by Frank Dunnigan
As Christmas fast approaches, I’m pleased to report that my tree is up, the cards (always featuring the Three Kings) have been sent, gifts are wrapped, and the production line of holiday cookies is moving through my kitchen at a steady rate of one different recipe per day (thank goodness for bargain butter at Costco).
So very few things—tree, cards, gifts, and cookies—remain solid holiday traditions for most of us. Each passing year introduces a couple of changes—new celebratory items and activities come to the forefront as others fade from the scene. Talking with some friends recently, I began to realize that every family has a few iconic rituals forever associated with the year-end holidays. It’s amazing to think about just how many aspects of the season have changed for all of us over the years…
Sad to say, but Santa no longer arrives at the Emporium on Market Street by cable car the way he used to. The ice skating exhibitions in the cavernous auditorium, the magical world of roof rides, and the downtown store’s incredible toy department at the back of the fourth floor now exist only in the memories of us older folks. The tree under the City of Paris dome (rebuilt into a new Neiman-Marcus store circa 1980) is a sad replica of what used to stand there every December. Likewise, the walk-through (or evening drive-by) of the Podesta-Baldocchi store on Grant Avenue is another well-loved memory from the past, just like the holiday tree-lighting ceremonies at the old Shriners Hospital on 19th Avenue, and the living Nativity scene that took place in Lindley Meadow of Golden Gate Park (See WNP member Judy Hitzeman’s wonderful 2007 post about this last event).
Another celebration remembered only by those at or approaching retirement is the annual Christmas lighting tradition on the 2600 block of 18th Avenue where I grew up. Scheduled for a Saturday night in early December, Santa would arrive on a fire engine graciously supplied by the San Francisco Fire Department. Sitting on his golden throne (passed around the neighborhood year after year since the mid-1930s), he listened to wishes and handed out peppermint candy canes to one and all, as every house on the block lit its outside lights and its Christmas tree, while carols blared forth from loudspeakers until 9 p.m. every night until New Year’s. Visitors drove and strolled the block for hours each night, marveling at the lights that outlined windows and doorways, and dropping in on the many open-house parties on that first Saturday night. Sadly, there are very few Christmas trees on display there now, and the grand outdoor lighting extravaganzas began blinking out in the late 1960s, even before I graduated from high school.
When my friends and I went Christmas shopping during grammar school days, the store of choice was often Woolworths at Powell and Market Streets. Amid the sprawling bulk-candy counters, the smell of freshly baked pizza, and the whir of the Veg-A-Matics on the middle aisle, we could always find the perfect gift for everyone we knew. Many items were classics: boxed note paper and envelopes—$1, picture frames (with our most recent school picture inserted)—88 cents, jigsaw puzzles with 700-1,000 pieces—$1, along with the ever-popular rabbit’s foot keychain—49 cents.
As time went on, and with increased earnings power, gifts became a bit more substantial. After a few years, we all got to know the sort of gift that might really delight our family members and what type produced only “Gee, thanks for the UNO card game—now we have three of them.” Sadly, the passing of several older family members over the years means that I will not be buying any of the following items, which were once must-haves for those on my gift list:
Prince Albert canned pipe tobacco (Grandpa)
Potholders, either home-made or store-bought (Grandma)
Kool Menthol filter cigarettes (Dad)
Estée Lauder Dusting Powder (Mom)
Shaw’s Candy (Aunt Margaret)
Saturday Evening Post subscription (Uncle Jack)
From the time that I arrived on the scene, my parents wisely decided that we would spend Christmas at home, since a child and his new toys are not easily parted. In those days, we opened gifts on Christmas morning—giving Mom and Dad extra time overnight to assemble tricky things like bicycles. As the packages were being opened, Dad would invariably make a quick run to Eezy-Freezy on West Portal (the only local store open on Christmas Day) for more size D batteries. Meanwhile, Mom was spending her time in the kitchen, preparing for relatives on both sides of the family who were invited for Christmas dinner.
By the time I was in high school, my parents decided that this was just too much—uh, fun—for any of us to have in one single day, so we began opening gifts on Christmas Eve with an abbreviated dinner menu of drinks and hors d’oeuvres, followed by presents, then dessert and coffee. Family members and friends who dropped in were welcome to visit for as long as they wanted, or to join the crowd headed off to Midnight Mass at St. Ignatius. For many years, I had a standing invitation to a friend’s grandparents’ house on 24th Avenue for a post-Midnight Mass buffet that often continued on until the wee small hours of Christmas morning, complete with impromptu singing, accompanied by someone in the “knotty-pine room” playing an old upright piano that had survived the 1906 Fire. Sadly, that celebration vanished into the foggy mists when the wonderful hosts passed on in the 1970s. (See Streetwise - FDR & the Knotty Pine Room for more.)
