Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Past: Carols, Cookies and Cash

I used to "do" Christmas--I cooked traditional dishes, gave parties, bought presents and generally partook in the chaos and stress of Christmas 30 years ago. This morning I was remembering the time I took the astronomical amount of $200 cash in my purse to shop at Macy's, and how nervous I was that I might not make it to the store without being mugged. I tried my best not to look as if I had $200 cash on me and forged ahead, two blocks from where I lived on West 34th to the giant retailer.

The year must have been 1973. I had gotten my first American Express card in 1972, and I had a Macy's charge card before that, but for some reason it made more sense to me to budget Christmas separately and pay in cash. Not a bad plan, but probably unusual even for those ancient days. I had two daughters and a husband to shop for, and the girls were 11 and 12 in 1973.

Christmas from my childhood included old English and French carols, which we sang at that odd school I went to. Solemn, medieval stuff, like "Lullaby of the Christ Child," in a minor key, with lines like "Thousand seraphim/Thousand cherubim/Soaring high above the little Lord of Love." My favorite was the joyous French one, "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella," but I also loved "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Away in a Manger," oh, all of them, I guess, even "Jingle Bells" with the part about "we--we got upsot!" I still love the Christmas music that has to do with the religious side of Christmas, I don't know why, it's imbedded in the spirit of Christmas to me, just like the smell of a fresh fir in the living room.

I noted in the early 70's the phenomenon of the secular music piped into the stores. The most popular seemed to be "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which I supposed was played so relentlessly because it was actually about shopping.

Cookies were my personal contribution to the Christmas mood. I love baking, and there is nothing more rewarding than baking crispy rich cookies and decorating them with two little girls who want to use purple icing and combining the red and green to come up with an unappetizing brown. You try to show them, but you honor their personal taste, such as it is--and the cookies are going to be wonderful anyway. The smells of cinnamon, apple pies baking, the racks of cookies in all shapes and descriptions, always add to the spirit of the season. I even made my own egg nog to wash them down. I've always abhorred the packaged version.

As to cash, that's a thing of the past, I suppose. Nobody moans that too few people bake cookies that they mixed from scratch, with fresh butter, eggs, sugar, flour and spices. The bought cookie dough works as well. Everybody loves "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." probably as much as "Silent Night." Okay. And paying for presents with money ($200 at that) has gone the way of the dinosaur. But some little vestige of the Christmas the old-fashioned way sticks with me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Happy New Year

Today I begin my fourth year of living in Hoboken. I searched old blogs for one to reprint from that first day here, but of course there were none. I was too newly set up to be online, although I did use the Internet at a café nearby on Washington Street, and my early blogposts described a much colder winter that year, a virus that hit me a day or so after I arrived, problems getting access to my bank account, waiting a few days for my furniture to arrive, and at least as many if not more challenges than most people have on a cross-country relocation.

I had almost forgotten that until I went back to the first "Finding Myself in Hoboken" blog posts. I thought I'd find a blog full of optimism and excitement about my new home. That indomitable joy in life, no matter where I am or what I'm enduring, is there, to be sure, a sort of underlying awareness that things are going to be better once I know my way around and make new friends. But reading my day to day experiences even I wonder what kept me going.

I liked Hoboken as soon as I saw it for the first time. I had all but decided to relocate to the New York City area, although I had discovered the reality that New York is too expensive for me now. I had a look at Brooklyn, Queens, Jersey City, and even Newark, where I had friends living in the Ironbound district. Nothing embraced me as Hoboken did at first sight. I liked the reality of hearing foreign languages on the street, from Polish to French, Spanish and Italian. I loved the little grocery stores that looked as if they'd been there for a century and looked like something you'd find in Italy. I loved the bread you could buy anywhere, the Italian delis that competing for the title of "Best Mozzarella in Hoboken," the cross-section of cultures--yuppies, middle class parent types, b-n-r's talking with heavy "Joisey" accents in the parks, and little elderly people conversing on the benches. I loved the hurly-burly of Washington Street, with restaurants and food shops of all kinds, the bars bursting with noisy young people and the outdoor tables at Washington Street restaurants, full of couples with strollers (so many of them twin strollers at that). I loved the occasional Sinatra song piped onto the street from local eateries, and the pictures of Frank in so many shops and restaurants.

That was when I was looking at Hoboken from the outside. I can say that after three full years I still enjoy the busy streets, the friendly and motley assortment of residents. The blog itself introduced me to some wonderful people. My friend Cristina, a transplant from Colombia and, with her husband Ron and their grown children, a citizen of the world, made a lunch date with me after reading some of those helpless early blog posts, and has been a best friend for about three years now. I learned stories of old Hoboken from a blog reader named Bob Slezak, who filled me in with wonderful tales of what the city was like in the 1950's. Early blog posts, with photos provided by Slezak, prompted comments from his friends and from others who had other memories of what Hoboken used to be like.

I know more people now. I've bought a condo. I am a resident with a New Jersey driver's license and I can give directions when asked. I wouldn't say I've quite put down roots, but I live here, and I like it.

There is a vibrant pulse to the town yet. It is many things at once, and most people who live here, although they may spend much of their time across the river in Manhattan, profess to love that certain something that exists here and nowhere else. It was a good move. I'm happy to be embarking on my fourth year.