will come and visit you in your beds to make sure you are asleep, and he will bless you for having been good children all year.”
“What if we’re too excited to fall asleep? What if he can’t wait for us to fall asleep and leaves?”
“Not to worry,” our dad said again. “Santa has already blown his fairy dust across the city. It was carried on the wind and floats along with the snowflakes. Don’t you see the way the light catches those sparkles in the snow? That is Santa’s magic at work! Children all over New York are noticing that their eyes are tired, just like yours are right now. They will start brushing their teeth and getting into their soft, cozy beds.”
My sister and I stared at our dad and wondered how in the world it was that he knew so much about Santa’s secret ways because sure enough, our eyes were getting tired. Our flannel jammies on, teeth brushed, and soft socks on our feet meant that we were ready to go snuggle down in our beds.
Our grandfather would kiss us goodnight and begin to gather his things to walk back in the light snowfall to his basement apartment almost ten blocks away. Our dad would always go downstairs and walk half way with him so he wouldn’t be on his own. Mom would pack grandfather up a bag of leftovers so that he would have some of the festive fare for Christmas Day.
Sleep was so sweet, we would barely hear the door close, but sometime in the night, magic would once again blaze to life. Toys we never imagined would appear under our tree and sweet treats would somehow find themselves on our beds to lay by our feet without us having heard nor seen that red gloved hand.
There was no doubt that Santa visited us. As my sister and I looked in wonder at the transformation that had taken place during the night under our tree, we both ran up to the kitchen window again and looked over at the park. The sun was shining on a perfectly blue day The snow reflected a cascade of diamonds on the trees and even topping the buildings across from us.
There was an air of celebration and love that wrapped us all in warmth and excitement. Our dad smiled his secret smile as we squealed in happiness over how lucky we were. My mom fixed us a light hot breakfast and urged us to get dressed so we wouldn’t be late for Mass. We would walk to church and then off to visit our cousins.
A new red hat for each of us and dolls so beautiful we couldn’t bear to part with them, accompanied us on our journey. My sister’s carriage helped carry the gifts we would deliver to our cousins later that day. We couldn’t wait to see what marvels awaited at our cousins apartment. The parents would drink coffee and share sweets while the kids would run around in excitement recounting their stories of the previous night.
My dad said little on the walk through the snow covered streets and bitter cold, but I remember looking up at him and noticing how he glowed with happiness.