Starting Christmas with a hearty brunch is another ritual that used to alternate with Christmas dinner in my family for a couple of decades. Brunches were timed to accommodate folks who might have been partying hearty the day before, and they were easily expanded to include late-comers. Over the years, I’ve acquired several breakfast casserole recipes that hold up well in a warm oven, and that pair nicely with juice, fruit salad, croissants, Danish pastry, and hot coffee. With the house well-stocked with treats from places like Trader Joe’s, Christmas Day guests have always been welcome to drop in and visit all day long, with a simple meal of baked ham and deli salads offered to anyone who remained past mid-afternoon.
Christmas cards used to be displayed more than they are today. Mom had them standing atop the mantel, covering all the end tables, and even hung on a thin cord than ran between the two wall sconces above and behind the couch—some years, our living room looked like a stationer’s show room. Today, I’m content to get caught up quickly on the news of family and friends when the cards and letters first arrive, and I then stack them in a basket for a more thorough reading later on. It’s clear, though, that with innovations like Facebook and instant messaging, many people have little to tell at the end of the year that hasn’t already been broadcast to the universe.
My tree still has an eclectic mix of ornaments—a clear reflection of my 25+ years in the retail industry, and all those day-after-Christmas sales. A couple of the ornaments hold special memories—the small plastic reindeer heads with bells (purchased at GET on Sloat Boulevard in the late 1950s for 19 cents each), hand-made decorated pine cones from my time in Mrs. Beckerman’s kindergarten class at Parkside School, the tiny silver menorah given to me by a neighbor after helping decorate her family’s “Hanukkah bush” in the 1960s—right down to the elongated glass baubles that once belonged to Grandma’s mother, complete with bits of wax drippings from the candles that once lighted the family’s tree in their South-of-Market living room from the 1880s until 1906.
The Nativity scene beneath the tree has its own set of rituals in most families. The figure of the Infant was never placed into the scene until midnight on Christmas Eve. Also, in keeping with liturgical customs, the Three Wise Men never appeared in front of the manger presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh until the traditional feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. Prior to that, they were always kept some distance away, gazing at the star, and moving a few steps closer, night by night.
Today, CDs and all-music cable TV channels add a nice ambiance to our homes without anyone having to get up and change records. Likewise, the video “Yule Log” helps to set the scene even when it’s not convenient to build a real fire. Some of the flickering candles that we enjoy today are battery-operated, but those big red potted poinsettias are still the real thing.
For several years early in the new millennium, the children who had been born to my friends in the 1970s and 1980s were no longer toddlers, but they were not yet grown up enough to be having children of their own, and all of us began to miss the excitement of seeing tiny hands ripping open packages and hearing the squeals of joy that accompanied each new gift. Now that several of my friends are grandparents—some of them multiple times—we are all happy to interact with a new crop of little ones, as they find dolls and trains and classic board games under the tree. Playing with them and their new toys is a lot more fun than trying to look excited as teenagers receive a string of gift cards from retailers that we old folks have never heard of.
And just like those canned food drives that we participated in every Christmas season while growing up, I still donate a bag or two of groceries to a local food bank, following my stock-up excursions to places like Trader Joe’s, Sam’s Club, and Costco—where I get to enjoy free samples. (See Streetwise: Gifts Given and Gifts Received, December 2014).
While some nostalgic food treats still appear annually—such as Mom’s famous Chex Mix—others such as Grandma’s green Jell-O/pear/cottage cheese salad, and Grandpa’s favorite Polish sausage with breakfast, have retreated to the sidelines. And thankfully, I no longer have to feign delight with the annual gift from a former neighbor who used to take Kellogg’s Special K cereal, slather it in corn syrup with green food coloring, and then shape the glop into a wreath and decorate it with tiny Red Hots cinnamon candies!
One of my favorite Christmas celebrations in recent memory took place a few years ago, when I hosted more than a dozen of my second cousins and their families for the week. A grand time was had by all, telling and retelling stories of our long-gone parents, grandparents, and countless aunts and uncles—both great- and otherwise. We gathered nightly over an elongated dinner table with red tablecloths after all of us had spent hours cooking together in the kitchen. Every night, we had more candles burning than the Vatican, the wine, champagne, and sparkling cider flowed, and large boxes of See’s candy gradually disappeared as we all enjoyed a nice glimpse into what life must have been like for our relatives back in the days when all of them lived close by one another in San Francisco, regularly visiting back and forth among everyone’s homes.
This year, I have an old college friend staying with me while she is house-hunting nearby after selling her place in Florida in order to return to the West Coast. We’ve invited her sister and also her adult daughter to join us, and there will also be some other old college friends from University of San Francisco days visiting and staying nearby. So over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be tweaking the traditions of multiple families, as we find a few new ways to celebrate the season.
As the end of another year approaches, best wishes to all, and a Happy New Year!
Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!
Page launched 15 December 2015.