Toys break, Christmas trees dry out and are tossed away. But memories of joy last forever -- and holiday disappointment lasts even longer. We asked some Pittsburgh figures about their best, and worst, holiday memories, and here's what they came up with.
Rick Sebak, local documentarian
Worst holiday memory: "One of my worst holiday memories was Christmas Eve of 1973. I was studying in France, and I had decided to go to Ireland for the holidays because my mother was able to get some information about her family: With an ancient address in hand, I thought it would be fun to look for family over Christmas. I was traveling with my friend Liz, and we trained and ferried and hitchhiked and bused our way to the town of Dungloe, in County Donegal. It was a cold, damp day. We got there about 3 or 4 in the afternoon, but it was already dark in that part of the northern hemisphere, and we had no reservations. We assumed the hotel would be too expensive, so we started checking out bed-and-breakfast places.
"'We're closed,' the first woman said. 'We're not taking guests over the holidays,' said the next. We went to every B&B in Dungloe. 'Closed,' they all told us.
"We were crushed. We didn't want to sleep outside on Christmas Eve. 'How can they turn away a young man and woman traveling on this night?' Liz asked.
"'It certainly takes chutzpah,' I said.
"We eventually gave up and got high-priced rooms at the hotel, but being turned away from all the bed-and-breakfast places gave me new understanding of the phrase 'There was no room in the inn.'"
Leslie Mcilroy, poet and writer
Best holiday memory: "I hate Christmas. ... I'm a diabetic. I can't really eat the cookies. [But] since I have a child [6-year-old Silas], Christmas morning is the best [darned] morning in the world. ... She believes. ... I guess I have a year or so left of that."
Worst holiday memory: "The Christmas after my stepfather, Sam Maxwell II, died. I was very close to him. He had gone for a run and never came back. He had had a cardiac arrest, I believe, on Penn Avenue, around the Evergreen Cafe. He was an artist, a musician, a teacher, athlete. He was everything to me.
"Eventually, my mother had the plugs pulled, knowing he would never want to stay alive in a less-than-sentient state. He died in our home -- on our couch -- and we were thrown into some horrible dark place for a very long time, which included the approaching holidays. What I remember about that Christmas was not so much anything that happened, but being conscious of what didn't. What wasn't.
"I remember (even at 13) holding very tight to the stuffed ape he had given me three Christmases before, wishing I could have him back. I remember the smell of Old Spice.
"See, now I'm crying."
David Johnson, news anchor, WPXI
Best gift: "In the early 1970s, it was a Monday Night Football electronic game, made by Aurora. It was endorsed by the ABC network, and Roger Staubach of the Cowboys was on the front. I grew up in Florida and I liked the Steelers, but this was the coolest game in the world. I remember having to put all this together and it was not easy. My family didn't have much money, and it was probably a $20 toy.
"I played it all the time. It didn't have players, but plays would light up on the board and it would tell you the results. It was in the shape of a stadium, and I can tell you they [go for] lot of money on eBay now. I'm thinking of getting one, actually.
Worst gift: "A pair of socks -- a classic bad gift from either an aunt or a grandmother. I wasn't going to throw it back in her face -- 'Are you kidding me?! Socks?!' -- but I was thinking, 'C'mon, at this point, give me the cash.' But I didn't."
Johnny Angel, doo-wop vocalist and drummer with Johnny Angel and the Halos
Worst (and best) gift: "I'm a product of the 1950s, and TV was like iPods now -- you had to have one. Some of my friends from the better suburbs were just starting to get color TVs, and I asked my dad if we could have one and my dad being a very hard-working, very strict individual said, 'We'll see what we can do.' On Christmas morning, I opened up this box, and it was about 4-inches-square-by-3-foot-long, and on the box it said 'New Color TV.' Inside, it was a piece of cellophane that you put it over your screen. The top was blue, the middle was yellow and bottom was green. I still have it -- it's all deteriorated and taped together, but I use it as part of my shows when we do a skit about old TV. It was a let-down then, but it's paying off now."
Monty Meza-Clay, professional boxer and No. 1 contender to the World Boxing Organization featherweight title
Worst holiday memory: "Now this here, I remember like it was yesterday, but it was probably eight, 10 years ago. My dad had bought my mom this glass lantern. It was beautiful -- this thin, tinted glass that fit over this candle. So, we're all watching as he's trying to put this thing together. And then -- crash! This thing shattered in his hand, and blood started just pouring from his hand. We're all running around throwing towels at him, but blood's dripping on the ground and then it starts squirting up in the air all over everything. We took him to the emergency room. So yeah, the worst Christmas I remember is when we took my dad to the hospital because we thought he was going to bleed to death."
