It seems that Christmas is so commercialized now. The Christmas season is nothing more than a big opportunity for retailers to make money: Sell! Sell! Sell! Everything is geared to get everyone to shop for Christmas as soon and for as long as possible. Where is the reason for the season? Where is the true Christmas spirit?
Oh, you see the Nativity scenes set up around town and the plastic Mary and Joseph with Baby Jesus all lit up in his plastic manger on the brown lawns. But where is the spirit of waiting, preparing and anticipating the coming of something big and beautiful and exciting. The coming of God to Earth.
It seems like it wasn’t always this way. When I was a child the Christmas season started with Advent, right after Thanksgiving, not in October. We knew Christmas was near when we began practicing for the Christmas program at school and began singing Advent hymns in church. My favorite hymn is ‘Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel’ The church was decorated for Advent with purples and pinks, and the Advent wreath set up in a prominent place in the sanctuary, its four candles waiting to be lit one more each week. The Nativity Crèche was a work of art. The stable erected each year, was complete with evergreens and statues of lowing cattle. Joseph, Mary and the Shepherds were almost life sized. The manger remained empty, the bed of straw waiting for the babe to come. Baby Jesus would be carried in and placed in teh manger at the service on Charismas Eve; Midnight mass. The statues of the three kings would not show up until Jan. 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany also known as the Feast of the Three Kings.
Going to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve with my family is one of my favorite Christmas memories. The service always started with half an hour of Christmas carols and hymns, lead by the choir but sung by the whole congregation. I still enjoy going to Midnight Mass, even though I’m now a Methodist. But somehow the memories of those Christmases over 45 years ago seem so much sweeter.
When I was a kid we (my siblings and I) loved to watch scary movies. Anything staring Vincent Price or with ‘Dracula’ in the title were must sees. Our all time favorite scary movie was ‘House on Haunted Hill’. The scene we loved-hated the most, the one we awaited with bated breath, the one that elicited screams of terror from us, was “the withered-witchy-woman floating by in the dark dungeon of a basement” scene. By today’s standards of ‘horror movie scenes’ this one looks fake and even comical, but in 1959 it was sophisticated and spooky.
Another way we got our fear-fix was by playing scary games. The mother of all our fear-based games was Ghosts. On many a rainy or cold day when we had to play indoors we’d end up acting out our wildest nightmares with this diabolical game. The more kids involved in the game the better. Me, two or three of my sisters, one or more neighbor kids and our two brothers were the usual participants – give or take a kid – with me and my sisters the youngest and most vulnerable.
The game began with elaborate preparation. The older kids would cover all the upstairs windows with the ever-present wool army blankets that were our standard bed-covers for as far back as I can remember. Even the attic porthole windows were covered. It was so dark at this point that a vampire would have been pleased to enter our humble abode. Now for the real fun! We’d all hide in the beds, which were lined up dormitory style in our small upstairs bedroom, shaking with anticipation under the covers. We’d spread out so as to foil the Ghost when he came to get us. At least someone might escape that way. Then one of the boys (it was always a boy who was the ghost) would stand at the bottom of the stairs and count loud and slow as he ascended each step. “One o’clock. Two o’clock. Three o’clock.” There were 15 steps, so the counting stopped at twelve midnight. Then the ghost would float up the last three steps in silence and sneak into our room. The creaking of the door slowly opening was all the sound we’d hear. By this time we would truly be terrified, knowing that at any moment the silence would be broken by a scream, maybe our own. When the tension had mounted to its peak the ghost would pounce onto one of the beds and grab his victim. This part was not any fun if you were the one being assaulted. On many occasions, the victim would begin crying loudly and say, “I quit,” as she headed downstairs. But if you were not the one caught, you’d scream even louder and try to hide even deeper in your bed. The ghost could just as easily turn on you. He was very unpredictable, and there were no rules or guidelines for his behavior. This was a problem at times as sometimes the Ghost might try to drag you into the attic.
Now the attic was not empty. It was the storage room for all things past. Not only did it house our Christmas decorations, but over the years it had become a dumping ground for unwanted and broken household items. There was the ever-present rusty bed springs and the no longer needed baby bed. And all along the bare wood beams of the ceiling were protruding nails, many with old coats hanging on them. There was one bare light bulb that hung in the center of the room, but it never worked so to us the coats always looked like hanging corpses swinging in the dark. So being carried into the dark musty attic was usually a game ender. The Ghost’s victim would yell out “I quit” and she was then released, able to flee the nightmare to the safety downstairs where there were lights and sane people.
Today I still enjoy a good scare now and then, but only pretend. And I still like the old Vincent Price horror movies and those cheesy Christopher Lee Vampire flicks of the 70s. But I draw the line at the new horror-slasher movies. All that blood and violence are unnecessary and UN-digestible. Have a Happy and safe Halloween and watch out for floating witches and wandering ghosts!!
