Santa: Best Writing Coach Ever.

“Oh, and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six.”

“Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies.” …

“Yet you must teach the child that these things are so … Because the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. … Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.”

This is a scene from Betty Smith’s novel  A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, in which the just-born heroine’s Grandma Mary explains to an exhausted, disillusioned new mother why flights of fancy are still worth the effort. It is still, for my money, the best apologia out there for letting the Santa story survive — or letting it take root at all.

And no,  I haven’t forgotten Frances Pharcellus Church’s* immortal letter to Virginia, another indelible defense of spirit over materialism. But Grandma Mary’s words carry an irresistible blend of practicality and joy that has resonated for me ever since I read them as a teenager.

Old-school anticipation: Me and my big brother, John.

Most of the parents I know don’t fight the Santa story; it would be like trying to stopper Niagara Falls. You can be the biggest rationalist out there, but then the kid hits preschool, the weather turns cold and there is no stopping the Santa stampede. Perhaps that’s wrong; I suppose you could dig in your heels and let your three-year-old be the one to tell all the other three-year-olds in the nursery school that it’s all a fake. I have not met anyone with that sort of internal fortitude.

But still, every child reaches the day when Santa leaves for good. There is always a classmate or an older sibling to do the deed. There is always that moment of shocked disbelief, followed by dawning comprehension. In particularly stubborn cases, the Rationalist Cop has to produce physical evidence — trotting the defiant Santa believer over to peek in the secret gift cupboard two days before Christmas Eve. Very few cases of defiant belief survive that.

In really stubborn cases of days gone by, the believer could always write to the New York Sun.

But with the Sun and Mr. Church long departed, The Parent must take the question: “Is it true? Is there really no Santa Claus?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said. I remember what I felt, which was resignation, and numerous connected thoughts:

A. It had to happen.

B. Our household had had a longer than average Santa run as it was.

C. Thank Rudolph I wouldn’t have to hide packages all over the place anymore.

What I also felt, surprisingly, was gratitude. For the story, for the fun of it, for the blind belief and the inevitable growing up. And above all, for the foundation of fancy this early journey into mythmaking has given my two tale-spinning daughters as they write their own scripts and stories.

I think Grandma Mary had it right.  The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination.

*In case you have ever wondered, as I have, where the “Pharcellus” came from, apparently it was a gift from dear old Dad. According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Frank Church was born in 1839 in Rochester, N.Y. to Baptist minister Pharcellus Church and his wife, Chara Emily (Conant) Church.

Advent Calendar: All Hail The Yule Log

For the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Christmas Eve.

Thank God for the Yule Log, is all I can say.

We were a bit thin on Christmas Eve traditions in my childhood home. My mother’s parents were German, so we could have adopted the German custom of keeping the tree in a closed room until the big reveal for the wide-eyed children on Christmas Eve.

But my German grandpa was more about being all-American. Anyway, he could hardly have hidden a Christmas tree in his Brooklyn apartment. And it wouldn’t be any easier to pull off in the New Jersey split-level where we were raised.

But we could cherish the Yule Log, a Christmas Eve TV tradition in the greater New York City area from 1966 to 1989. If you grew up in that place and time, chances are you tuned in to WPIX-TV for your fix, at least for a minute or two:

The Yule Log’s magic is hard to explain to someone who didn’t grow up with it. (“Let me get this straight. It was a VIDEO of a LOG. Burning. In the fireplace. With Christmas carols. That’s it?”)

Yeah. That’s it.

The Log originally burned in the fireplace at Gracie Mansion, the official home of New York City’s mayor. You can read all the history and trivia in this delightful Yule Log website, lovingly tended by Lawrence F. “Chip” Arcuri, a maestro of Yule Log trivia.

In a 1970s version of home-theater surround, we could put the Yule Log on the TV in the living room AND on the radio in the kitchen, since it was simulcast. And the sound track was a true winter wonderland: Percy Faith! The Robert Shaw Chorale! Mantovani! My Dad singing along as he wrapped the final fruitcakes!

It is hard to imagine any TV station today devoting four hours of programming on Christmas Eve to a musical, burning log. (“Aw, c’mon. Who needs another abs machine infomercial, anyway?”) And after 20-odd years of Yule Logs, WPIX found it hard to imagine, too. The Log went out for a good long time.

But no doubt due to devoted fans like Arcuri, the Yule Log’s custodians at WPIX and its parent, Tribune Broadcasting, have rediscovered its retro appeal. It’s returned to New York airwaves in recent years, although not on Christmas Eve. Here is a schedule.

Keep the home fires burning. And Merry Christmas!

Genealogical Getting (and Giving)

I’ve seen some wonderful, thoughtful lists of genealogy gift ideas this holiday season.

Not that I need them, because of course the only gift I really want this Christmas is family togetherness (and for all my relatives to send me scans of all their ancestral photographs). Little things like that.

All right, I confess I wouldn’t mind getting a DocuPen, but I wouldn’t mind hitting the MegaMillions jackpot, either.

Back down to earth, now.

For those of us with simpler tastes and budgets, a membership to a regional or ethnic genealogy society that focuses on a specific area of interest is a terrific buy. Plus, you get the added bonus of supporting people whose research projects have direct bearing on your own family search.

There are hundreds of ideas out there, but here are just a few examples involving my own regional interests:

The German Genealogy Group:  It’s based in NY but welcomes members from anywhere. A membership is $15/yearly for US citizens; $25/yearly for citizens of other countries.