Donnie Iris, leader of classic-rock Pittsburgh legends Donnie Iris & The Cruisers
Best gift: "They've all been good, [but] our record 'The Rapper' began to hit in March 1970. And right at Christmas time, I was fortunate to receive a gold record. ... [T]o actually have that in my possession, that was a great feeling."
Worst gift: It "might have been a shoe-shiner" Iris received around 1976 or 1977. "I definitely re-gifted that. I didn't really shine shoes back in those days, and I rarely do today."
Aileen Ruiz, veterinarian and host of Elise's Playground, a local series of fetish balls
Best gift: "While I was doing an internship for veterinary medicine in New Orleans, for Christmas 2004, a local vet sent me a gift congratulating me on finishing my internship. He sent me a merkin -- a pubic wig -- as a gag gift."
Worst gift: "When I was young, my mother had a habit of buying three presents continuously each year, and I hated it: a jewelry box, gold jewelry and lotion. Every year it was the same thing. I really think it's a Cuban thing, I really do. All my Cuban friends get the same thing for the holidays in Miami."
- Photo by Isaac Rullo Conceptual Artistry
Phat Man Dee, cabaret singer
Best holiday memory: "I am half-Jewish and my mother's side is Methodist, and they are intermarried with Muslims and Native Americans and, in my mom's case, with Jews. As a child, I always thought it a minor miracle that Santa ever found us at all. When I was 10, we went to visit with my mom's family in Tulsa for the holidays. We celebrated Channukah driving across the country from Altoona, Pa., in Red Roof Inns and got the usually terrible Channukah presents that the festival of lights meant to me at the time. But I was completely consumed with concern that the mother lode of holiday goodies would be deposited by the fat man in Altoona to a cold, and cookie-less, house. Boy, was I wrong: When I awoke in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there underneath the tree were fortunes untold. I very much miss my Grandmother Alene and Granddaddy Russel, and that was the best Christmas ever."
Worst holiday memory: In the mid-1990s, when Man Dee was performing regularly with the surreally inclined Bull Seal! Collective, she and the mustachioed Big Daddy Bull Seal (a.k.a. Damon Griffith) concocted a unique prop for a holiday show at the South Side's Lava Lounge: a Christmas tree trimmed with wet kelp and strung-together smelt. They intended to award it to the audience member with the best costume, but, "Nobody came in costume and nobody wanted it." After the show, they dumped the tree out back. The weather turned unseasonably warm, but they forgot about their prop until the bar's owner called and said the tree was giving his janitor "nightmares."
Mark Clayton Southers, playwright and founder of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Co.
Best gift: A new stereo and the adolescent's first time hearing Parliament Funkadelic's Mothership Connection on WAMO: priceless.
Best holiday memory: "I remember my parents brought an African-American Santa Claus to the house. That was major ... It was one of my father's friends. I guess he took him to a buffet before he brought him over. He was really hefty, and it wasn't padding ... It was my dad's attempt to do something cultural. It was great."
Worst holiday memory: "After my dad passed, things were never the same. My dad used to say the fastest prayer in grace. ... It was under three seconds. We didn't have to wait to eat."
Michael "Zombo" Devine, DJ and proprietor of Lawrenceville's Zombo gallery
Best holiday memory: "My wife was in the military. We were stationed in El Paso, away from our families. It was just us and the dog. My wife has this great idea -- let's go to White Sands! It looks like snow. It's dunes of white sand. We took an inflatable Christmas tree. In the photos, it looks like we're in a very sunny day in winter. You could sled down the dunes on cardboard. That was only five years ago. We had a picnic lunch with the inflatable tree and the dog."
Best and worst gifts: "I [used to] throw parties the weekend after Christmas -- the Worst Gift Exchange. Everybody would bring all the shit they were afraid to exchange. We'd shoot them out of a water-balloon slingshot, and whoever caught them could keep them. The last year we did it, we were kicked out of a VFW hall. Somebody brought a big giant dill pickle, the kind that comes in plastic with all the juice. It hit the bartender. That was the end of that.
"I don't know who kept the pickle."
Bonics, DJ (for 96.1 Kiss FM)
What's your best holiday memory? "I remember in 1985 I really wanted a remote-control car. I saw the box on Christmas Day very excited to open the box, and lo and behold, it was a Nintendo!!!! Changed my life!"
What's your worst holiday memory? "Well, after opening the Nintendo, I realized that I didn't get the remote-control car, which was pretty devastating."
What's the best gift you've ever gotten? "A Nintendo! It changed my life! My motor skills rock!"
What's the worst gift you've ever gotten? "A Nintendo! The next year I needed glasses and have been chubby ever since!"