Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
Is there anything more exciting for a youngster than Christmas morning? Sometimes you made a list and you knew what was going to be there. Other times it was a complete surprise. And sometimes it was a knockout surprise. Back in the 1950’s, we actually had a coal fired furnace and coal bins full of black coal. I remember the noisy trucks backing up to our house and setting up an elaborate system of metal funnels to move the coal from the truck, through the cellar window and into the coal bin. I would be bugging my parents about what I was going to get for Christmas for weeks. They would of course tease me and say things like, “why do you think we filled up the coal bins last week?” and “I think Santa Claus must know you’ve been giving the sisters at Pompeii some trouble lately”, this was always said in a serious tone and with a serious face.
I always wanted everything to be perfect for Christmas. Setting up the tree was a big event. The lights, the bulbs and the manger scene had to be just right. I helped anyway I could. My mom directed, my father and I followed those directions. My mother always seemed more important than anyone else around Christmas time. I don’t know why for sure but I made it a point to do things that made her happy. My father seemed to fade into the background and just enjoy the good feelings created by the celebration of Christmas.
Of course I had to make a good impression with Santa as well. I had to write a letter explaining the many ways I had been very good all year. And I had to leave a cookie and a glass of milk. My father suggested I leave a carrot for Rudolph. I complied without question. Everyone must understand that my letter to Santa wasn’t completely honest. I needed every opportunity I could get to make a positive impression.
All of my classmates at Our Lady of Pompeii School were as anxious as I was as we got closer to Christmas. One friend wanted a BB gun, another wished for a pair of mouse trap shoes, a very popular item back in the fifties. I liked building things like model airplanes and battle ships.
What I didn’t realize was that I was being set-up for one of the biggest surprises of my young life. First of all, I didn’t realize how skilled my parents were at saying things with a straight face. Secondly, I didn’t understand how well they understood my wishes. Thirdly, I had no idea how crafty they were at creating something really fun without spending a lot of money.
I remember arriving home after midnight mass somewhat sleepy but at the same time anxious about Christmas. Under my father’s direction I made sure to leave a cookie with a glass of milk for Santa. The letter to Santa was neatly folded and placed next to the cookie with a carrot for Rudolph. Early Christmas morning I was awakened by my father who said, “I think Santa brought you a surprise.” I jumped out of bed and ran into the living room. There on the floor was a Lionel train and a complete village with tunnels all mounted on a large piece of plywood. I had never felt such joy before on a Christmas morning. I don’t remember what I said but do remember spending the entire morning running the train around the track, stopping in the village to pick up imaginary passengers and shooting through the tunnels like a real train.
I was convinced this magnificent present came from Santa Claus. What I didn’t know until years later was that my father spent many after work hours building the village and hand painting the grass, mountains and tunnels. He then cleverly hid the entire model so that even a curious little boy couldn’t find it and kept it a secret until Christmas morning. Yes Joey, there is a Santa Claus, he just happened to be my father. “On Dasher, on Vixen, on Donner, on Blitzen, Dash away, Dash away …. Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!” quoth the poet, Clement Clarke Moore.