My parents gave me the best Christmas present: Memories, molded into stories.
My father loved the holiday traditions of his German childhood. He was baptized a Lutheran by Jewish parents. But Christmas for him was a strictly secular affair. It was a time for mounds of the stinky cheeses and rich sausages, the music of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and the magnificent hand-crafted wooden angel orchestra we’d organize over the fireplace hearth. Mom, the daughter of two non-religious Russian Jewish immigrants, slaved late Christmas eve to spread individual strands of sparkling tinsel on every tree branch. Then my parents disgorged presents from closets and drawers and placed them beneath the tree before collapsing.
I know. I’d often sneak partway down the stairs of our Long Island, New York, home to peek from the bannister’s shadows.
My parent’s loving care and ritual remain tightly bound in my memory, And each annual holiday season, it unspools in slow-motion. Christmas began each December when dad and I ventured out in search of the perfect tree. It was more of a trek, really. We’d stop at three or four different lots, standing up a dozen or more trees at each. Then we’d circle them in search of hidden holes, dead branches or crooked limbs. After much debate, we’d settle on one we considered straightest, fullest and most symmetrical: the perfect, imperfect tree.
Trimming the tree, too, took hours. That I did with my mom, though she’d let me play the lead role. (I nearly flunked 8th grade art, but when it comes to arranging and distributing the colors, shapes and sizes of tree decorations, I’m your man.)
But the highlight of each holiday was the annual journey dad and I would take to
Yorkville on New York City’s East Side. In the ‘50s and ‘60s it was the hub of the city’s German community, stretching along 86th Street from Lexington Avenue toward the East River.
There my dad was in his glory. He’d banter with shop owners in his native tongue. At our deli stop, he’d choose the ripest limburger cheese, so smelly, my mother, brother and I would cower at the far end of the table when he’d unwrap it. We’d stock up on thinly sliced, air-dried black forest ham, or schinken; select a variety of wursts and salamis, and throw in a few tins of rollmops, pickled herring from dad’s native Berlin. Then it was on to the Elk Candy Company, where an elaborately decorated gingerbread house filled the display window. Inside the mood was electric and magical. Three generations of German-speaking women stood behind the counter, selling mountains of marzipan and all varieties of chocolates to patrons three-deep in the narrow aisle. Dad’s favorite was chocolate-covered ginger. Mine was what we called “kringle,” dark- and milk-chocolate wreaths, with sprinkles on top, hollowed in the middle so they could be strung from the tree.
With packages in hand, our last stop always was Café Geiger, a ‘50s New York version of Rick’s Café in Casablanca. There, waiters in tails served us wienerschnitzel while a violinist (a geiger) made the rounds to serenade each table.
Yorkville is long gone today; the Elk Candy Company one of the last of its mainstays to close.
Still, as I decorated our tree in East Falmouth last weekend with our 12-year old grand-daughter, Devon, memories of those days swirled vividly in my mind – of the time someone stole our packages and dad and I had to start all over again, of the coffee and apple strudel we’d sometimes eat before dinner at the little Cafe Konditorei, of the riches we’d bring home from our Yorkville outing for Christmas breakfast.
Many of the ornaments Devon and I handed back and forth as the tree took shape also hold stories – the handmade stars, sent to us as gifts from Margot, who lived with my family for five years when my mom went back to teaching when I was 8; the Christmas card of a singing angel that’s hung on our tree since my early childhood; the tin star at the top, handcrafted by Kathy’s father. And a handprint from Devon’s first pre-school year.
A few days later, I arranged the angel orchestra and choir on shiny foil. It’s still 40 or 50 instruments strong, many shipped to my parents from German relatives long passed on. Though the paint has begun peeling from pink angelic cheeks and a cello has broken from its angel’s bow, the ensemble still plays beautifully in my imagination.
This year will not be just any Christmas. It is my 70th, the same Christmas, 40 years ago, in my dad’s life that proved to be his last. Yet I am feeling neither morose nor maudlin. If anything, I feel at peace — in a way, reassured. The candy store and German deli have long closed. Café Geiger is gone, its violinists silenced. Yet even though these landmarks have disappeared and the past generations who inhabited them are no longer with us, the gift of memory, spun into story, keeps the past alive.