by Joanna Paxinou
Christmas is one of my fondest memories growing up in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. I always loved Christmas! Almost the whole neighborhood participated in lighting up for the holidays. Our decorations weren’t nearly as grand as the stores on Fifth Avenue like Tiffany’s, Saks Fifth Avenue or the Rockefeller Center. But our decorations had heart.
As a little kid walking around Ninth Avenue with my Mom, everything looked magical. All the stores and most homes had bright, flickering lights in their windows. I loved the smell of the fresh evergreen Christmas tress and wreaths being sold on the street. (They’re still selling them today along Ninth Avenue.) Everyone seemed to be in a lighter mood. I saw smiles on a lot of neighbors’ faces.
And I remember the street vendors who sold hot chestnuts. We’d always buy a bag and open the chestnuts carefully. They were so hot. You’d have to slowly peel away the skin and then eat the chestnut. So good! We’d eat and walk along Ninth looking at all the decorations. What special, magical times.
My last Christmas in Hell’s Kitchen is an especially fond memory. It was Christmas Eve and I went out that evening. My Mom was supposed to get our Christmas tree. She always bought it…and she always waited for the last minute on Christmas Eve, thinking that she would get the cheapest price because the tree seller would rather sell cheap than have to lug trees away. Mom had lived through the Great Depression, so she was very cautious financially.
Uncle George (my father’s brother) would go along to help carry the tree home. He lived right across the street from us, and he loved Christmas as much as I did.
When I got home that night, I walked through the darkened living room and almost tripped on something lying on the floor. I didn’t bother to see what it was, but headed to the kitchen where my Mom was sitting at the kitchen table sewing. (She made all my beautiful clothes. She was a terrific dressmaker.)
“Where’s the tree?” I asked. “You tripped over it,” she told me. Stunned, I walked back into the living room and turned on the lights. There, lying on the floor, were a few twigs. “This isn’t a tree. What is it?” Mom explained that this year, she had waited too long to buy a tree. Her usual vendor had sold out everything.
Discouraged, she headed home just in time to see Mrs. Rankin, our second-floor neighbor, holding what looked like a small tree. Her door was open so Mom stopped to ask her about the tree in her hands. Mrs. Rankin explained that she had bought a huge tree that was too tall for her apartment. So she had the top cut off and was going to throw it away. Mom asked if she could have it.
So that’s how we got this forlorn Christmas “tree” that year. Early Christmas morning, Uncle George came over to help me decorate our tree. The “tree” was definitely lopsided. There were more branches on one side than the other. What a sad little tree.
I hung two balls on the same side and the tree almost toppled over, but Uncle George had caught it. So we continued carefully decorating the tree. We slowly put on very small Christmas lights, and sprinkled a few strands of silver tinsel. And I have to say the sad, little tree started to look brighter. It didn’t look forlorn anymore. It looked a little tough, but it kind of perked up and had personality…a little like Hell’s Kitchen.
I’ve had many Christmas trees since then…tall ones, table top trees, silver ones, even a white tree, but I always remember that little guy, and what a little love and care can do to brighten things up.
Thank you for reading my blogs—I hope you enjoy them. Merry Christmas, if you celebrate the holiday…and best wishes to everyone for a wonderful New Year.