When I was a child growing up in my small coal mining town of Windber, Pa., December was my favorite time of the year.
Homes were decorated with wreaths and windows were painted with Christmas motifs. Our little Pennsylvania Dutch Evangelical church prepared homemade mincemeat for sale.
One year there was a crisis as the younger ladies wanted to add brandy to the mincemeat. They claimed it would evaporate, leaving the flavor. The older ladies sent for Papa Baer, our minister, who settled it quickly.
No brandy. Ever.
Our church said no drinking, no smoking, no dancing and no card games, so the younger ladies should have known better.
Windberrites went to Johnstown on the bus to view the window display at Penn Traffic, an upscale department store. The store spared no expense and it just seemed to get more beautiful each passing year. There were animated figures and even the adults were in awe of the pageantry in the windows.
• • •
Christmas was also my birthday. On my fourth birthday, I got two special presents from St. Nicholas. Our St. Nicholas wore a beard, a long red gown, trimmed in white fur, a red stocking hat with a white fur tassel.
St. Nicholas gave me a Coaster King sled with shiny red runners. I cried when Daddy ran the runners through the ashes, dulling the red paint. He explained that now the sled would run faster.
We were still living in my beloved "Little Italy" and Joey and Helen La Placa, our landlady's two youngest kids, took me everywhere. Joey took me down 22nd Street on my new sled. I was riding with Joey when Mr. Shimpko came up behind us in his car and honked his horn. It startled me and I slid off the sled under the car.
What confusion as the ladies of 22nd Street raced to the car, pounding the car and screaming at him in Italian. Joey reached under the car and pulled me out and I was laughing, not aware of the danger.
They insisted on carrying me home, much to my mother's surprise. They descended upon our house all chattering in Italian about the bambino (me) and Shimpko (the villain).
Joey translated. Mother thanked them all.
• • •
Grandma Fannie spared no expense for Christmas. There was ribbon candy, chocolates, all kinds of nuts, candy canes, fruit and the dried fruits. When it was time to eat we always sat in a certain seat.
Everyone had to eat a bowl of homemade noodle soup first, then came the waffles. I had to eat one with gravy, which I hated, then I had one with syrup.
Then the turkey was brought to the table. Only now did Grandma permit help in the kitchen. Mashed potatoes, candied yams, dried corn casserole, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauces, green beans, relishes and rolls were carried in by the family.
Then the desserts arrived after dinner. Homemade mincemeat pies, pumpkin pies, apple pies and homemade fruit cake. Grandma decreed that I did not need a birthday cake with all the baked goods.
She was the boss and reigned supreme. There were leftovers for days.
• • •
Most of those I loved at those Christmas dinners are gone, but they live on in my memory. And I close my eyes and there they are laughing, loving, just as I remember them. Time has not diminished my love for them.
I examine them at my leisure, then just slip them back in that marvelous computer, my brain, until I feel the need to visit once more. I never delete, just move them to drafts.
But that was then and this is now. Somewhere along the way Santa Claus replaced my St. Nicholas. Now one can go to the grocery store and they prepare the whole Christmas dinner.
Now you can see Scrooge with all his ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future on television instead of listening to the tale on the radio with your parents. Turkeys have less pinfeathers. Mincemeat pies are not made with meat.
But that Christmas Spirit is alive and well. Merry Christmas.
A memorial service for Dora Murray will be held on Jan. 8 at 1 p.m. in the East-West Social Room of the King's Point Clubhouse.