Tag Archives: Christmas

Celebrating a Christmas Tree Ritual

Waking up to a coating of fresh snow this morning has me thinking more of the upcoming holiday and everything I still need to get done by Dec. 25.

I am actually a little ahead of schedule this year, as I went out with some of the kids and cut down a fresh Christmas tree at a local farm that is donating some of the proceeds to our high school.  

Growing up in New York City and living in an apartment for many years, we always had an artificial tree that my parents took down from the closet and painstakingly put together, added lights and decorated.

I always loved placing the ornaments on the tree. I still do.  

Year after year we went through this ritual. A more realistic artificial tree replaced that original one, and we used this for years even when we moved into our own house.

We did eventually have some real trees to celebrate the season. It was more mess to clean up but it made the house smell festive.

After we were married and in a new place, our first Christmas together we did not have a lot to fill our house.  We had a bed and a few pieces of furniture.  

Our dining table consisted of a closet door propped up on paint cans.

Our dining room “table.”

 I had a small 13-inch TV, no cable, a VCR and some VHS tapes for entertainment, and some pillows to sit on, or a paint can if you preferred.

For our first Christmas, our new neighbors took us to a tree farm that seemed to be on the side of a mountain. Of course this was a new experience for us as we were both city people. We were way out of our element in the wilds of northern New Jersey.

It was snowing and cold, and being the perfectionist that I am, I had to choose the perfect tree.

My wife was ready to kill me as we trudged through the hundreds of trees, blowing snow, feet numb with the cold. Finally I settled on one after being threatened with divorce and death

I had to lay down on the snow and cut the trunk with a hand saw. There is a first time for everything; trust me, this was not as easy as it looked.

Then we dragged that heavy tree down the mountain and the tree farm helpers wrapped and loaded it into the trunk of our car. Note to self: A pick-up truck works better.

 So we set up our first tree in an empty living room with just a few ornaments and a new tradition was born.

Since then we have had many different trees, of various shapes and sizes, so many more ornaments and decorations than the first one, especially all the hand-made ones done by our kids over the years

We have also had some memorable trees.

One year we had a new dog in the house, Smokey. He had never experienced a Christmas tree before. The tree was up and Smokey went over to sniff it and up went his leg.  That year the tree spent most of its time behind a child fence to prevent another unauthorized watering.

The best one yet was after we brought home our fresh-cut tree and as we started to put lights and decorations on, one of the kids screamed that there was a mouse in the bathroom!

We were able to capture it alive and we let it go outside. 

When I put the lights on the tree, I found a nest in the middle of the tree near the trunk.  I just can’t imagine how scared this mouse was as I cut down this tree and dragged it to the truck, wrapped it up, drove it home, carried it into the house and mounted it on the stand.

This poor little guy stayed put, terrified in its nest and survived all the way into the house, only to get chased and trapped. I hope it found shelter and survived after that incredible journey.

Our journey continues now too as the most recent tree sits in the garage waiting for us to clear the living room and move the couch so we can set up and decorate this year’s Christmas tree.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays.

Childhood Memories Built of Legos

As Christmas approaches, it stirs memories of one of my favorite childhood toys: Legos.

I was an avid collector of the tiny bricks that snapped together but Legos in the 1970s were a lot different.

Back then, they did not have as many little figurines and cool components as they do today.

The sets were much more simple and largely consisted of the little plastic rectangles and a set of instructions.

If the kit was really high-end, it might have some moving parts, like wheels, and maybe a sticker!


The weeks before Christmas were a time of high anticipation for me, and not just because Santa was coming.

My aunt and uncle in Germany would ship a huge package of chocolate, candy, gifts and, most important to me, a Lego set that you could only find in Europe.

From gas stations to firehouses to a lunar lander, these kits were absolutely the bomb!

I lacked the patience and aptitude to glue tiny pieces together and to follow what felt like endless instructions so I was not a builder of traditional models of planes or ships.

But Legos were democratic that way.

