With the first Sunday of Advent happening next Sunday, it made me wonder how times have changed, how people have changed, and yet in so many ways so many things stay the same.
It used to be…and it wasn’t really because of Christianity or Advent, simply because that was the tradition….no one put their Christmas trees up until until Christmas Eve day. Trees were sold at gas stations, at empty lots by charitable groups, and most would not have lasted two or three weeks inside houses for very long, many with candles instead of electric lights on them.
There were special ornaments made during World War II, both because of a shortage of materials and also as a reminder of the tens of thousands of men and women who would not be celebrating the holiday with their family but were defending the nation on battlefields in France or Belgium on ships at sea, or so many other places.
In our family, it was all about tradition! Advent was a time of preparation, but it was a religious preparation, not one for decorating the tree until Dec. 24. We all gathered around the dining room table, each with a job to get the hundreds of Christmas cards out my parents sent to their hundreds of friends and relatives. With my father a renowned newspaper reporter, his friends included the good, the bad, the innocent, and certainly the not so innocent. But all would be remembered each Christmas with a card and a prayer from the Slavins, Vince and Gladys, and their four children, Vince, Rob, Mary and Muriel.
Len Morgan was a famous photographer for the New York Journal American newspaper, and a close friend of the family, so he was also our personal photographer. And each Christmas, our card was a photo of the family in some holiday setting, either in front of the manager scene, singing carols, reading Christmas books or sitting under the tree, thanks to the clever photography talents of Uncle Len, considering the cards were in the mail long before the tree went up.
Just like Christmas, Advent was also a time of tradition. On the first of the four Sundays before Christmas, the only Christmas decoration that came down from the attic were Mary, Joseph and the donkey. My mother placed them by the front door, then every night, just before we went to bed, we would move the three statues a couple of inches. My older brothers gauged how many inches we could move them each night so that on Christmas Eve, like magic, they appeared at the door of the stable, also set up Christmas Eve morning. The manger was always empty when we went to bed, and the Infant was there when we got up in the morning, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, the donkey, as well as a few sheep and a cow. We added the shepherd Christmas morning and on Jan. 6, added three Kings and a camel.
We also had a doll cradle, which, the rest of the year, was where my sister and I played with our dolls. But for the Advent season, it came downstairs and was placed on the dining room table, a basket filled with straw my mother got from the local farm, today the site of Kean College in Union.
The idea was to ensure we had a soft bed for the Infant to have when he was born. And the way it was to be made soft depended on us. My parents would put in a straw each time we did a good deed, helped someone out, didn’t fight with a sibling when we knew we were absolutely right and would have won the fight, or went out of our way to do something special. Somehow, we always accomplished it, though I do wonder if some Christmas Eves my father tossed in a few extra straws. But it was a tradition we enjoyed throughout childhood and I passed on to my children.
I was a freshman in high school when I read the story about 4,000 Aves. In the story, a little boy wanted something very badly for Christmas and his dad told him if he said 4,000 Hail Marys during Advent, he would get his wish on Christmas morning.
To me, it sounded like the right thing to do.
At this time, my father had died, only nine days before Christmas a few years before, so Christmas always had a tinge of sadness to it as well for our family. But I wanted a dog. I really wanted a dog. We had always had dogs, always loved them, always had big dogs, German Shepherds, Irish Setters, always pets that would sleep in our beds, sit underneath the dining room table to capture scraps, serve as watch dogs against any intruders.
But after the last one died, my mother said no more.
My brothers were both in the military and not at home, my sister was a couple of years older than me in high school. I felt alone and I wanted a dog. So I decided the 4,000 Hail Marys would do it. I figured with about 25 to 30 days or so in Advent, I had to say at least 140 a day.
But a dog was worth it. So indeed I started on my pursuit.
My mother encouraged my prayers but told me God doesn’t necessarily guarantee it, and I shouldn’t be disappointed. I was unfazed. I read it in a book. I knew if I said my 4,000 Aves, I’d get my dog.
Christmas Eve, I still had about two hundred Aves to go. I began lamenting I had not kept up my quota every day, and I started to say them faster and yes, with far less attention to detail or adoration. But I wasn’t sure I could get them done in time.
Right before dinner, my mother said she had to go to the farm to get the straw for the manger, and set my sister and I to set the table and finish getting dinner ready. My sister kept talking, all the excitement of Christmas was surrounding us, and I couldn’t get all my Aves said.
My mother came home not long after, carrying the straw… along with this beautiful, little, frightened looking black puppy. She put him on the kitchen floor and I immediately went over and hugged him. When I asked her if it was our dog, she said yes, but she had not intention of getting her. The little black dog was the runt of a litter of twelve, she said, at the farm, and was the only one left sitting in the barn by herself. The farmer asked her if she wouldn’t please just take it because it would never live through the night in the cold by itself.
I finished my Aves with the dog in my arms. We named the dog Floppy, because of all the ‘flopping’ accidents she had as we were trying to housebreak and train her. She lived for many years thereafter, but my mother put her foot down and would not let me take her when I left home to be married.
When our children were born, both grandmas wanted to be called grandma, both had dogs the children adored, but they needed a way to differentiate between the two grandmas. Jimmy’s mom’s dog was a gorgeous grey Weimaraner named Winnie, and Floppy, the little black mongrel, was still around and doing well. The kids began referring to their grandmas as Grandma with Floppy and Grandma with Winnie, which eventually got shortened to Grandma Winnie, and Grandma Floppy.
My 4,000 Aves worked and I’ve never forgotten it. But the truth be told, I have never wanted anything for Christmas that much again that I ever did it a second time.