Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Christmas Story

Here we are, another fab Christmas. Of course, my best wishes to all who dare read this. And let's get this out of the way: Happy Whatever You Celebrate. I am so tired of this ecumenical-pc debate that I now shun it just as I turn the sound off when Brent Musberger has the mike.

Christmases of my youth were wonderful things. And all of this happened decades before I had ever heard of Jean Shepherd or the Parkers. At Our Lady Queen of Clubs, the Good Sisters allowed--no, mandated--us to sing Joy to the World, The First Noel and Angels, We Have Heard on High. Most of these songs are now banned, at least at malls--another place I avoid like Rob Lowe films.

My own family's tradition might seem weird to most. No Christmas dinner, for one. My dad liked turkey about as much as I do crimini. The season would start as soon as the first cards arrived. My brother and I were allowed to open them, then place them in a small, wooden sleigh that dad had made. Upon my parents' arrival after work, we'd proudly show our folks the day's pelf. My father would snort when he'd read a card where the senders affixed only first names at the bottom. "Mary Ellen," he would bellow at Mom. "Just who in Gawd's name are 'Fuzzy, Anne and Joan'?"

The tree appeared mysteriously on the Vigil. First came the lights. And not those anemic, if-one-goes-out-the-others-stay-lit strings from Macau. Big fat bulbs. And multi-hued, of course. The all-white-light, monotone scheme had yet to come to the fore.

The electronics were solely Dad's bailiwick. He'd consider the tree (Every year, he'd say, "It's not full enough; I like it full.") and set about like Bucky Fuller, effecting his geodesic illumination scheme. My brother and I were not allowed within a nautical mile of this caper. Mom would have us in the kitchen decorating cookies.His final step was to mount the special-effects lights. Shaped like muffins, each one sported a clear glass liquid-filled tube from its middle. Placement of these space-age props was crucial; we had but one string. When he was done, he cut the power, came into the kitchen and churchkeyed a Rheingold.

Then it was our turn. My brother, Mom and I did the ornaments, most of them impossibly thin glass orbs, which had been safely entombed in their boxes since last year. Sometimes Dad would peek in, wisps of Pall Mall preceding him. He would give some direction ("Not on THAT branch, Thomas!"), then wisely retreat. His work was over. I remember the way Mom would carefully disinter each piece, applying hooks stored in a little red bowl.

Penultimately came the tinsel--the heavy metal. Mom took the one-strand-at-a-time approach, stepping back frequently to eyeball her work. Every year, my brother and I would diffidently throw a clump of tinsel onto the balsam--then we'd wait. "Cut that out," said Mom annually. "That's the way Jennie Tackacs did it!" Evidently, said woman was an erstwhile neighbor who would festoon with rye-fueled abandon. Then we'd remove the clump and finish with more finesse.

Either my brother or I would be allowed to place the angel on the top of the tree. HA! This was no ordinary Cherubim, but a complicated gizmo right out of Don Herbert's workshop. Once it was situated, Dad would emerge and plug it into his carefully wrought Medusan splay of cords. You see, the ornament was a haloed creature, set in front of a half-sphere of prismed plastic. A single bulb was hidden behind the character. Above the light was a spindle, on which a red, fluted disc was carefully mounted.

When all was ready. Dad would intone, "Tim, get the lights." We'd sit and he would make the final connection. Every year, we'd emit fireworks-worthy interjections. Dad would give out a muted harrumph and reposition a light or two, sometimes in millimeter increments.

Then came the wait. Dad would stand there, nigh impatient, watching the SFX lights and the angel. Agonizing seconds passed before the liquid in the lights would begin to effervesce and spiral, bottom to top. Finally, the heat from the topper's lamp would cause the disc to turn, shooting rays of color from the backdrop. Only then was it done. And this was years before Studio 54.

And then the prep began. Mom would get busy in the kitchen and Dad would run some errands. My brother and I would watch Ahmal and the Night Visitors on Hallmark Hall of Fame. Yes, bed was not an option--we were going to Midnight Mass!

The prospect of staying up late, coupled with the impending day tomorrow, plus a few days off from school was almost too heady for us. One year, the whole scenario was almost scotched--literally--by some friend of my father dressed like Santa. He ho-ho-hoed into our house at about eight pm, asked us what we wanted for Christmas and said we had to go to bed. Both in tears, my brother and I trudged to our room. I could still smell the Old Crow on faux-Kringle's breath. About a half-hour later, Mom came and got us, telling us that we could stay up as usual.

It seemed so very strange to be leaving the house at 11:30 to go to church. More magic. Dad would park carefully, seeking quick egress rather than proximity to the entrance. The building would be packed, the choir cranking and poinsettias everywhere. Mom would sit with us and Dad would stand in the back. Often, we'd leave early. Not out of disrespect. Et cum spiri 220.

We had guests coming over. Although, there's no French-Canadian blood anywhere in our lineage, my parents hosted a neighborhood-wide bash-o-rama that started right after mass. Before long, our tiny house was packed. Grown-ups in the living room and dining room (with highballs and sandwiches), kids in the den. Channel 11 would have the Yule Log, or we'd switch to 5 and watch old black-and-white films (Why do I remember Duffy's Tavern, so many  years later?) and opine about how late our parents would let us stay up.

As soon as we smelled the percolator, we knew the party would be thinning out. Kids left, a few at a time, and my brother and I barely made it up to our room, sonambulent.

Years later, I divined my folks' m. o. Because we were so dead tired, my parents didn't have to rush to lay out the booty the next morning. My brother would always wake up first, usually around eleven. He would then pounce on bed--and me. "Tim, it's Christmas!"

I think we didn't use the stairs to descend. Scotch tape and wrapping flew. We'd start with the boring stuff--like the yearly peejays from Aunt Ann--to get to the real goods. My folks--dad dressed and Mom in a housecoat--would enter eventually. "Eat a egg," my mother would command. "Then get dressed--we're going soon."

That was our big departure from the Rockwellian image of the Nativity. We spent none of it at home. By late morning, our folks had us bundled up. And then we visited, all over the neighborhood. Sometimes it was five or six stops. We'd nosh here and there, usually sitting down at one manse for a full meal. It didn't matter--we were stuffed by the end of the day.

Our last segment was always Uncle Baldy's. By eight or nine, we'd be ready. "Pack it up," Dad would say. "We're headed back to the Ponderosa."

Once home, my brother and I would play with our new toys--delayed grat we were used to. I remember that all day, as we were traipsing about Black Rock (we never left more than a ten-block radius), I had my gifts to look forward to.

And that's the way we did it. No sugar plums, no turkey, no BB gun, no fuses blown, no duck beheading.

Years later, my mother, brother and I kept the late-night eve party afloat until it became too impractical.

I have had many wonderful Christmases since, especially when my own brood was younger and were still graced by the Nativity mystique.

I don't miss those days, but I treasure them.

And to all, a goodnight.

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