Well, it’s that time of the year, when Hallmark and almost all other networks are hot and heavy into Christmas movies. Watching them recently has made me think about Christmases way back in the 50s when I was a kid.
My Mom’s due date was just before Christmas of 1949, but apparently I had other ideas, so I missed what could have been my first Christmas, and cheated my Dad out of a tax deduction on their 1949 taxes. At 9:15 PM, on Monday, January 2nd, 1950, I was born at Physician’s Hospital in Jackson Heights, New York. It was a neighborhood hospital that has since closed, in the Queens neighborhood that my folks lived in, and that I grew up in. If it’s possible to say this in New York City, I was born in my home town. My Mom, Lilias Chalmers Sim D’Elia was 33 years old, and my Dad, Frank Vincent D’Elia was 39 years old at the time of my birth. Both of my folks were members of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and from her stories, this was a very different time for mothers-to-be in the workforce. Being concerned about losing her job because of her pregnancy, my Mom worked every day from the time she found out she was pregnant till I showed up. In fact, Saturday, December 31st, she did both a matinee and an evening show at the Met, and less than 48 hours later, I joined the family, and made my Mom and Dad first time parents.
The story I always heard was that when my folks got married in 1947, they were lucky to get a sublet apartment from a friend in Jackson Heights, as apparently in post World War II NYC, apartments in their price range were not easy to come by. It was a 4th floor walkup apartment in one of Jackson Height’s many Garden Apartment complexes. It had been a somewhat fancy one bedroom, one bath apartment in it’s day. It even had a dining room, and looked out over what had been manicured gardens. That dining room became my bedroom, the gardens became overgrown and neglected, and the neighborhood changed, but we lived in that sublet apartment until I was 18 years old, when we moved to Bayside. Our apartment was just slightly off Roosevelt Avenue on 84th Street, so a feature of the apartment was also the #7 elevated line running by the windows! The 82nd Street stop of the #7 train was just a 2 block walk away, and my folks could be at the Met just off Times Square in Manhattan after a 20 minute ride, so it was a very convenient distance away from work for them and it was the first home I knew.
I’ve seen lots of pictures over the years, so don’t really know when I actually start remembering Christmases, but think it was probably about 1953. Our apartment in Jackson Heights was pretty good sized, but the living room also contained a baby grand piano, a big console TV/Radio/Record Player, a large mahogany dish hutch, a couch, coffee table, an armchair, and a small pump organ. I’m sure the furniture worked out better when they’d had a dining room, but my arrival had taken that out of the equation, but we always had space for a Christmas tree…a real tree
Now, you may ask, did we drive out into the country (that would have been Long Island) and cut our tree down? Well, my Dad was a product of growing up in NYC, and didn’t even get a driver’s license till after I was born, and a car was several years later, so no. In those days in Queens, you got a tree in the neighborhood, either at an establishment that had popped up in a vacant lot, or you bought one that was leaning up against the front of the A&P or Dilberts grocery stores around the corner on Roosevelt Avenue. It was just like in the movies, but our trees never came with a wooden X on the bottom! My Mom and Dad would then carry it home, up the four flights of stairs to our apartment. I don’t know where the tradition came from, but the tradition in our house when I was growing up was that your folks put the tree up, but Santa was the one who decorated it. I remember one incredible year when it seemed to be magically decorated in minutes, but I’m sure I’d probably fallen asleep, and it just seemed like minutes! Ahhh, that Santa!
Speaking of Santa, a visit with the jolly round man was always a part of my holiday, usually at Macy’s on 34th Street, sometimes between a Met matinee and evening show. My memories are of that Toyland/Santa Village being as grand and incredible as it always looks in movies, and the toy department in Macy’s being huge. From large Lionel Train layouts, to every new toy you could think of! Of course, without the internet, we were a lot less informed than I’m sure our three Grandkids are today, but somehow, we knew about the latest from Remco, AC Gilbert, American Flyer, Lionel, or Fisher-Price, and they were always on our Christmas Lists.
