By Tim Kromholtz
Above, the Kromholtz Children, Tim, Kevin, and Karen, sit on Santa’s lap, 1966. Tim’s brother Kevin (center) is not too sure this is such a good idea. Photo courtesy of the Kromholtz Family Archives.
As a child growing up in Spokane, the month long, escalating frenzy of anticipation for Christmas morning made my sister, two younger brothers, and me temporarily insane. We lived at 1024 E. Baldwin in the Gonzaga neighborhood in the 1960s. My parents decreed all things Christmas were forbidden until the day after Thanksgiving, and now as an adult myself, I still can’t agree more with this simple rule.
As a Catholic family, we knew that the Christ the King Mass falls on the Sunday before the first Sunday in the season of Advent, which is the four Sundays before Christmas. The Advent wreath tradition has its four candles – one candle is lit for each successive Sunday of Advent at dinner. For the children in my family, it seemed almost a cruel torture, this ritual of Advent. Its sole purpose seemed like a cultural conspiracy to tease children by constantly telling us how far Christmas was away. A week was an eternity in “kid time.”
We began the season by compiling and coalescing our Christmas list for Santa. At that age, kids don’t have to think about what they want. They already know what they want, and it was just a matter of whether it was feasible or if a judicious pruning was necessary to get the list size down to a sack that could fit on Santa’s sleigh.
Somewhere around the first week of Christmas season came the venerable TV program, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Even as a 6-year-old, I was sure I had heard of the bad winter that Burl Ives, or “Sam the Snowman,” referred to in the program. Children have a natural sense that important things have happened before they were born. Hearing the retelling of stories from their elders builds a strong sense of who they are.
In school, we also started rehearsing Christmas songs for the school Christmas program. It was held on the last Tuesday before Christmas vacation in the dominant landmark of the then much more humble Gonzaga University Campus: our beautiful and majestic, turn of the century Romanesque edifice, St. Aloysius Church. The Christmas pageant was an impressive feat of order and discipline! Our teachers, the Holy Names Sisters, kept 600 students from grade one through eight of St. Aloysius Grade School mostly quiet and reverent for 90 minutes.
As a parent of St. Aloysius Grade School children myself, more recently, the differences from my childhood pageants are striking. Back then, there were more than double the number of students, but the church was probably not as full. Now there are fewer students but the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles fill the church to capacity. In today’s culture of fewer children and divorce, grandparents usually outnumber the children handily and the atmosphere more closely resembles a pep rally.
Another impressive feat of the sisters in cleverness, but perhaps with not such lofty motives, was that the school scheduled a week of vacation prior to Christmas. The faculty thus avoided up to 5 days of educational futility – grade school children wound up tighter than cheap alarm clocks completely impervious to new knowledge. We students knew this sizable pre-Christmas portion of vacation was a bad deal because we were unable to enjoy a whole week of our vacation wracked with the anticipation of Christmas, and besides, we wouldn’t have our new toys to play with yet, either.
My father introduced us to rebroadcasts of The Cinnamon Bear, on Spokane radio station KHQ, which was a children’s serial radio program from the classic radio era. This program in itself was a teasing build-up of suspense, and it finished its entertaining adventure on Christmas Eve. We older kids thought one of the main characters, the little boy Jimmy, was a dork. His exclamation, “Gee Willikers!” was not quite up to our “coolness” standard. The Paddy O’Cinnamon character’s ambigious identity was somehow disconcerting, too, but we really got a kick out of watching our youngest brother revel in the nightly episodes. He even won a prize in a drawing the station conducted. We really felt special when we heard his name called in the list of winners by the radio announcer, Ira Joe Fischer.
Our father, one year, read to us aloud, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which delighted our imaginations and naturally motivated us to watch the movie starring Alistair Sim. That became the must-see, late Advent movie.
No Advent was complete without a family drive in the 1963 Studebaker Lark Wagon to see residential Christmas light displays. Various suburban neighborhoods were the best bet to see high concentrations of Christmas lights. The East Glass neighborhood in North Spokane with its glamorous low profile modern ranchers was so completely and consistently decorated that it would become inundated with cars (and it still is today). Drivers switched off their headlights as they drove down the neighborhood streets, the headlight beams rendered unnecessary because of all the Christmas lights.
Shopping trips to downtown department stores, The Crescent, The Bon Marche, and others, brought up the thorny issue of multiple Santas, which my parents explained by calling the multitude, “Santa’s Helpers.” We reckoned the Santa who rode on a Spokane Fire Department truck through the neighborhoods just one time before Christmas was the real Santa. If the situation in which Santa was presented provided exclusivity we were more inclined to consider him the real thing.
As a young Catholic, in my primitive theology, Christmas Eve Mass was the price, that necessary suffering required to get to the promised land – Christmas morning. In hindsight, it was an authentic Catholic sensibility. Purgatory seems like a fair comparison. Being so close to the goal, my siblings and I had tremendous powers of focus. That and a healthy fear of my father kept us well-behaved at Mass. Just below the conscious level, the knowledge was there that Christmas without the religious foundation rendered it shallow.
After Mass we drove home, all the while our parents noting the late hour and watching the skies warily as they would say, “Boy! I hope we get home before Santa arrives.” In a story that would be in the lore of future Christmases, one of the kids was sure he saw a fleeting glimpse of the “real” Santa and his sleigh off in the night sky. We were rushed to bed and told to fall asleep quickly and threatened with bodily harm for any signs of being awake. I remember being in a hurry to fall asleep so the morning would come sooner. It was futile. I counted sheep, but it was agony. My mind was racing at light speed, and the minutes hung like days, but I am sure it all took place in a couple of hours at most. I always finally fell asleep at some kind of a decent hour because I always woke up and got out of bed well before dawn.
