It was 1965. I was nine years old and still believed in Santa Claus, unlike many of my schoolmates. Which was fine with me. My mom had recently given birth to my little sister Robin, then 6 months old. I had dreams of becoming a famous artist some day, and I had reasonable control over my two younger brothers. We lived in a two-story row home on Montague Street, with a really neat candy store on the nearest corner, a deli on the other corner, and a barbershop with a red-striped pole that went round and round. Life was good.
That particular Christmas remains very vivid in my memory. I was deep in the process of wishing with all my heart to actually SEE Santa Claus this time. It was the highest item on my priority list. I had a huge imagination in those childhood years (still do). I had “heard” him up on the roof, and definitely in the living room taking presents out of his bag, but I had never really SEEN him. Of course, all of our neighbors were very aware of my wish. Life in row homes was not very private! They would remind me that maybe THIS was the year I would finally get a glimpse of the Big Guy. They mentioned this mainly to see me explode into leaping paroxysms of pent-up yuletide energy.
We had a tradition among our little group of families near that particular corner of Montague Street. Every Christmas Eve, we would gather at the house of Marcella and Tony Valentino. Marcella was a phenomenal Italian cook. A typical Christmas Eve menu would include lots of different pasta dishes, fish, herb-infused meats, crusty bread, and colorful roasted vegetables with garlic. She would grate real Pecorino cheese to sprinkle on top. She used olive oil, long before it became trendy. There were homemade cookies too. Marcella must have started the preparations weeks before. But the best thing she made was her Italian cream cake. This was the real thing, folks. It had nine layers of the most scrumptious cream fillings you could dream of: raspberry, almond, and even chocolate liquor. Practically illegal for children! It was a rare treat for everyone, and I looked forward to a slice of it every year.
After the buffet, we would collapse and just digest all that wonderful food. We were feeling especially festive, too– it had just started to snow. Then… a knock at the door! And….. sleigh bells!!! Could it be? YES!!! It was Santa!! He came bustling in with a hearty HO HO HO!!! Someone got out of the big chair and he settled in. I distinctly remember that he smelled like garlic. Whatever. I was the first to jump into his generous lap. Let’s see, I wanted a Chatty Cathy doll. Barbie clothes. And an Emmenee organ (ask your parents if you’re under 50). After the rest of the kids had gotten their turn, he made a speedy exit (probably before we could guess that he was really Tony).
I will never forget what happened next. What a production. The adults, about 7 of them, plus the two teenaged Valentino boys, rushed to the front door. They all started shouting, “Look! There he goes! He’s getting into his sleigh! Look at those reindeer! Oh my gosh! Wow! It’s lifting up!!! Oh, it’s going higher and higher into the sky! I can’t believe it!” and so on. Of course, all us kids were screaming, “I can’t see! Look out! You’re blocking the way!” and similar expressions of frustration. This went on for about 5 minutes, an eternity when you’re nine. When they finally moved out of the way, we could hear the faint jingle of sleigh bells.
Now, some would say that was a mean thing to do. However, looking back with an adult perspective, I can only chuckle. Think about it! They went to a lot of trouble and drama to keep up our childhood illusion. If anything, it caused us to believe all the more. And I’m sure they all laughed about it for years afterward.
That Christmas, I got everything I asked for and more. My brothers broke my Chatty Cathy by the end of the day. The Emmenee organ lasted a week. We took our tree down soon after that. As most kids who grow up know, dreams are more exciting than everyday life turns out to be. (The Barbie clothes worked out great, though.)
So, okay. Even though I didn’t TECHNICALLY see him soar off into the sky, that Christmas Eve was enough to fuel my Santa fantasies for another two years. I was probably the only kid in my school to believe in Santa Claus until I was 11. And… though many Christmas Eves have gone by since they passed from this life, I will never forget Marcella and Tony Valentino, their generous hospitality, the heavenly smells that emanated from that row house, and the day that Santa came to Montague Street.
Design and Illustration
This illustration is one of Sandy’s Christmas cards!