By Salvatore Buttaci
When I remember all the long-gone Christmases of my youth, one in particular stands out vividly in my memory. Oh, there were a few unforgettable ones, like in 1948 when I was seven and Santa brought me a red and black cowboy suit that made me think I looked like the western movie hero Johnny Mack Brown. But none of them compare to the Christmas of 1947 when Papa taught me the true meaning of Christmas.
We lived on Graham Avenue in an old New York tenement building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn -- a cold-water flat with too few rooms, one of which we called "the green room" because the only thing that thrived there was the mildew on the gray peeling walls.
At the time there were seven of us: our parents, my older brother Al, my sisters Anna, Joanie, the five-month baby Sarah, and I.
Papa worked nights at LiCausi’s Italian bakery a few blocks away. Each morning he’d bring home two loaves of seeded Italian bread and while Mama prepared our breakfast, he would remind us he had baked those loaves especially for us. Because he was a man who took pride in what he did, he wanted us to feel the same way about our own achievements. "Sometimes, though, you need to wait for things to happen. You can’t let yourself be discouraged."
Along with my sister Anna who was in the fifth grade, I was a student at Most Holy Trinity School on Johnson Avenue where the Dominican sisters taught with an iron hand, or more precisely, slammed what hurt like an iron ruler down across our sore hands when we misbehaved. So we were ecstatic because the Christmas vacation had just begun. We could finally read those boxes of comic books Mama kept hidden in the closet. Christmas was an exciting time for us, despite the little tree that sat in the corner of our kitchen which Papa had decorated, whistling as he strung the lights and handed the ornaments for us kids to hang. We’d giggle as we’d look into the colored Christmas balls and see our distorted funhouse faces giggle back at us. It was a fun time despite most of the gifts we’d open on Christmas morning were a pair of rosary beads or a pair of pajamas or ear muffs -- everything but the toys we had hoped for all those times we’d chosen to be nice instead of naughty. Still, we knew Papa and Mama did all they financially could to make us happy.
One Saturday afternoon, about a month before Christmas, Papa took me with him to Woolworth’s Five and Dime Store some blocks away. While we walked past tables overflowing with potential gifts, we watched shoppers fill their carts. Papa busied himself picking up small purchases: a light bulb and some shoelaces, when suddenly I noticed a table display of Daisy BB air rifles!
Now you may have seen an often viewed holiday film called A Christmas Story about a boy who wants his father to buy him a BB rifle but his mother nixes the idea because the boy would most likely shoot his eye out. Back then I too was a boy in the 1940s and like the boy in the movie made decades later, I wanted one of those rifles too.
"Pa!" I called to my father who was still head-bowed over one of the other non-Christmas gift tables. "Pa!" I called again, louder this time. "Look at this!" Papa walked over to where I was standing in front of the Daisy display. "Isn’t it beautiful?" I said, but Papa did not reply. He shrugged his shoulders, made a face by biting his lip, waved his head to mean, "Let’s go now." But I wasn’t ready to let it end there. "Pa, isn’t it beautiful?" Papa nodded and we left the store.
Neither of us spoke as we walked towards home. A fake Santa was ringing a bell and repeating over and over again, "Merry Merry Merry Christmas!" I couldn’t help feeling sorry for myself. Because we were poor, Santa was poor. Why? At last, as if reading my mind, Papa said, "You know Santa Claus can’t afford something like that, Sal. He’s poor again this year," and I said something like, "Yeah, I know, Pa," and nothing more was said about the Daisy rifle.
As I mentioned, Papa worked at the local bakery and while we kids attended school, Papa would sleep during the day since he’d have to go back to work the late shift starting at close to midnight. When our vacation began, Mama would remind us to keep quiet so Papa could get his sleep. The radio continued to announce a coming snowstorm Christmas Day or the day after, which was Mama’s birthday. "We could get a blizzard," my older sister Anna said. "What’s a ‘lizzard?" asked my sister Joanie. "Blizzard!" said Anna, and Papa answered, "A big snowstorm we really don’t need here in Brooklyn. We’ll get flurries." Then he laughed as if he’d told some funny joke, which we kids didn’t understand.
On Christmas morning we all opened our presents. Mine from Santa was long and narrow, wrapped in a bed sheet. A Daisy BB rifle! I thought to myself. Just what I always wanted! Quickly I unraveled the sheet and there in my hands I was holding a--a crude wooden rifle my father had spent sleepless hours after work each day carving away so I would not be completely disappointed. My eyes filled with tears. I had been so blind to what Christmas was really supposed to mean: an opportunity to show love as Jesus had shown love by coming down to live among us. "Papa," I said, hardly able to speak past the tears in my throat, "this is the best present Santa ever gave me!" Papa winked.
Teacher, poet and lecturer, Buttaci's work has appeared in many publications here and abroad, including U.S.A. Today and Christian Science Monitor. He lives in New Jersey with Sharon, the love of his life.
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