Mom and Dad had some presents under the tree early, the ones from them and Grandma and Uncle Dennis and Aunt Kay, but they were off limits until Christmas. The ones from Santa, of course, came later. I didn’t have to worry about those, but these were there to taunt me.
Most of them were clothes. Who cared, right? But some of them, the smaller ones, probably—the strangely shaped ones, right?—those were toys.
If I was good enough (if I begged and pestered my parents enough, nicely, gently), they would let me open one present—just one—before we left for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. I don’t think they for one second expected me to not beg. I don’t think I ever convinced them of anything. I think they always had one intended for Christmas Eve. But it was one of those child-and-parent games we played.
Usually it was a toy of some sort. Something small. A taste. A Transformer or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, maybe, or a CD or a movie on VHS. If they let me open a Nintendo game, it was even worse torture: knowing what it was and not being able to play it until the next day.
My uncle and aunt and grandma stayed at home while we went to church. They weren’t churchy. I was inclined to think it weird in those days, but for a few years, we weren’t churchy either. Like most of the midnight mass attendees, we were Easter and Christmas Catholics. The regular Sunday routine was the only Catholic mystery in our lives. Church got harder once the twins were born. As they got older, we started going more frequently.
The church was always full. Parking was scarce. The adjacent chapel was opened to make room for more people. If we got there late, we had to sit in folding chairs, which seemed cheap and uncomfortable and embarrassing compared with the upholstered pews in front of us. (Though didn’t we deserve the punishment for being late? If Jesus died on a cross, I figured we could deal with folding chairs.)
I always loved midnight mass. They pulled out all the stops for special occasions. Usually there was a lone organist playing on Sundays, but at Christmas, there was a pianist, as well, sometimes a guitarist, and a full-size chorus. Music was always the best part of church. The songs at Christmas were the same, plus a few Christmas hymns, but everything sounded so much more beautiful, fuller, richer—classy—in three-part harmonies and diatonic chords.
I sometimes was able to smuggle my early gift out of the house. Keeping it in a pocket or wrapped up in my coat was encouraging somehow. It was naughty to have it. And sometimes I could sneak a peek. But keeping it hidden and secret felt delicious. It was a talisman, powerful, titillating. If I kept it from distracting me too much, I felt almost virtuous.
When I was older, Mom and Dad let me help Santa stock the tree from their stash in their bedroom. Set out the cookies, the milk and a carrot. And mom always procured the thank-you note from Santa, in Santa’s special handwriting—indisputable proof (at one time) that he was real.
Then it was off to bed. I always worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep, that I would sleep in the next day and wake up in the afternoon and miss Christmas morning. But mom and dad never let me sleep in.