A Pedacito Of Christmas In Pennsylvania, Then & Now
Updated: Jun 19
I grew up in Pennsylvania. We lived in a tiny brick house with blue shutters and a bay window looking into the backyard, where a row of evergreen trees stood in a pin-straight line. I can still remember the blizzard of ‘93.
My little sister and I, who could barely toddle in our chunky snow gear, to begin with, climbed up the snow piles my grandpa plowed against those trees. I remember being able to see right over their tips into the neighbor’s yard.
Our entire family lived nearby. My dad’s parents lived in a stone house with green ivy crawling up the front porch. It looked like a Christmas card when it snowed. My mom’s parents lived in a cozy single-level house with a pond and rows upon rows of the garden outback. I remember trying to ice skate on that pond once.
My mom was still in her 20’s then; even younger than I am now. I watched her in her 90’s hairdo and mittens, carving out figure eight’s over the ice while I shuffled along in her old skates and tried not to fall.
Christmas was magical then. It always is when you’re that young, isn’t it? Our parents used to bundle up my sisters and me (there were three of us by that point) and pile us into a little red wagon full of blankets.
They’d walk us up and down the sidewalks near our house to look at all the neighbors’ Christmas lights. I always remember this one church with tall stained-glass windows looking the best.
On Christmas Eve, the local fire company would hoist a man dressed as Santa onto the top of a firetruck. They drove around our neighborhood wishing everyone a happy holiday season and handed out candy to us kids.
Our little house was on a dead-end street, so I got double the candy. Peach rings, if I remember correctly. I still love them to this day.
Our family and extended family were so nearby then. Both of our grandparents, our four sets of aunts and uncles, and our many, many cousins. We had huge meals and gift exchanges each winter, and I still remember the excitement of being able to open our one present--always one from the grandparents--on Christmas Eve.
These days, things are different. Some of our family still live near one another but, for the most part, we’re spread out. My parents moved my sisters and me to a more rural part of the state when we were young, then they moved into separate houses after the divorce.
Each of us girls moved away to college eventually, then I moved to California after my own marriage ended.
One of my sisters lives near Philadelphia; her hours are irregular due to the nature of working for an animal rescue. My other sister lives in a historic house in Gettysburg. She has her own daughter now, and I can’t believe how fast that kid grows.
We even gained a third sister: my stepsister splits her time between Pennsylvania and Florida and is equally as strange and goofy as the rest of us.
I currently live in the Bay Area, just 20 minutes outside of San Francisco. Christmas isn’t quite the same here as it is on the East Coast. The balmy weather and sunshine generally do a lot for my mood, but some days I’d like a Christmas Tree, a warm fire, and ten feet of snow.
Obviously, it’s much harder to gather everyone together for the holidays now, but we still make it happen. My grandma finally got tired of corralling all of us grandkids into the same town for multiple holidays, so a few years ago we started having one massive holiday gathering in early January.
Everyone comes: all the grandkids and now their boyfriends and girlfriends and wives and husbands and their children. My grandma still makes the same cookies she always did, and no diet has ever stopped me from eating close to a whole tray myself. My grandpa loves trains and sets one up around the Christmas tree every year.
Depending on how far everyone has traveled and how long they’re staying in town, there’s usually a weekend-long sleepover in my grandparents’ living room and guest rooms. For years, this was the only weekend I’d voluntarily wake up early.
You can always find grandma and anyone insane enough to get up as early as she does sitting on the carpet in the dining room, back against the electric radiator, talking about the weather or when the last time was that the black bear wandered through the yard.
I usually fall asleep again with my back against the heater, but I like the sound of everyone else talking, their voices hushed for the others still sleeping, grandpa already planning when he’ll start making waffles for breakfast.
We couldn’t get everyone together in a group last year, thanks to the pandemic, but I’ve already booked my flights for this year. You better believe there’s a green spritz Christmas tree cookie with my name on it come January.
How do you stay close to your distant family members around the holidays? Tell me in the comments below.
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