Friday, December 25, 2009

December 25

This piece was written by longtime columnist for the Fall River Herald News John McAvoy. It was placed in the Congressional Record by Representative Barney Frank, who is -- ironically -- neither Irish nor Catholic nor a resident of Fall River. I once had a few "laughs" with John McAvoy last century and would like to share his 1983 Christmas column with you. It's about the town where I was born.

“When Christmas fires are burning,
Old memories come and go,
Like light and shadows playing,
Within the firelight glow,a magic scene appears,
Dear faces smile and beckon, from out of other years."
—Martha Eleanor Barth
The years drift away as Christmas comes again.
I recall with great nostalgia the Christmas of 1927 and 1928 when I was 7 and 8.
We lived in the last house on Pine Street on a hill overlooking the railway tracks, where Harbor Terrace is now located. It was a two-tenement house, but we lived all over it. (We were a large family ... three girls, three boys.)My father owned a junk-yard, and it was located in our front yard — second-hand lumber piled high, scrap metal, doors and window sashes in heaps. That was the view from the bedroom windows.
From the kitchen and front room (parlor), you looked down the hill on the railroad tracks, which brought the train from Boston out to the pier of the Fall River Line to meet the New York boat. You also saw the traffic on Davol Street and the panorama of the waterfront — the New York boat, coal barges, and the Bowen Coal Co. with its miniature railway cars that carried and dumped the coal in piles.
My mother had a lovely garden in the back yard (perched over the tracks), though the front with all the lumber was not so elegant (to put it mildly). On the south side of the “estate,” my father had a row of sheds and a barn which housed his horse Nelly, who drew the junk wagon.
* * *
Our front room was only open in winter at Christmas time. The day before Christmas Eve, my mother would place a portable kerosene stove with a perforated top (which reflected on the ceiling), thus making the room warm for Christmas. The smell of kerosene can bring back the thrill of Christmas to me to this day. Our Christmas tree would not be put up till the last moment, so it would last. The fresh pine and the odor of kerosene intertwined, and the combination to me is the fragrance of Christmas.
Both my parents came from Ireland and were very religious. My mother was a saint, and she loved Christmas with a passion. She brought over the Irish custom of saying 4,000 Hail Mary’s from Dec. 1 to Christmas Day. If you did this, legend said, any wish you chose would be given to you. Even as a child, my wish would be that we would have a happy Christmas, and we always did.
My mother was a superb cook, and that was what she was before she married. She worked on the hill for wealthy Yankees.
We were the most “Yankeefied” Irish family in Fall River. Christmas Eve, the house would be permeated with the smell of rising bread, white and Irish with raisins and caraway seeds, and the scent of baking cakes and pies. Around three in the afternoon, my mother and father’s friend, Annie Cody, would come up the stairs with a large wicker basket filled with gifts. She was like a preview of coming attractions, a harbinger of Santa Claus.
* * *
At dusk, and it had to be just the right moment (and only mother seemed to know), my mother would take a blessed candle and place it in a container in the front window facing up towards Main Street. In my mind’s eye, I can still see her pulling back the old-fashioned lace curtains to make room for the candle.
As you would look up Pine Street, you would see many candles like this. The candlelight was a symbol of welcomed hospitality, assuring the Irish people that no one seeking shelter would be homeless. The candlelight must shine forth all night long and may be snuffed out only by those having the name of Mary. (Of course, every Irish family had a Mary.)
My mother and I would always rise on Christmas morning at 4:30 and attend 5:30 Mass at Sacred Heart Church. I would peek in the front room where the kerosene stove was pouring forth heat. Its perforated top would make patterns on the ceiling, and the tinsel on the tree would glow in the reflection. You could see the outline of the presents piled under the tree. What a magical moment!
However, I would not open my gifts until we came home from Mass. My mother and I would trek up the hill in the dark. On Pine Street, near Purchase, there was a house with a cupola on the top which held a lighted Christmas tree, which was very unusual for the time.
The church was like an oasis in a desert, as you entered it from the black night. It would be beautifully decorated with wreaths and poinsettias and aglow with candles. It would be a solemn high Mass. (Three priests!) When Mass ended, it would still be dark. My heart would be beating so fast, I felt it would jump out of my body.
* * *
When we got in the house, my mother would tie on her white apron and would come in the front room and sit on the piano bench.
Before I opened my presents, I would give her mine. It was always the same — a green candy dish in the shape of a leaf, which I bought for 10 cents in the back of Woolworth’s. I would clumsily wrap it myself in white tissue paper. My mother would ooh and aah, “How did ye ever think of it, it was just what I wanted.” Right then I would decide I would give her the same thing next Christmas, if the gift made her so happy.
My good mother needed a candy dish like a hole in the head, but she knew how to make a small boy happy. I think of all my memories of Christmas, this is the happiest to me, giving my mother that candy dish.
Then I would open my presents. My mother and I must have been kindred spirits because one of my presents was always the same, a puzzle map of the United States, where you could pick up the various states separately. I really looked forward to getting it, never tired of it, and liked it the best of my gifts.
