There was no sweeter secret than elaborate Christmas mornings staged by my family.
As a child, I never laid eyes on a tree, present, decoration or Christmas garden before 6:45 a.m. Dec. 25. To this day, I marvel at the golden transformations my parents and grandparents achieved to delight the six then -little Kellys that day.
The weeks before Christmas were a time of much speculation about the anticipated event. My sister Nannie recalls the year my brother Eddie tricked Josie, the youngest of the Kellys, into believing she was getting a bicycle for Christmas.
The story, completely denied by Eddie, alleges he concocted a phony bill of sale for a bike and left it out in plain sight. There was no bike that Dec. 25 morning.
This was a roomy Guilford Avenue house with a basement that had more present-hiding crannies than the Luray Caverns. I considered it a matter of pride that I could penetrate some of the cellar's deepest recesses, such as its spider-filled "front part," beneath the front porch. There, amid the wicker furniture, my grandfather's wedding suit and unloaded Civil War firearms, was much unwrapped Christmas plunder.
My mother to this day considers herself an excellent and tireless shopper who delights in delivering unexpected gifts and surprises.
In her heyday, she excelled in sailing up and down Howard, Eutaw and Charles streets, across Lexington, then fanning out along the Light Street (South Baltimore) and Gay Street (Belair Market) districts. This completed, she raided the old West Redwood Street Harry P. Cann wholesale toy warehouse, where she had a coveted and rare private account.
Christmas morning may have been a state secret, but what preceded it was not. First came those bushels of unopened oysters from the Cross Street Market's Johnny Nichols, one of the great South Baltimore characters. Then the huge turkey, delivered by the Maryland Hotel Supply Co.'s green truck, arrived.
There were loaves of stuffing bread in yellow waxed-paper wrappers from the Western Maryland Dairy. Cranberries would be prepared and put in Great-Grandmother Stewart's best cut glass bowl. The metal baby bathtub was hauled out of storage and filled with nutmeg-sprinkled eggnog. The cold pantry was at its fullest.
Some of my happiest pre-Christmas memories revolve around the sunny kitchen, its Oriole range and the marble counter slab where Grandmother Lily Rose and her sister, my Aunt Cora, toiled in semi-peace and occasional harmony.
They were exacting bakers. For Christmas, they made chocolate, orange, coconut, pound and fruit cakes. The coconut grated at the Lexington Market was not good enough for them. They axed their own at the cellar work bench vise, cut off the brown shell and then hand-grated their own sweet white coconut meat.
Their sugar-nutmeg cookies had no equal. December's output went into heavy crocks once used for curing their homemade sauerkraut. These stoneware jars didn't have lids, so the sisters stretched old plastic shower caps over the tops.
There also was a storm of pre-Christmas cleaning. Even though the draperies had been washed but a few weeks earlier (fall housecleaning), they were baptized again in December. The floors were waxed with a sheen equal to any bowling alley's. But no decoration went up, except for a red runner on the dining room table. And two or three days before the 25th, a pair of orange light electric candles went in the front windows.
There were a few Christmas secret lapses. We juniors perched on the cellar steps to catch a glimpse of the telltale orange-and-blue Lionel electric train boxes masked by an old World War II blackout curtain hung up over the room where my father and uncles made the Christmas garden. I'll hand it to my father. We never really knew what was going on.
There were no exceptions to the early-to-bed rule at home, on Christmas Eve and every other night as well. The four girls slept in the big front bedroom that opened to a hall and staircase. It was technically possible to lean over the railing and sneak a peek at the living room, particularly one armchair where sister Mimi's loot was traditionally placed. Mimi took full advantage of looking over the banister to snag an advance glimpse of Santa's largess. My sister Ellen never had such preview luck.
The morning of the 25th dawned early. The extra paste wax on the front steps made for a lightning-fast plunge in Bugs Bunny feet-in pajamas.
The sound of Aunt Cora's key in the front door usually signaled that it was OK to race downstairs. She officially was the first up that day, off to Msgr. John J. Duggan's 6 a.m. mass.
In later years, the Santa secret just got too old to prolong. First the older Kellys begged to stay up late and help put up the tree on Christmas Eve. Then we eventually succumbed to fashion and put the thing up several days in advance, trimming the balsam branches by committee of six.
In the 1970s, a particularly hefty evergreen was weighted down with the usual 10 tons of ornaments and lead tinsel. My sister Nannie recalls there was some dancing in the living room that Christmas Eve.
About 5 a.m. came the crash -- not on the roof, but in the direction of the chair where my presents were stacked. Alas, the tree had capsized. It lay in a pile of shattered glass.
And, as a fitting and permanent tribute, the skid marks left by the falling tree-top angel's wings are still on the ceiling. I viewed them the other day. Merry Christmas.