There was something so satisfying about following the illustration-only Lego instructions (no text) and coming away with a completed project.

I can remember getting small models at the Macy’s in the Bronx for 50 cents and I could hardly wait to get home to build them.

I had quite a collection of the assembled sets, which I arranged into dioramas of cities, harbors and lunar landings.


My family made trips to Germany when I was 6 and 13, and both times we made a bus trip to the Legoland amusement park in Billund, Denmark. The park, which opened in 1968, was the only Legoland in the world at the time. (Today, there are seven, with another one planned for New York.)

Getting to the one in Denmark was a three-hour bus ride from where we were in Germany, but it was worth every minute.


I was agog.

Everywhere were these intricate models of zoo animals, cities and airports made of Legos.

On the second visit, the park had expanded and featured a replica of Mount Rushmore made out of 1.5 million Legos!


The news that a $500 million Legoland amusement park could be opening in Goshen, N.Y., within an hour’s drive of the Poconos, has me giddy with excitement.

The developers hope to open it by 2019, though the project has drawn considerable opposition over issues like traffic.

I don’t know if it will happen or not, but it would be a way to tap into one my favorite childhood pastimes.

You can take the boy out of the Legos but you cannot take the Legos out of the boy!

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Remembering the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings in Newtown

Note: Today marks the fourth anniversary of the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., which took 27 lives. 

I wrote this column when I was executive editor at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa. It appeared in the paper on Dec. 27, 2012.

Weeks before the mass murders made Newtown, Conn., a household name, we had planned to spend Christmas Day with a friend there.

She had recently finished months of chemotherapy and radiation and we thought it a good idea to visit. Then the shootings happened and suddenly our plans to go to Connecticut took on a different meaning.

The visit became more of a mission trip: I had a calling to do something since we would be within five minutes of Sandy Hook.

My wife, son Daniel and I brought the makings of a hearty kale soup, dessert and pick-ons and spent a relaxing, affable afternoon with our friend and her cat, Joey.

I had packed a small tin of homemade cookies that I had decided I would give to whatever poor flatfoot had to work sentry duty on Christmas Day in downtown Sandy Hook.

Against the enormity of what had happened there, this would be the merest of gestures. But it felt like a tangible offering that might say something to a stranger for a moment.

After we left our friend’s, we stopped at a makeshift shrine/memorial housed in a large white tent off I-84’s Exit 10.

Just across from the Newtown Diner, the memorial was unmistakably marked by a huge American flag hanging from a bucket truck.

Meg opted to stay in the car with Dan.

I went in. I was tentative.

A friendly young man wearing an ID tag around his neck assured me it was OK to go in, that it was a place to meditate, to pray or just observe.

Inside, piled high were collections of flowers and stuffed animals. Large white posters were available to sign. A wave of grief struck me with such ferocity, it literally left me breathless.

I signed a card and scanned the displays, my eyes looking but not really seeing.

We then drove into downtown Sandy Hook. There were few Christmas lights in Newtown, but only a mile down the road, we came on an oasis of light.

Candles, notes, stuffed animals, cards and flowers over-filled the width and length of sidewalks of Sandy Hook’s downtown.

I had not seen anything like it or felt anything as powerful since a visit to Ground Zero on Sept. 25, 2001.

Live Christmas music filled the quiet street. A young man, oblivious to the cold, played a piano perched outside a storefront.

It was a scene both surreal and comforting.

And there they were: Two cops bundled against the cold wearing reflective vests, keeping an eye on traffic and visitors.

Overwhelmed, Meg opted again to stay in the car. To my admiration, my 14-year-old son flanked me, carrying the tin of cookies, as we approached the cops.

I tried to talk but, overcome by emotion, my voice cracked like a boy going through puberty.

They at first demurred when we offered the cookies, but when we said we had come from Pennsylvania, one of their faces lit up.

Where in Pennsylvania, one asked. The Poconos. Oh, he said, beautiful country. I ran a marathon there this summer and golfed there.

They graciously accepted our humble offerings, his partner taking the tin to a nearby patrol car.

