Nostalgia is something I avoid. It suggests the good old days were better than today. Sure, we’re all facing difficult times, but I believe our best days lie ahead. This Christmas, though, I can’t help missing how things used to be.
My best Christmases were spent with my boyhood friends, Bob and Ed. We began our festivities on Dec. 21 by celebrating Ed’s birthday. You must have a party for a dude who was born on the shortest day of the year. The three of us then went Christmas shopping. We searched for bargains right up until Christmas Eve.
That night, we’d go to Midnight Mass at Ascension Church in Oak Park. As Mass began, it was daunting to leaf through the program and see just how many songs and religious rites we were going to perform. Midnight Mass was part glorious spectacle and part endurance contest.
The priest preached the same sermon every year but it was a good one. He talked about how we all had the baby Jesus inside us, waiting to be born. The music was heavenly, with the choir soaring, strings rising and parishioners singing their all-time favorite carols. Midnight Mass ended at 2 a.m., but we were just getting the party started.
We’d go back to Bob’s house to exchange presents. We first drank glasses of Christmas cheer and cranked up the carols. We called it wassailing. When Bob’s daughters were young true believers, we unwrapped their presents. They knew that Santa, like most guys, would never wrap presents. As for our own presents, we were generous to the extreme. But it was the simple gifts that meant the most.
In 1993, for example, I got Frank Sinatra’s Duets album. I didn’t get home until 4 a.m. but couldn’t wait to play it. I was a bit apprehensive because Frank’s pipes had gotten rusty. His voice was strong, though, as he sang standards with international stars. I went to sleep thinking, “Frank still has it.”
Not that I slept long. We had three young kids who were so excited about opening their presents, they were up at 5. I watched them bleary-eyed as they ripped open their packages. The presents I gave them were well-intentioned but not always well-received. Books did not thrill them, nor the Christmas I bought them all musical instruments. They’re still recovering from that.
We had already held our annual cocoa party to celebrate the decorating of our real tree. When the last ornament was hung, we turned off all the lights in the house and lit every candle we could find. We’d sip Frango Mint hot chocolate and listen to Christmas albums. We bought a new one every year. We could also gaze at our Christmas village, which grew year by year with new buildings.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light. I remember getting ready to snuggle on the couch to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. I tripped over a wire that sent candles and decorations flying. It kind of ruined the mood. Out of respect for Christmas, we kept the screaming and yelling to a minimum. Now, my daughters have their own kids to drink cocoa with.
I don’t hang out with my boyhood friends like I used to. There’s no hard feelings. Our circumstances have simply changed. We’re no longer young coyotes, as we called ourselves, keeping nocturnal hours on Christmas. We have families and significant others to party with at Christmas. When I look back, though, those Christmases with close friends and young kids were the best.
So, here’s to the coyotes and all who love wassailing at Christmas time!