Memories and Musings – WWII: Family Christmas

Published 5:09 am Sunday, June 9, 2019

By Gene Gallelli

The arrival of the Christmas tree was almost as exciting as the first snowfall. Dad would drag it into the living room and attempt to set it up in an old home-crafted wooden stand. If the process affected his language, he would be inclined to build a new one. 

Mom would have cleared the space in front of the windows that overlooked the front porch and fetched the boxes of ornaments — that included any I had made — and our one string of colored lights from the attic. (The attic always scared me, so that’s probably where my gifts from Santa were hidden.) 

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Stringing the lights was my dad’s job and it took considerable skill and plenty of patience to adorn a five-foot tree with a single strand of finicky light bulbs that often burned out faster than the time it took to hang them. (Extra lights were scarce and when one burned out the whole strand went kaput!) 

I loved the intricate shapes and colors of the decorative bulbs mom would carefully hang on the tree’s sparse pine branches. Only the older ornaments had metal hangers, the ones recently purchased at the Five and Dime store had silver paper hangers because of the shortage of metal products while the war was raging. (One of my prized possessions is a striped ornament from the WWII era, but the paper hanger frayed and now rests inside the glass ball.) Mom would plug in the tree lights when it became dark outside — except during an Air Raid Drill — and unless one burned out, they would stay on until bedtime.  

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners were a family affair; more accurately, an “extended” family affair. Since the immediate family all lived on the same street, the mountains of Italian pastries and traditional pasta and seafood dishes could be hand delivered to the chosen meal site without burning the scarce, rationed gas needed to run the family jalopies. (We still have meatless pasta and fried fish on Christmas Eve, it just never tastes as good as did my mom’s.) Since the entrees were endless — pasta, chicken, fishes, more pasta, etc. — meals lasted three or four hours, brought to an end by the arrival of coffee, cookies, simple cakes and canned peaches and pears. 

After eating myself sick on cookies, I was tucked in bed without a fuss in anticipation of Santa’s arrival with his bag of toys. While asleep with “visions of sugar plums,” several members of my family trekked to Saint Jerome’s to attend midnight mass. Aside from the clothes Santa brought me that I ignored — imagine that — I will never forget receiving a small bow-and-arrow set attached by string to a piece of cardboard with a drawing of Hitler on one side and Hirohito in the other; they were the targets. Adult gifts were simple, practical items like handkerchiefs, neckties and scarves (a typical pre-war gift, women’s nylon stockings, were almost impossible to get).

Christmas days and dinner were filled with family, food and as much frolic as possible with the specter of the war hanging over everyday life like a dark, foreboding cloud. I do remember going to mass with my mom and hearing a distant cousin sing a solo from the choir loft. She was considered a family celebrity. 

I remember that bow-and-arrow set with the Hitler and Hirohito targets almost as vividly as I remember Air Raid Drills. But that’s another WWII story.