In the mid 70s Larry worked as a mechanic at his father’s full service gas station (the kind that doesn’t exist anymore) on a busy intersection in Cincinnati. One morning Mr. Smith, a regular customer who worked several blocks away, came by in his Oldsmobile and asked if he could leave his car for an oil change. He also asked that Larry check the fuel filter because the car was acting funny. Smith said he’d come by at lunchtime to pick up his car.
After his morning coffee, Larry had the Olds up on the rack, the trouble light hanging off the engine and the oil draining. Now here is where the story gets fuzzy. Somehow gasoline got sprayed on the hot light bulb and ignited. The flames quickly engulfed the greasy gasoline soaked engine. Larry backed away, using a few choice expletives that cannot be repeated here, and grabbed the fire extinguisher that was hanging in the corner. He pulled the pin and pointed the nozzle toward the leaping flames, squeezing the trigger. No white foam came out to smother the fire; the red cylinder was empty. Larry tossed the canister and screamed a few more expletives directed at his older brother, Dave, the supplier of said extinguisher. He hurried to the wall and pressed the button to lower the burning car.
The only other worker, Elmo, Larry’s younger brother, was outside pumping gas, trying to keep up with the steady stream of cars, oblivious to the growing emergency inside the garage. Larry opened the garage-bay door and yelled out for Elmo to come in and help him. Larry then opened the drivers-side door on the Olds, which now had flames leaping around the open hood filling the garage with thick black smoke, put the car in neutral and released the brake. Still the fire department had not been called.
Hearts racing, the two got in front of the car and shoved it off the ramp and out the open door. As the car rolled out of the garage, the open drivers-side door hit the tire changer, knocking it clean off. More expletives were uttered by both brothers this time.
Once in the lot, the burning car became even more dangerous, as it was now in close proximity to the gas pumps, so Larry and Elmo continued to push the flaming vehicle into the street, where it came to rest, obstructing traffic on the busy intersection of Liberty and Walnut Streets.
The fire department was finally called and the flames extinguished. All that was left of Mr. Smith’s Oldsmobile was a black charred missing-a-door shell of its former self.
Around noon, Mr. Smith walked into the station to pick up his car.
“Hey what the hell happened here? And whose car is that out there all burned up?”
After eight years of parochial school, under the strict watchful eyes of the Sisters of Divine Providence, public high school seemed like a cake walk. No line up each morning and afternoon, no silent halls and lunch room, and best of all changing teachers six times each day. It wasn’t long before me and my best friend Darlene, who attended a different school, decided to play hooky. It seemed quite simple. I figured that no one would miss me, since I had so many teachers, and Darlene was confident; she had done it before without getting caught. So we decided to meet on a Friday morning in back of the garage behind my house.
Our plan was to go to the riverbank, lay in the sun and maybe even walk to Eden Park in Cincinnati, just across the river. Still in the throes of summer, we looked forward to a sunny fun filled day.
Friday came and we met as planned, standing and shivering in our sweaters. It was cool and overcast. So we decided to go into the garage and wait until the sun came out. We sat huddled inside a dirty car, with no wheels and the hood propped open. My sister’s boyfriend was renting the garage to rebuild an old Chevy. We had no radio, no food and none of our favorite magazines to look at. When the rain began to fall around 10 we knew our day was doomed. Both our mothers were home, so we could not backtrack without getting caught. This was not turning out the way we had envisioned. Around noon we walked to the local store and bought 16-ounce Cokes and Husman’s Potato Chips: Lunch.
Walking back in the rain we decided we had had enough. Darlene said she was going to school. I didn’t feel that was an option for me, since I did not know the procedure for coming to school four hours late, so I returned alone to the cold garage.
When I was finally free at three o’clock I went home and curled up in my warm bed. What a waste, I thought. Never again will I do such a stupid thing. Even taking an algebra test in Mr. Penguin’s (his nickname) class would have been better than freezing my but off in a filthy garage.
Monday morning I walked into homeroom, only to be told that I could not sit down until I got a pink slip from the Principal’s office. Heart racing with fear I headed up the marble stairs to see Mr. Daley. He was an ex-Marine with tattoos on his forearms and rumors had it that he broke a kid’s nose last year for refusing to get his hair cut.
The secretary asked for my note from home, which I could not produce. What was I thinking? I should have written one before I got here. Forging my mom’s signature was no big crime. But there I stood, stammering about getting one tomorrow, that I’d forgotten it. Saying I was sick Friday was no lie, because I surely was. First sick in the head and then sick from cold. “That’s OK”, she answered, “I’ll just call your mother and get her verbal excuse.”
“She’s not home,” I lied. “She had to go to the doctor.”
“I’ll wait until this afternoon and call. She’ll be back by then, won’t she?”
So I was busted and had to face my Mom that afternoon and Mr. Daley the next day. The moral to this story is ‘If you’re going to be stupid, then you better be tough.’