The images of Christmas: children scrambling under the tree for presents, the smells of evergreens and good food baking in the oven, andthe twinkle of holiday displays in department store windows, are as varied as the snowflakes many children pray for Christmas Eve. For some native Washingtonians, this Christmas will be a time to reflect on the traditions of Christmases past. We've asked some of them to share those memories as a special gift from The District Weekly.
I guess we thought we were the typical, struggling-to-be-middle-class black family in Washington: A doting father made all the more so by too many nips of Christmas cheer; a mother who hid the homemade coconut cakes that holiday visitors managed to eat up anyway; four silver-throated little carolers known in local church circles as the Young sisters; a spoiled only son who usually got everything he asked "Santa" for; and a new baby girl, too young to care that her sisters and brother opened her presents along with their own.
A cozy bunch, Frankie and Johnnie and the six wee ones, snuggled warmly on a couch in front of the family piano. A fresh-cut pine tree propped into a corner of the living room on Christmas Eve was laced with silver icicles, blinking lights and home-popped corn. Here, in a green-shingle house with a sprawling backyard in a far corner of Northeast Washington that almost folded into Mount Rainier, Md., we were a family that relied on our wits to make Christmas bright during those trying days of the 1960s when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was being jailed and spat upon and the daily TV fare was death and dying in Vietnam.
But inside our home on Belair Place we sang songs and told stories at our own Christmas pageant. We piled into the old full-sized station wagon and faithfully headed downtown every year to see Hecht's and Woodies' holiday window displays along F Street Northwest. No matter that we did our shopping on H Street Northeast, which at the time was the downtown for many blacks.
These were the pre-Kwanza days when South Carolina and Virginia roots made us know that family, friends and sweet potato pie were more important than what was under the tree. And yet, at my house, we children were as greedy as kids come.
In the '60s all any Washington teen-ager wanted for Christmas was gabardine slacks, a pair of $20 slingshot shoes called "19s" and two tickets to see James Brown at the Howard Theater. Chatty Kathy dolls and street skates were on the must-have Christmas lists of kids under 12 like me and sold like hotcakes at the Western Auto store. And even though some of those same things were under our Christmas tree it seemed that Eileen Hungerford, the girl next door, always got more than we did.
I remember one particular Christmas when the big concern in the Young household was not whether Santa could get down the bricked-up chimney but rather if Daddy would wake up, put our toys together and have everything under the tree on time. We were early risers and I, at least, always feared I'd catch "Santa" in the act.
Maybe our nagging that he lay off the eggnog and get to bed early that night tipped my father off that materialism was taking over our Christmas spirit and prompted him to give us the shock of our sweet, young lives. . . .
Ten little eyes shot wide open before dawn that Christmas morning. "Diane, are you awake?" I asked. "Lynn, are you awake?" she in turn would ask another sister. Finally one of us got up and mentioned the day and hour to our mother, who made us stay in bed anyway until 6 a.m.
When the okay came, the five of us raced from bedroom to bedroom, scurrying about in footed pajamas like a rag-tag band of gypsies. Once gathered in the upstairs hallway, we tore down the stairs and into the living room.
But giggles and glee turned to silence and stillness this Christmas morning. The tiny lights on the Christmas tree were all that flickered into our small unscrubbed faces. Not a peep was uttered until finally, five small, pitiful voices squeaked in unison: "Where's our stuff?"
There was nothing underneath the tree but angel-hair floor covering. Nothing.
Tanya, an emotional 13-year-old, started to cry. Rudy, who was 5, mumbled something about Santa's promises and a Big Bruiser toy truck. The rest of us just stood there, plain mad that our worst fear had been realized.
Then Lynn, second oldest and always the clear thinker, put her hands on her preteen hips and walked past the tree into the dining room. The rest of us hung back, unable to face more disappointment. But when she turned around, Lynn's eyes were again wide, her lips twisted in a smirk that seemed to want to hold back a surge of joy and relief. We'd been had.
"Oh Daddy!" we screamed later that morning, filing into his bedroom and rousing him with pillows and laughter from a long morning sleep.
We are all grown now, except for the baby, Donna, who is a teen-ager still in the nest. And the little ones scurrying around those same bedrooms in super-hero pajamas this Christmas will be the grandchildren of John and Etta Frances Young.
I never asked my father, who died at the end of that decade in 1969, just what he meant to teach us that Christmas morning or how he knew we'd have a sense of humor about the whole thing. But we learned a lesson and somehow he knew our Christmases-to-come would be happier for it.
And now on Christmas mornings I always imagine him in bed: Covers pulled up, head buried in a pillow, a broad smile on his face.