A Doll of a Christmas: Mama’s Very First Chirstmas Gift
Often, as adults, we tend to remember the Christmas toys we wanted so badly as children but never received and to forget the ones we were given. Later in life we sometimes indulge ourselves with collections of these never-acquired toys. Some women collect teddy bears or delicate porcelain dolls to compensate for the ones they didn’t get as little girls, and many adult men own model cars to replace the ones they wished for but never found under the tree.
I suspect that’s why my Mom, for as long as I can remember, collected dolls: big ones, small ones, dolls of every size, style and shape. She displays them proudly every Christmas season.
Perhaps the events of one Christmas morning, many years ago, inspired Mom’s interest in doll collecting. It all began the year her family moved into the modern neighborhood of San Fernando Street in the early 1920s.
As a little girl growing up in an immigrant household, Mom experienced a time when money and jobs were scarce for her papa. The only gifts given on holidays and birthdays were an abundance of family love and her Mama’s wonderful, homemade biscottis and grandiose Italian dinners.
Traditionally, Mom’s Italian-American family celebrated Christmas Eve by attending a solemn midnight mass at the nearby Holy Family Church. Late that night, before going to bed, Mama Rizzolo would hang one of her long cotton stockings from the mantel. Come Christmas morning, the children in the household would find the stocking full of practical gifts left by the “Christmas Angel”La befana: oranges, apples, nuts and bananas.
Coming from a poor, small town in Italy, where it was a struggle to survive, Papa and Mama frowned on the New World tradition of spending hard-earned dollars on frivolous gifts and decorations. For that reason Mom stayed indoors on Christmas Day, with a faked belly ache, rather than face her neighborhood friends, who all received shiny new toys on Christmas morning.
As time went by, her papa and mama began to mellow to the modern ideas and traditions of their new country and eventually welcomed the new version of old Saint Nick and the warm holiday tradition of exchanging fanciful Christmas gifts.
Mom vividly recalls that special Christmas Eve when she received her first commercial holiday present. It happened in December 1922. The family had just welcomed the birth of her new baby sister, Antoinette. It was a time of great joy and celebration, prompting her papa to boldly announce that, come Christmas Eve, for the first time, there would be a decorated Christmas tree in the living room, and under that tree a generous gift for every family member.
Papa was working that year as a clerk at Hart’s busy downtown department store. It was there he’d seen Mom admiring a beautiful hand-woven wicker doll carriage in the store window. The doll buggies were a popular seller that season. Every little girl in the neighborhood owned one, and Papa knew how badly his little girl wanted to fit in with her new modern girlfriends. That Christmas Eve Mom was the first to open her gift from Papa. Tearing away at the plain brown paper wrapping, Mom was gloriously surprised to find the lovely doll carriage she’d seen in the store window. Mom found it impossible to sleep that night. She was filled with restless anticipation for Christmas morning and thrilled about having a gift to share with her neighborhood friends.
Early Christmas morning Mom rushed anxiously out to her front yard, clutching her new toy in hand. Mama and Papa watched proudly from the kitchen window as Mom paraded her doll carriage up and down the sidewalk, until a group of little girls gathered around her. Moments later, as Mama and Papa looked on, they saw Mom’s face sadden as her friends cruelly began poking fun and laughing at her empty doll carriage. It seems Papa had “put the cart before the horse,” so to speak, or in this case the “carriage before the doll.” Papa had given his little girl a doll buggy but had forgotten that she didn’t own a doll!
Seeing their daughter’s dejected spirits and her face near tears, Mama and Papa Rizzolo quickly called her into the house. A minute later Mom emerged again, but this time she was the envy of all the girls in the neighborhood. Although Mom didn’t have a new dolly for her carriage, she did have a brand-new baby sister who fit nicely into the doll buggy. Mama and Papa had dressed the baby in her prettiest clothes and placed her in Mom’s doll carriage, allowing Mom to take her sister on an unforgettable stroll around the block.
When Mom told this story to her baby sister, she says with a warm twinkle in her eye, “One of those girls wanted to trade me her new dolly for you, and Mama and Papa never knew how close I came to making the trade! It was quite a temptation, but I finally said, ‘Naw, I’ll keep this one. She’s got all movable parts.'”