On Christmas, 1966
one kid's happy memory

"Hey Tom, do you hear that?” The music of sleigh bells was unmistakable. “Come on Tom, come over here.” Tom jumped up on my bed and the two of us scanned the scene outside our window desperately trying to focus on what was making that marvelous sound. It was Christmas Eve and those rhythmic bells could be credited to nothing else but Saint Nick’s mythical reindeer. My brother was still a believer and though I was enlightened, I was not about to blow his Christmas. When I was in Kindergarten, one of the kids told me there was no such thing as Santa Claus. He claimed it was only your Dad and Mom who bought you presents and then hid them until you went to sleep on Christmas Eve. With a superior air, I tried to explain to my sneering peer that the night before Christmas my mom always set out cookies and milk for Santa, and in the morning, the plate was always clean except for some telltale crumbs and the glass was always empty. In my mind, this alone was irrefutable proof Santa had really been there. However, his mocking gestures and tone had planted a seed of doubt in my mind. When I got home that afternoon, I told my Mom what I had heard at school and asked her what the truth was. She gave me a sideways glance, or perhaps it was a veiled grin, or maybe she was just thinking I was adorably cute. She responded with, “What do you think?” “Oh no”, I reflected. Whenever Mom asked me what I thought, it usually meant the answer was glaringly obvious. I also knew from experience that even when she felt uncomfortable answering a direct question, she might simply put it off on me, as if she were testing my level of comprehension. I recognized the evasiveness in her tone, so I had my terrible answer. Now, why learning there is no Santa Claus should be such a disappointment is still a mystery to me. All the presents still show up just as before. Realizing there is no Santa should make a kid understand how much trouble his folks go to every year. But somehow, a strange magical fat dude in a weird flying sled is more fun to believe in than good old Mom and Dad.

Well, I’d found out the truth back there in Kindergarten but now that I was eight years old, it was my self appointed responsibility to help preserve my brother’s staunch faith in the first citizen of the North Pole. I took my job seriously. “Jingle, jingle, jingle” rang the sleigh bells again. “Look up there!” Far off in the distance we could see a small flashing red light. It was slowly moving across the sky. It had been snowing earlier in the day, covering everything with a thick white blanket, but tonight the sky was clear and the stars were out in force. “There he is, there he is”, whispered my brother in delight. “I can see Rudolf’s nose leading the sleigh.” Well it was a logical conclusion for a five-year-old to make. Since this might very well be the last year of his unwavering Santa worship, I didn’t offer him the idea that the moving red light more likely suggested an airplane. I also didn’t bring up the fact that it just might be our Dad out there shaking the old bells that hung on our door every Christmas. Well, with the assistance of these overwhelmingly convincing signs and wonders, the heightened expectation of a glorious Christmas morning was firmly established in my brother’s head. Tom got up from my bed, and with a mischievous look in his eye, said, “Let’s go sneak out in the hall and watch Santa come in.” Oops, I bet Dad and Mom hadn’t thought of that one. I reminded my brother of one of the well-known unbreakable codes of Santa-ology: If you weren’t asleep when he came to your house, he wouldn’t come in at all. “Quick, close your eyes and try to go to sleep. The morning will be here before you know it.” Tom agreed that this was probably true wisdom speaking and quickly jumped in bed pulling the covers up over his head. At least to the world he would appear asleep and maybe, just maybe, Santa wouldn’t know the difference.

Somehow, the next morning finally arrived and after tossing and turning for a while, I couldn’t stay in bed any longer. After all, it was 4 AM, no sense in wasting the day. I tried to wake up my only companion at this early hour, but it was fruitless. He just lay there like a log. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to let anyone hold me back from exploring the anticipated surprises awaiting discovery in the living room. One of the rules in our house was that on Christmas morning the presents were off limits until everyone else was up. We also were required to enjoy a nourishing and leisurely breakfast before diving full steam into package ripping. There was only one reprieve from these unreasonable parental expectations inflicted on poor agitated child insomniacs; we were allowed to open our stockings before the rest of the household awoke.

There hung my stocking. It was plush red and had a white trim at the top with my name spelled out in sparkling gold cursive. It could easily have been a knee sock for Goliath, and it just might have been too big for him. All flat and limp the night before, now it was overflowing with goodies and stuffed near to splitting its’ seams. Candy canes and a small box of chocolates were sticking out of the top. In past years there were small toys inside and this year was no exception. I dumped the thing out on to the floor and proceeded to separate and prioritize the stuff. Candy over here, little toys and gadgets over there. I don’t know where my folks used to find all the gizmos they stuffed in those stockings, but they sure had imagination. Here was a snow shaker with some winter scene. “What’s this, an elf puppet tied strangely between two sticks?” When I held the sticks in my hand and squeezed them together, the little green guy would do all sorts of acrobatic tricks. Wow, a really cool matchbox car to add to my growing collection. This one was a large rendition of some 1920’s vintage car. I tested it out. “Yup” I thought to myself, “This will do nicely this spring at the third grade outdoor recess matchbox races.” Then, what was this? “Oh cool, a guy with wire inside him so you could pose him in all sorts of weird positions. A pencil for school with an animal head eraser, who put that in here?” “Oh, hi Tom, you finally woke up huh?” Tom was rubbing his eyes and looking at the tree. “Can we turn on the tree?” I wasn’t’ sure where the on switch, or whatever, was, so we would just have to wait until Dad got up and took care of that. Tom, dug into his own stocking of goodies, but he took a different approach from mine for getting to the bottom of the sock. He started eating his way there. The little box of chocolates on top was the first to go. “We’re supposed to eat breakfast first before we eat any candy.” Just then, the stairs leading to my parents’ bedroom started creaking. I guess we had made enough noise to wake them up, thank goodness. Mom in her nightgown and Dad in his robe ushered us into the kitchen to eat the ritual nutrient rich breakfast. A modest bowl of Corn Pops was Tom's favorite choice and a heaping helping of Sugar Frosted Flakes was mine. I wolfed mine down in 15 seconds flat and waited patiently for 5 or 10 more seconds until Tom finished his. Tom usually took forever to eat, but for some reason, he nearly kept up with me this morning. We sat there looking expectantly at Mom. “Let us get some coffee made first and your father has to set up the lights for the movie camera.”

