Christmas Memories


The last time I placed my shoe on the windowsill to alert Santa was on December 24th was in 1976.  This was the way Brazilian children made themselves known to Santa in case he didn’t get our letters.  It kind of worked like the searching light beam you see in movie premiere, but in reverse.  Back then, Santa used to arrive by helicopter. There was no chimney, stockings or snow.  But no one would miss those things because we didn’t know that’s how the people in the other parts of the world spent their Christmas.

Our 2nd floor two bedrooms apartment had six shoes available for guiding Santa from the North Pole to a small island in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  1976 was the first year I played along for my younger brothers. My sister and older brother already had told me about the gifts they found hidden inside the closet in my parent’s bedroom on the back of the suitcases.  Santa was out of the sack.

My parents sent the children to bed early Christmas Eve and woke us up at 11:30sh P.M. so we would be up by midnight to cheer Christmas day exactly at midnight with a glass of Sidra – a sweet sparkling apple cider – to drink and eat Christmas treats.  We ate pastel, empadas, frigideira, bacalhau, turkey and etc that we spent all day cooking, but my special treat was walnuts, it came in a bag.  Walnuts were so expensive then and only available in the month of December. We stayed up eating and celebrating until about 1:30sh A.M. and then sent to bed.  It was hard to fall sleep with the anticipation of finding the gifts by the Christmas tree.

In the morning, the first child would wake up everyone and guide us to the one gift Santa brought each of us.  After we opened and shared our news, we had the freedom to eat walnuts for breakfast and not get into trouble with my dad.  It was a magic time while it lasted.  Some years we were not awakened to celebrate Christmas at midnight.  As we got older, we went to mass at midnight and learned to cope with Christmas without gifts and special treats.

Moving forward some years, I was surprised to find walnuts in the uptown Manhattan supermarkets in the middle of July when I moved to New York in 1988! More surprising was that people were not excited about it! What is exciting about walnuts?  To me, everything…

With time, I got used to seeing my favorite Christmas food available everywhere at any time. I bought them often at first.  Then I waited until Christmas time. Walnuts didn’t have the same meaning in September as they do in December.

My shoes on the windowsill were replaced by stockings hung on the fireplace mantel; the hot summer weather of Brazil gave way to the snow days in New York; Santa’s helicopters made room for reindeer; one small gift opened on Christmas day became many gifts; and the Christmas turkey made its way into November so the lamb or ham had star placement on December 24th.  I also began to decorate the Christmas tree in November instead of in the first week in December.   My midnight feast changed to 7 P.M.  The walnuts were still on the table, mostly untouched by everyone until I brought them to the floor and taught my daughters how to play the game Cinco Marias – Five Mary’s- with the walnuts.

In my early years in New York, I would call my family on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas day.  My siblings were reunited in my parents’ house most of the time.  I used to speak with each one and often cried when I hung up the phone.  That’s the most home sick day of the year.

Change is good.  Time helps people move on and I became content with Christmas in New York.  Why not?  There is plenty of everything. I even began to cook the seven fish dishes on Christmas Eve.  I hosted friends and family, I bought the exact gifts I wanted and called my family on Christmas Eve or Christmas day instead of both.

It was a Friday morning on December 22, 1995, that everything changed.  A large red box from Macy’s arrived at my desk at work.  It looked like those gifts you get when you register for a wedding gift.  It had a huge bowl and a card that read… “Since you can’t go home for Christmas, I am sending a Brazilian Christmas to you.”  It was a box full of walnuts.  I cried and I laughed.

It turned out that just two weeks earlier I had a conversation with a friend about the Christmas meaning, how homesick I was around the holidays and shared my memories of eating walnuts at Christmas. I added that I couldn’t understand people’s lack of attention to walnuts.  And with that, I got a Brazilian Christmas in New York!

People say that we should not look at the past, especially if it doesn’t bring a warm and fuzzy feeling. Some of my childhood Christmas were fuzzy and some not at all.  My past Christmas caused me to have this fun memory about walnuts, about a dear friend who listens and most of all, about this priceless gift that brought Brazil to New York and today a bit of warm inspiration to you.  Merry Christmas!  May your memories of today be your inspirations of tomorrow.

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