The Italian Genealogy Group: Individual membership $25/year, $27/year for families and non-US residents.

Both groups are members of the Genealogy Federation of Long Island, whose volunteers spearhead the massive New York City Vital Records indexing project, a truly monumental effort that has resulted in genealogy joy for many, many people, including me.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ll have noticed my profound admiration for the Troy (NY) Irish Genealogy Society. They’re a prime example of a vigorous and productive regional society, doing valuable preservation work and research. If you know somebody researching Troy roots, you can’t go wrong at  $10 per year, individual membership.

And in the spirit of giving as well as receiving, do consider a donation to any volunteer group whose projects have benefited your research in the last year. I know that the NYC vital records project can always use the support. (Donations can be made payable to the Italian Genealogical Group and sent to John Martino, Project Coordinator, 49 Brookhill Lane, Huntington NY 11743.)

What are your favorite ideas for genealogical getting – or giving?

Advent Calendar: Fruitcake is Good. Really.

Dried fruit -- a variation from classic glazed.

Every family, even mine, has at least one famous holiday recipe. Ours is The Fruitcake. Wouldn’t you know it?

(The blog will take a brief break while you get the fruitcake jokes out of your system.)

All better now?

Yes, this month’s Ancestral Dish is The Fruitcake. Some food historians think fruitcake has become a joke because we’ve lost touch with the flavors that once made it an exotic treat. At our fingertips in the supermarket are out-of-season fruit and rows of exotic seasonings. We no longer thrill to the thought of candied fruit and allspice.

But I think fruitcake is a joke because so few people have actually baked one. A real fruitcake is light-years away from a cellophane-wrapped, brick-textured horror.

And no less an authority than the hallowed Fannie Farmer Cookbook says: “Every kitchen file should have a recipe for a distinguished dark fruitcake.” So there.

Fruitcake in progress.

Grandma Haigney’s fruitcake came from her mom, my dad once said. It is a classic loaf version, as opposed to the golden tube-pan version, as opposed to the remarkable Caribbean variation sometimes known as “black cake.” (Black cake is something I will make someday, if I ever remember to start soaking the fruit six months ahead.)

And Grandma’s cake is really good. The cake part has a terrific gingerbread-like quality.

Around 1971 or ’72, my dad obtained the recipe for The Fruitcake from his oldest sister, setting off a decade of holiday fruitcake baking. At first Dad turned out just enough for the family, but eventually output peaked at somewhere around 60 cakes each Christmas.

Look, people were asking for them. Some asked for seconds, even.

Faced with such demand, Dad grew weary of chopping walnuts by hand. So he splurged on a La Machine, one of the early mass-market food processors available in the U.S., and hot stuff compared to the old Waring blender. Dad lost no time throwing a triple batch of walnuts into his new kitchen toy.

Alas, our knowledge of food processing technique was primitive in those days. (What is this thing you call “pulsing”?) Dad ran the motor far too long, resulting in a bowl full of walnut dust and a string of colorful expletives.

This resulted in an immortal news bulletin delivered by my mother (in all innocence, of course):

“Just wait till you see what that La Machine did to your father’s nuts!”

Ah, Christmas memories.

For the recipe, click through.
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Advent Calendar: Aunts of Christmas Past

(Written in response to the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories Dec. 10 prompt: Christmas gifts.)

I had two aunts who were the alpha and the omega of Christmas gift giving.

Aunt Joanie gave us fabulous toys. Aunt Cath gave us clothes – the gift most likely to be consigned by kids to Siberia (i.e., the back of the tree, alongside the bad ties for Dad and the pine-scented bath oil for Mom).

I feel badly, in retrospect, for our bored reactions to the clothes from Aunt Catherine. They were good quality, beautiful and chosen with care. Long after the tinsel was swept away and the tree taken down, we were glad to wear them. Not that we admitted it.

Aunt Joanie’s gifts had the unfair advantage of being more kid-friendly. And beyond that, they were just … well, fabulous.

The Shiba Productions fairy tale books Aunt Joanie gave us one year stayed in my mind so strongly that I have paid through the nose for a couple of them on eBay to share with my own daughters. They were produced by a Japanese stop-motion animator, who created magical puppets and sets to illustrate them. As children, we really felt we were disappearing into a fairy tale just by looking at the pictures.

Eliza in "The Wild Swans"

Illustration from "The Wild Swans," copyright 1966, Shiba Productions, published by Golden Press, New York.

And I still remember the Honey Moon doll. Can you blame me? (Really, click the link and take a look. She has to be seen to be believed.)

Amazingly, this doll is not a visitor from Mars; she is a tie-in to the Dick Tracy comic strip. Honey Moon was the child of Miss Moon Maid and Junior Tracy, the adopted son of Dick Tracy and Tess Trueheart. A genealogy angle! Tracy family researchers, take note.

Honey Moon was the perfect example of an Aunt Joanie gift: eye-popping, cool and definitely not something your parents would buy you. (My mother’s reaction when I unwrapped Honey Moon was something along the lines of “Whuh..?”)

Aunt Joanie’s and Aunt Catherine’s gifts were also wrapped as beautifully as anything I’ve ever seen. Even as kids, we felt badly about unwrapping them. And the ribbons were always secured with unique little trinkets that my mother could never bear to throw away. So we’d hang them on the tree. They are still part of the family ornament collection, forty-odd years later.

In their memories, I’m raising a glass of Christmas cheer to all the aunts who spoil their nieces and nephews rotten. What would we do without you?