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Christmas Traditions (From a Yankee Point of View)

December 18, 2009

Christmas time back home always went in the blink of an eye. It seemed as soon as grandma’s fake tree went up the day after Thanksgiving, it came right back down. In New Jersey, it meant the start of the long winter where everyone hunkered down, waiting for the first warm days to head back to the shore. As a kid, those five or six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years were simply glorious.

It mean taking those drives around town to look at the lights. Kearny, Harrison, East Newark, two faces pressed against the back windows looking at the plug in window candles and Santa Claus displays. I don’t even remember how much time we would spend looking at the decorations. Like the season, it all went by so fast.

Santa made two stops for us on Christmas Eve. Somehow he managed to fly under everyone’s radar and arrive in Jersey City early on Christmas Eve, usually sometime around 6 or so that evening.  My grandmother would have to “leave” her place to allow Santa to bring that batch of gifts. When we got the call that he came, off we went. That twenty or so minute drive to Jersey City was made all the more exciting with WCBS-FM tracking Santa’s trip. It never dawned on a five year old that Mr. Claus and his reindeer couldn’t possibly make it from Jersey City, New Jersey back to New Zealand within seconds. Those flickering astral red light heading towards a comfortable cruising altitude of 30,000 feet? That couldn’t be an airplane. That had to be Santa! He was just here! We had the first round of presents! What could be better for a kid than a prelude to the big show? Not to mention that grandma always came back with us to spend the evening, giving her the opportunity to watch us open our gifts the next day.

Since we lived in an apartment building, every year my father had to pretend to unlock the exit to the roof. We couldn’t have Santa’s entry obstructed! Unacceptable! I’m not exactly sure where it was that he went during that time, only that he was never gone very long. In retrospect, he was probably gone just a little longer than need be to unlock an exit. Again, to a five year old, who cares? Pave the way, Dad!

Christmas morning always started early for us. Somewhere around 6 in the morning we’d come inside the living room to see two rows of gifts, one for my sister and one for me. We could never just dive into the presents, it was the long wait for the coffee and hot chocolate to be made, and for everyone to take their places. Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots, a Big Wheel, Bombs Away . . . I got my first Kiss album on a Christmas day (“Love Gun,” such a wonderful paradox if ever there were one). I remember getting the soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever.”  To this day I’m not really sure why. Pay no mind to Travolta in the leisure suit–there’s more to open! I couldn’t rush my sister to open her gifts fast enough. There’s a pretty big box near the end! Don’t hold me up!

The one quintessential Yankee tradition wasn’t a display, nor a specific dinner. It wasn’t going door to door singing Christmas carols or sitting on a mall Santa’s lap. If you lived in the New York area between 1967 and 1989, you tuned into WPIX, channel 11, for The Yule Log. The concept was simple: aim a single camera at a fireplace and simulcast holiday music from the sister radio station (WPIX-FM). Whether you lived in a sprawling mansion or a tenement, so long as you had a television, you had a fireplace on Christmas Day. It was only a 6 minute and 3 second loop, but as a child, you couldn’t tell. That fire never died out and the Christmas music kept playing, long after the last gifts were opened. Canceled in 1990 due to the costs in having a large block of time commercial free, the roaring fireplace found its home online in the mid 90s. After 9/11, WPIX brought the yule log back, winning the time slot ever since.

Looking back at Christmases, that was probably the most uniquely New York/New Jersey tradition I can remember.

Each Christmas went as fast as it came. All that was left were bits of wrapping paper, boxes of toys, wonderful memories, and those trips with my mom for the 75% (or was it 90%?) off all ornaments sale at Two Guys.

It never made sense to do Christmas shopping the day after Christmas. Until I grew up. It’s only then that the phrase, “it’s back again” rings as loudly as the church bells.

Check out our video of the original WPIX yule log loop in the video section of our site!

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