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.
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. Continue reading ‘The 12 Ways of Christmas: midnight mass’
Grandma's cake looked a little something like this.
Whereas turkey was the center of Thanksgiving a month prior, Christmas Eve dinner revolved around a turkey and a ham! Those were from Dad. It was a food orgy—like Thanksgiving plus Easter … plus a birthday party.
My uncle Dennis always brought a cold tuna-noodle salad that the food of the gods as far as I was concerned.
Aunt Kay always brought dinner rolls and home-made chocolate candies. Starch, salt, sweet and fat, the chocolate-covered pretzels were irresistible.
Grandma spent a day stewing probably the best baked beans in the world—with bacon and molasses and brown sugar … and bacon. It may one day just save the world.
Mom made her potato salad, unequalled on seven continents, with the sliced hard-boiled eggs on top and drifts of sprinkled paprika.
Dad always waited until Christmas Eve or, maybe if he was especially good, the day before, to wrap presents. He’d box everything up in the bedroom and drag it out to the kitchen table to wrap it up. Every box had a label in his own shorthand: the name of one of us and some code to help him remember what it was.
He had a fondness for putting boxes inside of other boxes to disguise the gifts, so we never knew what he had. And if it was the sort of box that could not be disguised, we’d hear from down the hall as he bounded toward the kitchen, “You kids’d better keep your eyes closed, dammit, or this it going right back to the store!”
Sometimes I’d be permitted to help him. He was very particular, so sometimes he didn’t want help. Usually I had something of my own to wrap, and as he had all the paper and supplies, it made sense to join him.
My dad always claimed he could match the pattern at the edge of the paper to the pattern on the side he was taping it to. That way the pattern wasn’t interrupted st the joint. It was a nice thought, but I never quite believed him. It just wasn’t possible unless the packages were the perfect circumference. Right? But he insisted. And I didn’t want to go through the trouble of proving anything. I know he took immense pride in his wrapping.
What he was really saying was that it mattered to him—a lot—that we all appreciate what he was doing. He wanted us to understand the work and care and effort, but also to marvel at the ease with which carried it all off. And I had no reason to discredit him. Continue reading ‘The 12 Ways of Christmas: wrapping’
This is disgusting to me now, but it would have delighted me as a kid.
It wasn’t December if my family and I were not driving around looking at other people’s Christmas lights.
We started in our own neighborhood, admiring the wild and colorful houses, and the simple monochromatic houses in white, gold, red, blue. In my little kid’s logic, I always assumed the blue houses must be Jewish. Or something. Just a feeling. I wanted to say so, but it seemed rude. I never knew any Jews growing up—at least none that I knew of.
My mom and I especially loved the ones that looked like gingerbread houses with sidewalks lined, every angle of the roof highlighted, doorways and windows lit. Our house should be like that. I studied them carefully as we slowly passed, making mental notes between audible gasps every time a new extreme came into view.
I really appreciated the people who did their trees. Those were the ones who really cared. Random placements among the branches were popular one year. Then our neighbors began to include the trunks, too. A few years later, a tightly wrapped cluster of lights on the trunk with a contrasting color densely filling up the branches was en vogue. Continue reading ‘The 12 Ways of Christmas: the lights’
We just finished un-Christmasing the house. I have never before seen so many dead pine needles all at once. It’s weird to have things back to normal, but I’m getting used to it.
I came home to find Jeff pulling ornaments off the tree. He was putting them in the wrong boxes, but I didn’t say anything. It may seem like it does’t matter, but I have a system. They should go back in the boxes they came from. Different colors should be distributed evenly to ensure equally even distribution next year when we hang them on the next tree. But at least they’re all put away. We can deal with it next year. Continue reading ‘O’er the fields we go, packing all away’
There was nothing in particular that linked my mom’s cookies with Christmas, except that we never made them at any other time of the year. You can have eggnog in the summer, but why? Grandma could make her baked beans for Easter, but why? No, these things were for Christmas only.
I always looked forward to those rare and special nights when my mom dragged out her big electric mixer and the glass and metal bowls and wooden spoons. Soon the kitchen countertop would be covered with bags of flour and sugars, syrups, shortening, butter (it was always margarine, but we called it “butter”), eggs, nuts, sprinkles, chocolate, vials of food colorings and flavorings, shredded coconut, candied cherries. Continue reading ‘The 12 Ways of Christmas: the cookies’
It took a black Santa to introduce me to White Guilt.
My parents were savvy enough to tell me that the man in the red suit and the white beard at the mall was not really Santa but one of his helpers. I mean, you can’t expect him to be everywhere, right?
It was just a proxy. A Santa of convenience.
So, I was fine with the charade, playing along with the stand-in pretender to make my parents happy—and hoping desperately that somehow my Christmas list (compiled mainly from the Sears Wishlist catalog, complete with page numbers and item numbers, and my subscription to Nintendo Power magazine) would find its way to the real Santa’s fulfillment department.
I never much liked sitting in Santa’s lap, but I also don’t remember ever crying like some kids did. It was just strange to sit in a stranger’s lap. To smell his breath. To pose for a stranger taking my picture. (Little did I realize at the time how similar this would be to experiences later in life at the DMV.)
Christmas shopping with my parents was a game of self-deception the whole family could play. Mom and dad got to spend more money than they had any business pretending they had access to. And our end of the bargain, us kids, was simply to not stumble upon or identify any of the gifts our parents bought right in front of us and made no special effort to hide from us.
Rather than getting a babysitter, they would take me and my younger siblings to Toys R Us and dispatch me to drag them to the other end of the store to distract them (and me, too, really) with … I don’t know … things I knew they would not be buying for us. Which basically limited our environs to baby toys and board games.
The unspoken threat: If you see it, you won’t find it under the tree. And if one of us should happen to see something, we knew better than to say something. We just contented ourselves knowing that, out of the entire, mind-bending inventory of the store, what ended up under the tree could still be anything. Almost. Continue reading ‘The 12 Ways of Christmas: the shopping’