|Kevin Chase and I practice for a 1975 performance.|
Way back in the fall of 1973, I was just starting college. One of my high school classmates sent me a note in December, wondering if I was going to collect a few of my friends and serenade her with Christmas carols back in our hometown of Clarence on Christmas night. When December 25 rolled around and family dinners were finished, most 18-year-olds want to go running into the night with their friends to blow off steam. So I collected a couple of them, and off we went to my classmate Colleen's house - dressed in "gay apparel" in the "Deck the Halls" sense - jackets, ties, hats from fathers' collections, etc. We rang the door bell and started singing some simple song like "Jingle Bells."
We were prepared to do two or three songs, but Colleen's family quickly invited us in and handed us beer in order to prevent us from singing. It didn't take long for a light bulb to go on. Could this scheme work at other houses?
Indeed it could. We went to a couple of male friends' houses next, and it was a repeat performance - a few off-key notes, and a beverage. Food sometimes was thrown in as well.
It was getting a little late at that point, but we opted to make one last stop at the Cullinan residence. The Cullinans had a house full of children, and Mr. Cullinan was on the school board. Therefore, practically every kid in the school district had some sort of relationship with the family. The parents were both friendly, smart people who always took an interest in other kids' activities. That was a little unusual. I remember when I won a Letter of Commodation for PSAT scores (remember those?), Mrs. Cullinan congratulated me on it when she saw me at some school function. I was quite impressed that she noticed.
I was still a little nervous about a visit to relative strangers. But, sure enough, the formula worked quite well at that location. There was a little beer and a lot of laughter over the hour or so of our visit.
As you'd expect, none of our group forgot what had happened when December of 1974 rolled around. We made a few rounds on Christmas night, and ended the night at the Cullinans. We gave them all updates on our year, and had a good time. It was the same story in 1975 and 1976. Our apparel became less formal, but no one noticed.
College eventually ended for our group of "singers," and we moved on with our lives. Still, we knew a good Christmas tradition when we saw one. We still showed up on Christmas Night when we could in some sort of combination, although distances and jobs sometimes got in the way. We dropped the other stops on the tour, but always made a big effort to visit the family homestead on Roxbury Drive. As friend Glenn said, could they even have Christmas without us? It got to the point where someone would just hand us a beer when appeared on the front step. Our singing days apparently were over, but we still turned out.
Our best stunt involved a letter to the newspaper editor from Mr. Cullinan. He was complaining about reactions to the Bhopal chemical disaster in 1984, a horrible industrial accident in the chemical business. Mr. Cullinan, a worker in that industry, wrote about the over-the-top reaction of "wooly-hatted liberals." Naturally, that Christmas we showed up wearing wooly hats. Mr. Cullinan roared.
In fact, there were two things we could count on during such visits. We'd have a wonderful conversation for a couple of hours, not even recalling most the details later on. And if we brought a guest male visitor along, Mrs. Cullinan would try to match one of her daughters to him. My friend Mark, the Notre Dame graduate, barely escaped without Mrs. C. setting a date.
After a couple of decades, the Cullinans apparently started to wonder if we were coming back on a given year after such a long streak ... but we usually did. There were all sorts of ups and downs handed out by life to all of us, but this was a nice constant. We celebrated the victories and mourned the losses. I'm not going to say this was the absolute only time of the year that I saw the Cullinans; sometimes we'd run into each other at some function like the Clarence Center Labor Day Fair. The Cullinans again were always interested in my activities.
Eventually, the visits wound down, due to moving or work or something else as the logistics turned daunting. Mr. Cullinan passed away some years ago, and Mrs. Cullinan eventually moved into an assisted living program as she lost a few miles per hour on her mental fastball. But I always sent a holiday letter to her, and made sure she got a copy of one of my books when they came out. Son Brendan told me how in her later years, Mrs. Cullinan still got a thrill of seeing my name in the paper. In fact, she loved the newspaper - if only because it reminded her of the date every morning.
When word came this week that Mrs. Cullinan had passed away, my thoughts immediately turned to those many December 25ths. Most warm Christmas memories are associated with Santa Claus and childhoods in some sort of combination. I was lucky - I didn't need a guy in a red suit saying "ho, ho, ho" to make me jolly at Christmas. I had the Cullinans. I'm sure I'll think of those good times on December 25 for the rest of my life.
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