The first rule of Christmas morning was to wait until everyone was awake before digging in. Whoever was up first, usually me, and in later years, the younger ones, would be forced to sit back from the tree, bright with promise and the buzz of electricity, regarding it like a ravenous, wild thing, chained, silent and steady, waiting for the first chance to strike.
And we did look wild, clothes twisted and unformed, hair standing up in all directions like ruffled fur, eyes still pink and swollen and crusted from sleep, smelling faintly of sweat and bad breath. When the priority is a tree laden with brightly wrapped boxes, there is no time for a glance in the mirror before greeting one’s family.
Mom made coffee in the kitchen and had her morning cigarette. Every time she tried to speak for more than a few seconds at a time, she lost herself in a loud and painful-sounding fit of coughs. (My dad was reading something. We tried to keep the TV off until after the Christmas orgy.)
Grandma was in the same spot on the couch where she had slept over the night before, her legs drawn up beneath her in what I called “Indian style” at the time. She was surrounded in blue smoke, tapping ashes from her cigarette into a large ashtray in her lap and making remarks about all the presents under the tree that we didn’t deserve.
She was probably right. It was usually an embarrassment of riches. We were very lucky.
“Would you look at that. What is all that stuff? Where’s it all come from?” she said, the lights of the christmas tree reflected in her eyeglasses. “You kids don’t deserve all this, do you?”
I knew she was teasing us—unless I misunderstood. Anyway, she paid for much of it. But should I say so, or should I wait until someone told me I was a good boy? I nodded quietly. Um. Yeah. I deserve it. I think.
“You do?” she said with a sly smile. “Oh, ok.”
“It’s a little different from when you were a kid, isn’t it?” she said to my dad. It was as if from a script. I think we all followed the same routines every year, told the same stories, shared the same memories. “No,” she decided. “You kids did ok, too, didn’t you? Yeah, your father and I always did pretty good by you kids.”
I always liked to drag out some leftovers from dinner the night before and poke around or slice myself a hunk of egg nog cake and a bowl of fruit cocktail—a prime time for breakfast with the other kids still in bed, I could always mine as many cherries as I wanted from the murky, fruity depths.
Eventually the family would coalesce around the tree and wait for Mom and Dad to start passing around packages.
Is it time yet? Is it time yet?
My dad understood his special role on Earth to be torturing us with scotch tape. He thought it was the greatest thing as we struggled mightily with the paper and the boxes, cutting out fingers on the cardboard.
“How d’you like that wrapping job?” he said. “How d’you like that taping job?”
Secretly (and not so secretly) we all hated it. But it was his thing. Let the old man have that much, right?
“You kids open it all up so damn fast. It just goes by so fast,” he said. “So sue me if I try to make it last a little longer.”
Over the years, I began to feel more and more guilty about the wasted paper and packing materials. I made it my custom to open everything as slowly and carefully as I could to keep the paper from ripping and pull it off in one solid sheet. It was a subtle and almost unintentional response to my dad’s plea for slowness. But he took it for mockery, so eventually I’d start tearing through it like everyone else. And we never saved the paper anyway, so my delays were not helpful.
My dad always loved Christmas. I think spoiling us kids beyond his means made him feel prosperous.
Tearing into Christmas, we all descended into a sort of a idiotic cheer. It bordered on manic. Every reveal was amazing, every toy exactly what we wanted, every item of clothing just want we needed—or at least I wanted it to be. I knew as a young kid that part of the fun depended on the gift recipient really, really liking what you gave them. It was better to give than to receive—as long as they showed a little bloody gratitude, eh? And I had no reason to disappoint my parents.
I think I picked it up from my mom. She has a compelling enthusiasm. When she really turns it on—widens her eyes, lifts her eyebrows, raises her voice—you are the most important person in the room, and whatever is happening to you is just … amazing. An ugly sweater gets a perceptual makeover: “Well look at that. Ooh, that’ll be nice and warm, won’t it? Let me feel that. Oh, yeah. That’s nice.” A boring-looking book becomes an adventure: “Now weren’t you just saying you wanted something to do in the car. You can read this on the way up north this summer. Oh, that’ll be ideal.”
Never mind that reading in the car gave me a headache and an upset stomach. I was rendered helpless and joyful by her charm.
And if any one of us kids seemed unhappy or insolent or ungrateful, it put Dad in such a sour mood—which in turn put me in a sour mood. I hated people to be unhappy on the holidays.
After the kids opened their presents, we gave mom, dad and grandma their gifts. The toys and trying on of new clothes would wait until Dad had his new power tools and cologne and mom had her new fuzzy slippers, jewelry and kitchen appliances.
And then the frenzy faded. We were spent, surrounded by the carnage of consumerism: fragments of boxes, ribbons and bows, bits of clear plastic packaging, cardboard, wrapping paper, styrofoam peanuts, tissue paper, tags and gift receipts. It sure does go by quickly.
And then it hits you like a sack of oranges in the gut: Christmas is over. A whole year of waiting, and this is it.
One contents oneself with thoughts of a happy few months playing new games, trying new toys, wearing now clothes to school. And there’s always next year.
While Mom and Dad surveyed the wreckage, one of us got a garbage bag.
“Be careful!” we were always warned. “Don’t lose any pieces mixed up with the paper.” There were always so many pieces.
Christmas was our day for visiting family, after presents. But until then, and while we each in turn got ready to leave the house, I busied myself with assembly and applying decals and reading through new instructions. I had always so much to show off to my cousins and aunts and uncles. What would I bring with me to play with in the car?