a christmas like no other

Nutcracker display. 1990s. My parents’ home.

Ahh the ghosts and spirits of Christmas past. Never more poignant or important or even pronounced than Christmas 2020 in the age of COVID-19. I have been thinking about these people a lot recently.

Today my brother in law is gone 10 years. Taken by a cruel, swift moving cancer at 49. December 22, 2010 he died from peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the abdominal lining. He was a great brother in law. He was also just one of the nicest and kindest people. Seriously. Not just saying that because he is gone. He was a good guy. The last thing he ever said to me was in a brief e-mail a few days before he died. “Save me some Christmas cookies.” The day he died I was home from work and I was baking. Only time I ever burned Christmas cookies.

My father. Gone 15 years in November. You feel him at Christmas. Like my late brother-in law, he loved Christmas. But he was more controlling than me about putting up Christmas decorations. Yes, I know where I get that trait from. So many memories of him at Christmas.

Daddy and one of his Christmas trees. 1990s.

A friend of the family named Dee. She’s been gone a year. She loved Christmas too. She was always so enthusiastic about Christmas and her house in Rosemont was a Christmas wonderland during the holidays. Beautiful decorations and the best Christmas parties. She was the first of my parents’ friends to really treat me like an adult on my own and I would get my own invitation to things, not just one through my parents. Dee had a great laugh too, and her eyes would twinkle when she was laughing.

My mother’s friend Dee, center with my parents’ at their house for a Christmas part of long ago.

Christmases long ago. I remember wandering around Bryn Mawr with one of my best friends Christmas shopping when it still felt like a village, and not a hospital town. Back when both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue by the hospital was lined with street trees and wonderful old houses, most with gracious front porches. Today it’s oversized and unattractive townhouses, and hospital buildings and a parking garage.

When we would walk around Bryn Mawr as kids we would check out Katy Did. And there was an awesome bookstore next door, and Mr. Fish the jeweler was in the basement storefront. And don’t forget Parvin’s Pharmacy. Along Lancaster Avenue there was an amazing toy store, antique stores, and even an Eskil’s Clog Shop for a few years. And Walter’s Swiss Pastry where my mother always bought a Bûche De Noël.

Matching pajamas at Christmas.

Christmases longer ago were in the city. Memories of going as a very little girl with my father in his red VW Bug (that was their car) down to the snow covered rail yards to get a Christmas tree. He would lash it to the roof and we would wind our way back home. We had 12 foot ceilings so we had a TALL tree. This is why in part that my grown up Christmas tree has mercury glass VW Bug ornaments with little trees on top.

Christmas at Babette’s in Harleysville

Christmas when I was little also mean trips to 9th Street – i.e. the Italian Market. Cappuccio’s Meats to get the Christmas roast. Harry the butcher always had a smile on his face. Then over to places like DiBruno Brothers for special Christmas Cheeses and pickled things. Christmas on 9th Street is an awesome Christmas memory.

I also remember Christmas shopping in the city when we were little. Cute little stores near Head House Square (the “Shambles”). Christmas displays at Lit Brothers, Gimbels, and Strawbridge & Clothier. The light display and organ at John Wanamaker’s and special Christmas Lunch in the Crystal Tea Room that made even little girls feel grown up and quite special. Seeing the displays of all the ladies holiday finery at Bonwit Teller and the Blum Store.

And the Christmas concert at St. Peter’s School. We had these white robes and would wind our way into the church next door to the school. And there was a Christmas Book Fair that was so wonderful. It was there as a little girl I would get to see my favorite children’s author, Marguerite De Angeli. Thee Hannah and Henner’s Lydia plus many other books. I still have them. She was a friend of the mother of the headmistress and/or her companion’s mother. I still remember these events distinctly. They were magical and full of holiday spirit and political correctness didn’t get in the way.

Just like when I was older and we were at Shipley. There were the Shipley Christmas Shops. During our era my mother and her friends and other parents made it amazing. The event wasn’t relegated to the gym where the parents of today don’t deign to speak to most of the alumni and just clump together like girls at a middle school dance. The Shipley Christmas Shops back then were often held in old houses and mansions. I am not sure that all of those places even still exist. The little shops and displays back then were festive and holiday wonderful. Treats, decorations for your home, beautiful woolens and all sorts of Christmas gifts to buy. Again, before the era of political correctness. This year there was shopping online. I will admit I bought nothing. I wanted to support my alma mater but there was nothing I wanted. It was like the magic was gone.

And we can’t talk about Christmas without talking about Christmas parties hosted by my mother’s friends Susi and Babette. They are German by birth and they both put on Christmas parties that will never be matched. Probably because in part they cooked as well or better than Julia Child. Yes, seriously. And I still wonder if Martha Stewart got decorating ideas for Christmas from them somehow? (No not seriously, they are just that amazing.)

It seems Christmas 2020 more than any other time in my memory that I hear these echoes of Christmases past.

No family is perfect and no Christmas is ever perfect, but I miss knowing we will all be together. And as we have all aged, it is not like we have had every Christmas together, but this year because of COVID-19 it feels more pronounced.

And this is where I struggle. 2020 has also been a year of loss and not just to the dreaded virus. Cancers, old age, other things. We’ve lost friends, old neighbors, friends of parents, people we knew in our communities.

People have lost jobs, taken salary cuts, shuttered small businesses open for decades. Other friends are trying desperately to keep their small businesses afloat – stores, restaurants, bakeries. And it has gotten to a point where I can’t say I know of any family that hasn’t been touched by COVID-19 in some way. And by touched I don’t necessarily mean getting the virus. COVID-19 in 2020 is like a giant Pac Man gobbling up little Pac Men. It oozes into every corner of our lives.

I know we have to keep looking forward for that light that is at the end of the tunnel. But it’s hard some days. No getting around it.

Orpheus Christmas Concert a decade or so ago.

Other things missing from Christmas this year? Things like the Orpheus Christmas Concert. They had a virtual concert last evening . Here is the video I found for 2020 that they are nice enough to share with the world:

2020 is the Christmas that families get together on Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas Movies. The same for Christmas concerts. And who will go to midnight mass this year? It’s like 2020 is even testing our general and not just family-specific Christmas traditions, isn’t it?

Yes, even I am a little sad about all of this.

But then we all have to close our eyes and take a deep breath. Being together apart I thin is just harder for Christmas, but we have to hold the course and remember next year will be better.

Celebrate the Christmases past and pay them homage. But remember we will have more holidays ahead of us if we just stay home and take care.

I think this may be my last post before Christmas, and possibly for 2020. It just depends if the spirit moves me. And how.

Be safe out there. Wishing you all Christmas blessings even while we are all together….apart.

A Christmas dinner long ago.

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