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Magic moments: Readers share their favorite holiday memories

For Ken Moore of Schenectady, Christmas Eve in 1968 included a Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Moore had been studying abroad for the semester.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
For Ken Moore of Schenectady, Christmas Eve in 1968 included a Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Moore had been studying abroad for the semester.

Categories: Celebrate

We asked readers for some of their favorite holiday tales, and they delivered. Here’s a collection of poignant — and comical — thoughts on seasons past.

Bonnie Mahon Van Wie, Johnstown

My favorite Christmas memory took place in 1955. I received a basketball from Santa and was so happy to be able to shoot hoops anytime I pleased.

I was born in 1943, long before Title IX Education Amendment was enacted in 1972. Unable to sit still, I was very active every day, playing with the guys in the neighborhood. We cycled, played stickball, skated, flew kites, ran races, flipped pocketknives (yikes), did yo-yo tricks and shot hoops.

It was such fun to compete with the guys, but some of my relatives criticized me for not being a “lady” like the other girls, sitting and watching quietly on the sidelines.

However, my mother never said a word about my playing in the street with the boys … being a “tomboy.”

When my school was invited to play intramural girls basketball, I was 11 years old in seventh grade. Needless to say, I was thrilled and played in both seventh and eighth grades.

We lived in Bayonne, N.J., and my mother, Ann McNulty Mahon, traveled to Journal Square in Jersey City to buy my basketball at a sporting goods store, the only one in the area at that time.

To this day, that basketball is my favorite Christmas present because my mother validated my athleticism.

She never made me feel wrong for being me. She is my hero.

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Shirley McClarey, Rexford

“Is there a string present this year? What is a string present? How does it work?” All this perhaps from a person new to the family.

After all the gifts from under the tree have been opened and admired, we notice a tag and string tucked in the branches. Whose name is on the tag? Where will it lead — the garage or attic?

It is no doubt for a large present, the string allowing less time and wrapping paper, in trying to surprise the receiver — and as always it is the best gift of all.

And now, having learned about this tip, what will be your family string present this year?

Mary Insoqna, Amsterdam

Even as a child, I was embraced by family and family gatherings on the holidays.

In later years when I had children, it was important to be together to emphasize the importance of family. The stability of the closeness, rich or poor, comes from the inner strength felt, learned by example.

To this day, even though our numbers continue to grow, we have gathered around the holidays to maintain the closeness we have celebrated for years.

This year things are different. We will practice social distancing, but made a date in the future to continue our tradition.

We have respect for the threat that challenges [us] at this time. The health of our families is our primary concern.

Joan Michel, Scotia

When I was a child, there were seven of us kids and my mom was a stay-at-home mother.

Wrapping paper was always something my parents were happy to have for us, though they were conscious of any waste. My dad was great at measuring and making sure none or very little went to waste.

Well it finally happened: One year they ran out. My mother was always ingenious creatively. So, out came the newspapers! My dad pieced together wrapping paper and newspaper to wrap a gift for each of us kids.

Turns out, ingenious as that was, even with our other traditions, all seven of us kids looked forward every year to that special gift from my dad. My mom told us that my dad had especially picked out that one gift for each of us and wrapped it himself!

I don’t know about my sisters and brothers, but to me, that was always the gift I looked forward to the most.

Ken Moore, Schenectady

It was a very good Christmas. It was also December 1968, and we had just finished spending a semester of study at the University of Caen in Caen, France. Each of us had a Eurailpass, which at that time cost $110 for a three-week rail pass. After our studies were completed, we all hopped on various trains out of Caen and began our own version of “The Grand Tour.”

Most of us traveled in groups and, as experiences like this lend themselves to, Lura, Sally, Craig and I became close traveling companions. Some of the rest of our study group had tentatively planned to meet in Vienna for Christmas. There was no special reason for choosing Vienna. It just seemed like a likely spot, considering our travel arrangements.

When Dec. 24 came along, we did indeed find ourselves in Vienna at a small hotel where our German major classmates at college in Maine stayed during their semester in Austria. There were seven of us that Christmas Eve. Doug, Dick and Dan had joined us to observe the celebration of the birth of Christ.