One of my first Christmases, “Santa” brought me a red pedal fire engine, that I enjoyed for many years. This was also the first of the “problem” gifts I received at Christmas! Late this Christmas Eve, after my folks had done an evening performance at the Met, they opened what must have been a huge box, to assemble the truck. As my Dad put it together (probably with my Mom reading him the directions), he made an unfortunate discovery! There were only 3 wheels in the box! My Dad, ever resourceful, figuring that I should at least be able to sit in it on Christmas morning, fashioned an empty cigar box as a substitute wheel. FYI…before they went to sleep early on Christmas morning, they discovered that the missing wheel had rolled out of the box and was lodged behind the couch….Christmas was saved!
Christmas morning I found that Santa had set up a Lionel freight train under the tree, and that became a valued D’Elia Family heirloom. With a Pennsylvania Railroad steam engine (that actually puffed smoke) with coal tender, and then a box car, tanker car, gondola car, and ending in a light-up caboose, it made many passes around that tree until it eventually years later became a part of my yearly train set-up. That same little old Lionel train also made many revolutions around Susie’s and my tree in Mineola, and got to be played with by our three kids, and today it resides in North Carolina with our oldest son Bill, so the next generation of D’Elia kids can marvel at 1953 Lionel excellence!
Oh, and the presents I remember, besides that Lionel Train set. There seemed to be lots of building toys, like sets of Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, and I remember getting them all, and building incredible edifices. There were trikes and as I got older bikes (one that I couldn’t try on Christmas Day, because Santa had gotten a defective version). There were lots of Dinky Toys, and there were accessories for my trains. One year, the hot present was a slot racing set, a Lionel version of which I found under the tree…but only one car worked Christmas morning! There were also two-way radios, a crystal radio set, and other small electronics that probably were my early entry into my life in radio, but that was as far the electronic’s industry entered into those early Christmases of my life…so different from our kids and Grandkids! One “electronic” game I remembered getting was Tudor Electric Football Game! You set up the players on the field, plugged in the cord, turned it on, and a motor vibrated the playing field, and the players “magically” moved across the field…but not necessarily in the correct direction! I remember that one year I got a kid’s version of the very popular Polaroid Camera – magic! Then there were the “toys” that might seem questionable looking back from today’s world view. Things like my AC Gilbert Chemistry Set, where if you closely followed the instructions, you could produce a test tube full of truly noxious smelling material, with an odor that took days for your mother to get out of the apartment. Or the Wood Burning Kit, that allowed a young child to use a soldering iron type of tool to burn designs into balsa wood! But the worst had to be the Lead Soldier Kit, that came with molds, little lead bars, and a little plug-in electric hot plate and pot that you used to turn the bars into molten lead, that you then poured into the molds to make the soldiers. Today, that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen!
One of my main Christmas Eve memories, that I’m sure started as a convenience for my Mom and Dad long ago, is a tradition of long standing in our family. Now remember, most Christmas Eves my Mom and Dad would be getting home after 11 PM, having just done at least one opera performance (and 2 if the Eve fell on Saturday). Sometime, before I was aware of it, they started having their own quiet time celebration as they decorated the tree, assembled gifts, and set everything up. There was some food and a drink or two as they both played Santa for me (amazing how Santa and my Mom had such similar hand writing). When I got older and got to participate, the tradition became Italian Cold Cut Sandwiches and André Champagne, before I’d scurry off to bed, to get up way too early. Eventually, the opening the presents part of Christmas became a part of that Christmas Eve celebration too, as then on Christmas morning I could get up as early as I wanted to play with my gifts, while my folks could get some shut-eye, as they probably had to do a show that night! Now, we don’t open presents on Christmas Eve, but the tradition of Italian Cold Cut Sandwiches and André was a staple of our kids growing up, was something we continued to do as they became young adults, and is still something Susie and I still do, as do the kids in their own homes! It’s something that Kenny has even tried to duplicate when he’s been away from home performing on Christmas Eve, either on National Tours or even Cruise Ships! Funny how Family Traditions sometimes get started, and then endure!
So I’ll be thinking of my folks, and the Christmases of my childhood, and all those wonderful Christmas memories as we eat our sandwiches this December 24th, and probably shedding a tear or two thinking back to when I was a kid, and when Billy, Krissi and Kenny were little too! Christmas is a time for memories, and Susie and I are very blessed to have so many wonderful ones, shared with family and friends that are like family…people that we truly love! Hope you get to bathe in your Christmas memories this year, and even make some new ones! To quote the immortal words and sentiment of Clement Moore’s classic story, The Night Before Christmas………
“Happy Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!”