Taking off his glove, the Pocono marathoner offered a warm handshake and wished us a Merry Christmas.

Maybe those cops were not exactly the shepherds tending their flock, and we were not exactly the three kings bringing gifts, but in the overwhelming darkness that had befallen us all, Sandy Hook on Christmas night offered me a glimmer of light and the promise of hope.

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Food and Culture Come Together at the Holidays

Coquito y Empanadas!

For the past 23 Christmases I have been able to share the joyous holiday spirit with my lovely wife.

We combine two very different Hispanic cultures and customs.

To outsiders, Hispanics all seem to be the same because we share the same language from the mother country of Spain, Hispanics vary widely in words, customs and traditions.

Caribbean Hispanics differ from Central American Hispanics, and those differ immensely from South American Hispanics.

To compound the issue further, there are smaller subsets of those major groups that also differ from each other. But it is that diversity that strengthens us.

The blend of Hispanic traditions and cultures is huge in my family.

My wife hails from the northern part of Puerto Rico — the Bronx. (I kid.) Yes, she was born in the Bronx, but her Puerto Rican heritage is strong and forged by very many long summer vacations in Puerto Rico.

For my part, I was born in Argentina, the southernmost of Hispanics. I lived many years of my childhood in Argentina.

So through marriage we combined our cultures and traditions and no place is it more apparent than during the holidays.

From the pernil and pasteles at Thanksgiving to the asado on Christmas Eve, foods blend and bring together the cultures.

So this Christmas, like so many before, I proudly make a Coquito recipe entrusted to me by my wife’s aunt from Puerto Rico and I also will indulge in a batch of my Mom’s Argentine empanadas.

But, of course, I will share with friends. It is, after all, the most wonderful time of the year.

Merry Christmas y Feliz Navidad!

A Grandfather’s Blessing

Christmas is here, and I remember when I was a young kid and celebrating this joyous holiday with my family, having a ball hanging with so many cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandparents.

Christmas Eve was the night when all of my Mom’s family would gather to celebrate.

She was one of seven children, five sisters and two brothers, and with their respective kids, other relatives, friends and my grandparents, they filled my grandparents’ apartment with two to three dozen people.

It was loud and hot, and the smell of all the food was great, but the most important thing to the kids back then was the mountain of gifts that was stacked up all over the place, divided by family.

My grandfather would then get everyone’s attention and give his blessing to the family, giving thanks for our health and for being together as one family.  I’ll always remember his deep and powerful voice that exclaimed his love and pride for everyone there.

Then he would hand over the ceremonies to one of the uncles or older cousins to announce and distribute the gifts to one family at a time.  They would read the tags and we would cheer and carry on with love and good humor.  The best, of course, was that the young kids would always be first and receive a gift that was a toy.

Oh the joy of Christmas!

Santa’s Special Key and His Secret Helpers

As a kid, I’d walk around my neighborhood and there would be an endless array of Christmas trees and lights in people’s apartments.

It was beautiful going to sleep and miraculously finding presents under the tree the next morning.  Thank you, Santa!

But we didn’t have a fireplace for him to come down, so we apartment kids were told that Santa had a special key to get into all of our homes.  One year I heard a noise about two in the morning and crept out to peer into the living room.

I watched as my oldest brother and my dad played with some of the toys.

Santa must’ve come early, I thought, as I returned to bed. I awoke in the morning to find toys and clothes wrapped underneath the tree. I was told that Santa brought the wrong batteries and that my brother and dad had met him and they were appointed his elves that year.

I strained to stay awake the following year but again Santa had come and gone in almost an instant.

One year I was so excited upon getting a garbage truck. Perhaps my dad was preparing me for a city job?

One of my aunts would always give us clothes. One year it was socks, another year hats, and the following year gloves. By the fourth year, it was socks again.

I have 12 nieces and nephews. Although some are first cousins of my nieces and nephews, I consider them family. I guess that’s the true gift of Christmas: family, friendship and love.