My father, through painful experience, laid down the law that no presents were to be opened or even looked at until the streetlights went out at first light. As Christmas falls very near the winter solstice and Spokane is situated only 100 miles south of the northernmost part of the contiguous states, it results in dawn being way too late for anticipation-wracked kids. My brothers and I would stand watch out our back window, keeping our streetlight vigil with a diligence an Army post commander could only dream of from his soldiers.
When the actual moment really, actually arrived, when the streetlight went out, the floodgates of our remaining adrenaline were burst open as we threw open the pocket doors to the living room. We woke the rest of the house with bombastic shouts and door slams.
The ultimate responsibility for our fervor lay with our father because he cultivated it mightily. The Christmas morning extravaganza was such a stark contrast to the rest of the year.
We were not well-off in those days. My father had been laid off from his job at Boeing, so we had moved from Seattle so he could take a job in his true calling as a chemistry teacher at a cash-strapped Catholic high school, Gonzaga Preparatory. My parents practiced year-round frugality in a highly disciplined manner. My mother skillfully strove to make edible meals from the worst cuts of meat. I’ll never forget the percussive, machine gun sound of the pressure cooker, laboring all day to beat a small, God-forsaken chunk of stew meat purchased from Low Cost on Division Street into something that could be chewed and swallowed. We ate out only one day a month, on payday, at a “burger joint,” my dad’s name for a hamburger stand. Often it was the Paul Bunyan on Division. We loved the entertaining drive-through driveway, with the wall imaginatively painted with all the menu items. I remember the “Green River” soda drink was a favorite that other drive-ins didn’t offer.
In contrast to our humble way of life, Santa’s presents were always top-notch, which really hardened our belief in the white bearded man in red. Our parents could never have afforded this great stuff!
The gifts I remember most vividly are the ones with which my dad would participate with us kids. Johnny Lightning race cars! Electric football and Pro Football strategy! Dad was the undisputed “King of the Castle” and his participation meant it was the family focus. Playing at a competitive level in these games with Dad meant recognition and respect. My dad never made phony praise for trying hard, but rather, he praised real accomplishments, which fostered self-respect rather than a dubious self-esteem without foundation.
We played these games for substantial amounts of time. Electric football took about five minutes to set up for each play, which, upon reflection, isn’t that different than contemporary pro football. Then, when you turned on the vibrating steel playing field, the pieces would go in almost completely random directions. There was a pathetic little grey felt “football” that was wedged into the hand of the running back. I remember the best play was something like the old flying wedge formation. We actually ordered two more deluxe sets of players for electric football which had the highly desirable hand painted players in place of the much worse, larger, monochromatic, softer plastic standard players, so we must have found a way to enjoy it.
On Christmas afternoon, we would load up in the station wagon and head to one of my Dad’s sisters who lived in town. One of these brave aunts was chosen that year to host the Christmas feast for sometimes as many as nine adults and nearly 20 kid-cousins. I was the oldest, so if I was ten, the rest were younger. I am sure my mother won the lottery in some of those years and was the hostess, so leaving the house to go to our aunt’s and uncle’s homes must have made those memories more vivid.
I always looked forward to the feast because of the opportunities to eat huge quantities of some of the few foods I liked as a kid. I have a theory that kids’ young taste buds are so sensitive that only the mildest foods can be enjoyed. I can remember savoring the delicacy of plain Wonder Bread, de-crusted, wadded, and compressed into a dense dough ball. I much preferred plain macaroni with just butter than any tomatoey sauce. Only simple, mild, and homogeneous flavors and textures were what I liked. I can remember being upset that different foods on my plate became mixed up. My grandmother would say,” Oh! My dear! It all mixes in your stomach.” That certain inevitability offered me little solace.
My aunts were naive enough to put out black olives before dinner. I can remember harried matrons asking, ”who ate all the olives?” Despite the usual suspects attesting that they had only eaten “four or five,” instead several pounds of the salty, oily condiment were, at that moment, quickly being metabolized into kinetic energy in the form of frenetic games and sports. I think my mother gave up bringing her fluffy, flaky, delicious mashed potato dough dinner rolls because a few boys, in about two minutes, could devour what took her all day to prepare.
The Christmas brew of suspense, lack of sleep, unmitigated glee and gluttony came with a price – the Christmas Evening Letdown. The weather didn’t usually help, either. Spokane’s climate is generally moderated by Pacific Ocean weather systems. As December temperatures hovered around freezing, oftentimes a beautiful, fresh, white powder snow that hushed the ambient noise of the city would fall overnight. This winter morning dreamscape would, as the temperature rose, often deteriorate throughout the day so much that by dark, around four o’clock, it was a wet, grey drizzle. The unromantic sound of car tires slapping wet pavement and slopping slush rose from throughout the city, and the wonderland was no more. The Greatest Day of the Year was indeed over and the reality of three to four more months of the daunting Spokane winter was in store. I was grateful enough to at least attempt not to show my melancholia to my parents. To console myself, I would hopefully have a toy I could take into bed with me. I distinctly remember taking a Daisy Air Rifle to bed with me, and I was not younger than ten years old.
Later, as a father myself, I strove to provide a wonder-filled Christmas for my kids worthy of my parents’ great example.