Editor’s note: This is a guest column written by a longtime friend of Martin Relles, the regular writer for Janey Way Memories.
For Berna, Denis, Josie and me, the greatest part of Christmas was not the lights, the ornaments, or the tinsel. Not even the presents, the visit from Santa, or the two week vacation from school. It was our annual trip to Theodore Judah Elementary School on McKinley Blvd. at 39th St, where our father worked as a custodian for a number of years. He and the school had an agreement. So long as our father removed and stored away the school’s Christmas tree ornaments once the two week Christmas vacation was under way, he was allowed to remove the school Christmas tree from the school property and take it home.
And so, each year when it came time for our father to drive back to Theodore Judah, usually after dinner, the four of us would beg to go along. Our father would refuse, half-heartedly saying, “I don’t want you kids to break any of the ornaments.” We four would quickly say that we would be very careful and we would promise not to break any ornaments. Our father would give in and allow us to join him.
We would pile into the Chevrolet and accompany our father to Theodore Judah, go into the supply room and get the cardboard box that the ornaments were stored in. Then we would proceed to remove the ornaments from the Christmas tree, and as always, we would manage to break at least one, if not two of the ornaments in the process. Our father never got upset over our carelessness. Nor did our carelessness ever stop him from allowing us to join him year after year. We would store away the box of ornaments when we were finished taking them off the tree, and then we all would carry the Christmas tree and place it into the trunk of the Chevrolet where our father would secure it with a rope for its trip to its second home.
By the time we would return home, our mother would already have the area in front of the living room window cleared of any furniture and in their place would be the family Christmas tree stand awaiting the arrival of our family Christmas tree. Then, when the tree was set up in its place of honor, together we all would proceed to decorate our Christmas tree, starting with the strings of C9-sized Christmas lights, since the miniatures had not been invented yet.
The first set of ornaments to be placed onto our Christmas tree were four bells, each one representing Berna, Denis, Josie and myself, placed onto the topmost branches of the tree. A fifth bell was added representing our little brother Mark who was born on Valentine’s Day in 1961. The remainder of the ornaments were added after. The tinsel was added last so that the tree could shine bright from the large lights. The last step in the decorating process was to step outside to observe our Christmas tree from the sidewalk, where it would receive a few oohs and aahs, and then we would run back into the house to warm ourselves back up.
For several years this was our annual Christmas tradition. But, as all good things do come to an end, our annual trip to Theodore Judah ended when our father was transferred from the elementary school to work at Hiram Johnson High School in 1965. Our ages ranged from ten to fifteen years old when our annual tradition became a joyful memory that we would talk about for many years after. Unfortunately for our little brother Mark, he would never be given the opportunity to make the annual trip to Theodore Judah. He was only three years old at the time of our last trip to the elementary school. Had the tradition continued, Mark would have also had the fond memory of our trips with our father, and the opportunity to break an ornament or two.