While walking around Vienna that day I was struck by the fact that I saw very little of the blatant commercialism that we had become accustomed to in America during that time of year. That was pleasant, and since none of us had too much money to spend on presents, we weren’t pressured into buying an inordinate number of gifts that had, at least in our society, come to signify whether Christmas was good or not. Each person received one gift, something small that could be worn, or stuffed into our stomachs or backpacks.

That evening we went out to a nearby nursery and managed to purchase one of the scraggliest looking Christmas trees anyone had ever seen. But it only cost a couple of shillings and would serve our purpose. The merchant gave us something that looked like tinsel that he had lying around his shop and we went back to one of our rooms to set up our tree. Actually, we propped it up in a corner of the room since it couldn’t stand by itself and we couldn’t fashion a tree stand out of the room’s sparse but functional furnishings.

Two of us then went out to a local store and bought some wine, cheese, meat and bread for our meal. We then sat down in front of our humble tree and opened our presents. As mangy as that tree was, it was to us at that time the most beautiful tree in the world. We passed around the food and wine, lit two candles, and began to sing Christmas carols and think about our family and friends back home.

Seven people in that room sang those hymns that meant so much to each of us at that time of year. We joined hands as we sang softly, gently and with feeling that I had never before experienced. One of us read from the Bible that he had with him, just like the Apollo VIII astronauts had just a few days earlier as they orbited the moon.

Soon, some Austrians from downstairs in the hotel’s lobby heard us singing and came up to join us. They sang in German, we sang in English — the music was the same. The innkeeper had the Latin version of “Adeste Fidelis,” so we sang that in Latin together. For the life of me, I could not remember the English words to that carol. Three days later, on the train to Berlin, and as the East German police were checking our passports and visas, the words returned to me.

After we sang the carols, someone suggested we attend the Christmas Eve Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which was about two kilometers away. Everyone bundled into his or her coats, scarves, mittens and two extra pair of socks, and headed for the cathedral. We arrived to find that the cathedral would not open its doors to the public for another half hour or so. It was bitterly cold standing in line, so half of us waited while the other half stood inside the doorway of a nearby café. We switched places every 10 minutes, but within a short period of time the crowd had become enormous.

Finally, the doors opened and the multitude surged forward into the sanctuary. On the outside it felt like I was in Grand Central Station during rush hour. From where I was standing to the entrance was about 30 feet. Because of the crush of the people, I sensed that my feet touched the ground three times in that distance.

However, once Lura and I were past the portals, the urgency of the crowd disappeared and we were all able to sit together in a pew near the altar. None of us could speak German at that time, but we all seemed to know exactly what was going on. The Lord’s Prayer, the hymns, the celebration of the Eucharist, the proclamation of the mystery of faith — all of this needed no translation for us to receive the spirit that was present in each and every one of us at that moment and at all times.

After the service, we walked back to our hotel, lost in our thoughts and feelings. At the doors to our rooms, we bid each other a good night, a merry Christmas, and gave thanks for the joy that we shared together that Christmas Eve, for the joy of our friendship, for the joy in the miracle of the birth of Christ and for the joy of being alive in this world. Then we went to sleep. It was a very good Christmas.

Previously published on Dec. 15, 1980, in the Morning News newspaper in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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Linda Post, Schenectady

When my children were in grade school, their father was a “ham” radio operator. The club he belonged to hosted a Christmas Eve chat with Santa for those who wanted to participate.

During the course of their discussion with him, they told Santa about their pet chinchilla, Fenwick. Christmas morning came with the usual excitement.

Dinner and more gifts followed at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

When we returned home, we found a branch from an apple tree (a chinchilla favorite) with a big red bow on it and a note that read, “Found this in the bottom of my sleigh when I got home so I brought it by today. Hope you and Fenwick have had a very merry Christmas. Love, Santa.”

We were all grateful for keeping the spirit of Christmas alive in our family for another year.

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