How can December be here already? With Christmas just round the corner, it’s time to dust off the ornaments, update the card list, review the shopping list and decide on a Christmas dinner menu. Most of all it’s a time to reflect on Christmases past and instead of sharing “just” my own memories, I asked some friends to share their holiday excitement.
Sally Hughes is a former chef who resides in Dorrington. Her Christmas experiences as a youngster sounded like something out of the “Father Knows Best” era. When she was born her parents planted a deodar cedar in the front yard in San Mateo. As the years passed, that tree grew to be 60 feet tall. Each year her dad decorated the tree with lights and ornaments. After World War II, he brought home aluminum spirals from the machine shop where he worked to add to the tree. Her older brother went to forestry school and learned how to shimmy up and down the tree with the sole purpose of placing the lights among the branches so the entirety of San Mateo could view it. It was the talk of the town during the Christmas season.
Each year that her dad received a Christmas bonus, she says they all dressed in their fanciest clothes and headed for San Francisco. After a fine meal in an expensive restaurant, they would visit Maiden Lane, where Podesta Baldocchi Flowers was.
“It was like a winter wonderland with tress decorated in so many different themes and patterns and music boxes laid beneath the trees projecting beautiful Christmas songs,” Sally said with excitement in her voice.
Then it was off to the City of Paris Dry Goods Co., where a gigantic pine stood five levels high in the middle of the rotunda magnificently adorned in lights and ornaments. Sally loved taking the escalator all the way to the top because each new level gave viewers greater views.
Finally it was off to see the department store windows, like Macy’s and, later, Abercrombie and Fitch, decorated with animated elves and toys. Sally said she rarely left the city without buying herself a bouquet of violets from a flower cart. For a 10-year-old to have the money to do that was pretty amazing.
Truth told, Christmas started for Sally, usually right after Labor Day. She baked cookies, bars and other confections to fill the freezer for her folks to pass out as gifts to their family and friends. But the real highlight was when her father turned the lights off in the dining room after Christmas dinner and proceeded to the kitchen to re-enter the dining room with a cake stand that held the steamed pudding that was set afire with brandy. She said the expressions on her and her siblings’ faces were priceless.
In Arnold, I stopped by the Rusty Knife and had the pleasure of speaking with owner Emile Mogannam. His voice lit up when I asked him to recall a favorite scene from Christmas. He gave credit to his mother, Laurice Mogannam, who was the queen of Christmas decorating, and his father, Ishaq Mogannam, who was in the construction field. His father built a beautiful house that featured several balconies that his detail-oriented mother loved to bedeck. He was amazed how she could take simple materials like sheets of craft paper and paints to create the Nativity scene using their living room fireplace as a cave. Etched in his mind is the night his father came to his room and awakened him. He said there was something he wanted Emile to see. Rubbing sleepy eyes that widened with delight as he gazed through falling snow, there was the glass-enclosed balcony where his mother had placed a perfectly decorated Christmas tree that resembled a department store window. To Emile it was a winter wonderland.
Emile also hasn’t forgotten his dad, dressed as Santa and carrying his walking stick, passing out presents. It was a Norman Rockwell scene carved before the artist’s time. Emile says he never knew if his family was rich or poor, he only knew that they had lots of love, a strong sense of family and they enjoyed the simple things in life he feels many are missing out on today. The sense of family is so strong that to honor patriarch Ishaq Mogannam, Emile, each of his siblings and even his mother took Ishaq as their middle names. Emile’s wife and children did the same thing. It’s their Palestinian custom to do so. Since his mother is unable to fulfill that family tradition any longer, his brother, Paul Mogannam, owner of the BurgerMeister restaurants in the Bay Area and cousin, Osama Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Markets, keep the family together by hosting Christmas dinner each year at one of Paul’s restaurants. Osama provides the food and Paul the rest. It’s there that everyone demonstrates to their children what they feel is the true meaning of Christmas: love, kindness and a sense of family that’s not interrupted by money or materialistic gains.
“We seem to have lost our way as to what Christmas really is,” Emile said. He hopes, through examples and teachings, that the Christmas spirit will emerge once again.
Linda Baker is the postmaster of the Avery Post Office.
“We did the usual tree trimming with strings of popcorn and cranberries in our San Bernadino home, but my mom just could not give up her Texas roots,” Linda told me.
Each year, her mom would have her children help her display a cowgirl Christmas tree formed from bales of hay laid out in a triangular fashion in the yard. The design was representative of a Christmas tree. At the very top she placed a 12-inch lit artificial tree to act as the tree topper and then a wreath was placed at the bottom to simulate the stump, where boxes wrapped like presents were strategically placed.
“It looked great from the dirt road, but when you approached it closer, you saw what it really was,” Linda exclaimed.
In Murphys, I ran into Vallecito Union School District board President Tom Pratt. On Christmas Eve, he says his mother would scurry them into a room in the back of the house while his dad, dressed as Santa, stood on the roof and rang his sleigh bells. He and his siblings would squeal with delight as Santa came off the roof and read them all “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” aka “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the classic poem by Clement Clarke Moore.
“I never did get to sit on Santa’s lap,” Tom said. “My brother sat on one knee and my sister on the other.”
“I was the brat of the family,” he announced with pride. “We were actually nice to one another during this time.”
After midnight Mass, the entire family decorated the Christmas tree. Tom said he loved to string the popcorn and cranberries.
“It was a real honor to be able to place the angel on the treetop,” he said.
Once the tree was complete, everyone opened one gift from a family member or friend, since Santa’s goodies wouldn’t be there until the next morning. Now that Tom has a family of his own, he plans to pass some of these traditions to his sons Tommy and Hutton. Tom and his wife, Kimberly, will take the boys to choose a tree that will welcome their Christmas guests. Tom’s pretty sure there will be popcorn and cranberries involved in decorating the tree.
In Angels Camp I talked with Jim Bailey of AAA Insurance and, perhaps more famously, the drummer for the band Plan B. He recalls his aunt taking the tattered stockings that were hung on the mantle one year and replacing them with beautiful brand new ones that would be filled with special trinkets from Santa. This act of kindness really made an impression on him.
He also as a kid couldn’t figure out why grandpa always left on Christmas Eve; he just had to get to the grocery store and then Santa would come shortly thereafter. Santa never admitted he was grandpa no matter how much he was questioned.
One year at a very early age, Jim was given a set of drums for Christmas.
“I guess they were pretty noisy, because my sister kicked a hole in the center of my bass drum,” Jim said with a chuckle. This ended his early career as a drummer, but as an older man he picked up a pair of drumsticks and pounded on some drums and the rest is history.
In San Andreas, Dr. Joanna Motiu says her family centers its Christmas on the Romanian Orthodox Church festivities. The merriments start on St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6, when she and her brother would find candy and goodies in their shoes. The month was comprised of practicing for a talent show held at their church in which the children recited Christmas poems and sang and played piano. Then from Dec. 21 to 23, the youngsters performed for their parents and the Romanian community. She said the kids were more excited than the audience since they knew Santa would come and give them gifts. They all wondered how Santa knew exactly what they wanted.
I learned so much from these people, as most of them regard Christmas with a wink to family and traditions forged long ago.
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