Christmas doesn’t feel the same.
One of our family holiday traditions entails my wife Karen and I schlepping to the Hamilton Mall in search of some last-minute gifts. Although we now do the vast majority of our shopping online and in Cape May — no Christmas is complete without a stroll through our hometown — we’ve made that 45-mile trek to Mays Landing every year for the last 40 years or so.
It used to be quite an adventure. Finding a parking spot within a mile of the entrance was nearly impossible. Once inside, we’d spend a couple hours weaving through a packed mall. I was the lead blocker for Karen, who would dash upfield like Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor on her way to Macy’s, J.C. Penny’s, Olympia Sports and KB Toys. She always carried the same special pocketbook — red and black with four Santas on the front and adorned with white fur — that her late Aunt Jean Hober gave her in the early 1980s.
Karen didn’t need me to block like Eagles center Jason Kelce this year.
We pulled into a deserted parking lot last Thursday and parked three spots from the entrance to Macy’s, which turned out to be one of the few stores that still exists. A once-bustling mall was virtually empty, allowing us to walk end to end in about 10 minutes. We had our pick of seats at the Food Court, which now houses four or five options.
The saddest part was seeing Santa sitting alone in the middle of the mall without a child in sight. I was tempted to go sit on his knee just to give him something to do.
We’ve still managed to maintain some traditions, however, while also starting some new ones.
Karen has always insisted on getting a real tree. That used to mean traipsing all over Cape May County to find one. Last year, we went through eight places before finding a Douglas fir in Upper Township on Dec. 23. This year, Karen heard from the grapevine otherwise known as Facebook that there was a nice collection of trees from Colorado at the Mister Softee parking lot in the Villas.
For the first time, our two oldest grandsons — Hampton (5) and Graham (3) — helped us pick one out. It cost $80, but the experience of having them with us was worth it. Plus, the kids got free ice cream as a bonus. They also helped us decorate it, which was another adventure that involved dozens of ornaments, strings of lights and packages of silver tinsel. Some of it is dangling from the branches. Most of it was in their hair.
During the decorating, we attempted to get some hints as to what the kids wrote in their letters to Santa. Hampton is hoping to find a skateboard under his tree on Christmas morning, along with various video games, puzzles, Spider-Man trinkets, etc.
We have no idea what Graham wants in his stocking. He filled the page with requests, but being 3, his handwriting isn’t the best. When his mom and dad asked him what was on it, he replied, “It’s a secret.”
“Why don’t you tell us so we make sure Santa gets it right?” they asked.
“Santa knows,” he said.
I know what he means.
Karen asks me to make out a list every year, which I usually do while drinking some of my late mother’s special egg nog. Patsy’s recipe consists of bourbon, egg nog and some vanilla ice cream. Five sips in, my handwriting is undecipherable.
“What’s this say?” she asked the other day.
“Santa knows,” I said.
Maybe I should have sat on his lap at the mall after all.