* * *
Then my father and brothers and sisters would get up and go to Mass. If it was a snowy Christmas, you’d look out the bedroom window and see the lumber and the scrap metal all covered with white. And to the west you’d gaze out as the morning train would meet the New York boat, and elegant women in furs would wave to you as the locomotive would belch and speed by under the kitchen window.
Yes, it was fun living on the waterfront!
I recall that a family lived on one of the coal barges in the harbor. At Christmas, they would have a lighted tree on board. I envied them, I thought, (and still do) that it must be great to live on a boat.
* * *
First thing you knew, my father and brothers and sisters would be home from Mass. Then the excitement would begin. The phone would begin to ring. Friends would start to come in. Although we had a nice front door, I never remember anyone using it. Everyone came in the back door. The aroma of roasting turkey would be in the air. The dining room table would groan under all the delicious food.
The meal would be topped off by the once-a-year treat of snow pudding. This was a “Yankee” delicacy my mother picked up on the “Hill.” It was made from the white of eggs and would be whipped into a froth. We would take turns beating it (no electric beaters then) for what seemed like hours, till the pudding was as light and clear as the new fallen snow. This would be served with lemon custard sauce. What a scrumptious ending to a delicious Christmas dinner.
My mother would always send one of us out to the barn with a special Christmas plate for Nelly, for she had to partake of our Christmas celebration.
* * *
Christmas afternoon would find new friends arriving, and after supper we would have more company. My mother had a close friend, Mary Dunn, who was a marvelous piano player (her specialty was Victor Herbert’s “My Hero”). Mary always headed the list of guests. Mona Kennedy, who lived across the street, played the mandolin, and her sister Louise had a lilting voice.
Everyone sang around the piano (which was right next to my father’s big black safe, where he used to keep it to show he was a success in America — or so he thought). My mother did her best to camouflage it with doilies and poinsettias.
My sister Mae, who worked in Cherry’s, would have a group from the store on Christmas night. We would all sing Christmas carols. Then my father, who was a 6-foot, 2-inch sandy-haired Irishman, would boom out in this heavy brogue, “How about an Irish song?”
The company would then sing, “My Wild Irish Rose,” “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and then papa would say, “Mary, how about a tune?”
My sister Mae (no shrinking violet) would favor us with “Where the River Shannon Flows,” complete with gestures. I think there was a rut in our parlor carpet where the fabled river weaved its way.
“That Tumbledown Shack in Athlone” was the tearjerker of the evening. As the lyrics reached the lines “just to pillow my head on the old trundle bed; just to see my dear mother once more,” all the native born Irish in the room would sob as they brushed the tears from their eyes.
Then Mary Dunn would break into a popular song. The sheet music on the piano pops before me. “How Many Times,” “Mary Lou,” “Sonny Boy,” “My Melancholy Baby,” “Button Up Your Overcoat,” “Girl of My Dreams,” “Ramona” and “My Blue Heaven.”
* * *
The sing-song would be followed by a collation that included turkey sandwiches, coffee, jelly, homemade nut cake, Irish bread and steaming hot cups of tea and coffee.
Was there ever joy as wondrous as on these Christmas nights? When the company departed amid many “Merry Christmases” and happy banter, all the guests seemed to walk out into the night and up Pine Street to their various homes.
Then you’d go to bed, well fed and happy from the spirit of Christmas. How marvelous those Christmases were!
* * *
This story has a poignant sequel. My mother, like all the old-time Irish, liked to plan her funeral, partly out of common sense, and partly out of Irish whimsy. When my mother would broach the subject, we would say, “Oh ma, we don’t want to hear about that.”
Because she knew I was the foolish one in the family, she would confide in me. “I want three things when I die. I’d like a nice mahogany coffin (how any coffin can be nice is beyond me, but that is what she used to say) and I’d like a bouquet of red roses at my head, and I don’t want to be left alone for a minute.” (Those were the days of house wakes.)
My mother died on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1943. I was drafted in 1942 and sent to England in 1943. The first day I was there, I sent a Fall River florist money to send my mother a dozen roses for Christmas.She was brought back to the house that night, as it was wartime and Christmas Eve, and there were no flowers available that night. But five minutes later, my flowers arrived (as my Christmas gift). So my mother had her roses, and her wishes were granted.
I have often thought Christmas is so beautiful here on earth; what must it be like in heaven? I thought what a lovely day to go to heaven for someone who liked Christmas as my mother did.
* * *
Christmas is a day to be enjoyed. The hit song of a recent Broadway musical is “The Best of Times is Now.” Part of the lyrics are: “So hold this moment fast. And live and love as hard as you know how. And make this moment last. Because the best of times is now.” This is true. So enjoy your Christmas with all its joy and pleasures and the happiness of the day with your family and friends.
But do not forget the memory of other Christmases and the dear faces who are part of those memories. For the true happiness of Christmas is the combination of the present and the past, which makes the day unique.
“So those who love their fellow men,
Are glad it is December,
For peace on earth and memories,
Are precious to remember.”
— Marguerite Halker

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