My Dad loved to take home movies. His camera was top of the line, I guess, and looked like a small leather covered metal box. The camera required no electricity or batteries as it was powered by an internal spring. The camera had a winding key attached flush on one side, which could be flipped out when needed. It reminded me of a wind up toy car or an old wall clock. Dad had to faithfully wind it tight before shooting. The film capacity was all of five minutes per roll and capable of filming in color. We all agreed that movies sure were more fun to look at when developed than plain old snapshots, albeit setting up the projector and screen could be a stumbling block to ever actually seeing the films. It took great pictures outdoors in sunlight, but needed some help in low light situations. To address that, Dad creatively designed a row of six small high wattage electric bulbs mounted to a homemade metal frame. When he powered those babies up, it was as if a small white dwarf sun had been released in our living room. We squinted in excruciating pain as our retinas were seared and imprinted with beautiful visions of mysteriously floating, shapeless, purple orbs. Then, with a sadistic smirk, Dad would say, “Come on kids, smile, and open your eyes”. Lately I find myself needing reading glasses. Though I am told it is just due to being middle aged, I believe the responsibility for my weakening eyesight can be directly attributed to my Dad’s zealous attempt to immortalize his brood on moving cellulose. At Dad’s insistence, under the glare of those cruel lasers, we strained our irises to the limit of ocular endurance, as we would tentatively attempt to open our eyes far enough to mimic a somewhat natural expression of holiday pleasure. As far as I remember, in none of those movies do any of us look directly into the camera. If we had, I am sure that our eyes would have appeared to be completely devoid of pupils like some tragic cartoon characters. I have to admit though, when those things were blazing away, we didn’t need a fireplace. The combined heat of those six spotlights gave us at least as much warmth as any romantic Dickens era Yule log.

Our Christmas tree was a real one. I had the idea then that only affluent people could afford one of the new modern silver aluminum fake trees. Besides, real was better anyway, we always said. Our tree was studiously picked out by Dad from one of the corner Christmas tree lots that were set up every December. We had to water the thing every single day. Someone would have to climb under the low hanging branches with the needles scratching and the sap dripping, while diligently endeavoring to pour the precious liquid into the tree stand and not all over the carpet. The light bulbs on the tree were quite large and very hot. If the tree wasn’t kept well watered, a fire could easily break out. Besides that, if the tree became overly dried out, the needles fell off like crazy. We put the tree up sometime after Thanksgiving and took it down on the first of January. Evidently, even with meticulous care, the tree was pretty dry by the time it was hauled outside for the garbage man. We used to find needles in the carpet for the next six months.

Once Dad’s movie camera was running, that was our cue to start the unbridled paper tearing. In reality, we tried to take our time so it wouldn’t all be over in 5 minutes, but it was hard to hold back. It always seemed like we had tons of presents under that tree. I wonder now how they afforded it all, but our folks always made Christmas a special day for the two of us. Mom distributed the brightly covered packages to the appropriate recipients. The labels were all clearly marked as to whom the gift was for and whom the gift was from. “Here is one from Dad, another from Mom, and then two more from both Dad and Mom.” Of course the obligatory gift from Santa Claus was always stashed somewhere under there. Dad and Mom always gave us great gifts, but the biggest and best presents were always attributed to that red-garbed idol of my brother’s devoted affections. “Santa is nothing but a big fat stupid dum-dum,” my Dad would taunt “He is not!” Tom would protest. “He’s a stupid tub!” Dad would chide again. This inflammatory attack on Santa’s holy persona would usually continue until my brother suddenly pounced on my Dad in a feverish rage of righteous indignation. Tom’s display of wrath was followed immediately by the terrible transformation of my father into his gruesome alter ego, “The Tickle Monster.” Several minutes with the tickle monster settled most any argument, but if not, his other twisted manifestation, “Mr. Dutch-rub” would resolve the matter, even an unprovoked slanderous attack on Santa.

There was nothing to put my brother and I in a festive mood like a good old-fashioned sugar rush. The kitchen table was overflowing with a panoramic display of fresh baked pastries unparalleled by either Tom’s or my aggressive sugar-lusting imagination. There were peanut butter cookies with large chocolate chips in the middle; white balls of some sort filled with nuts and covered in powdered sugar; small pastries with fruit filling; cookies with M&Ms decorating them; cookies shaped like trees; cookies shaped like flowers; cookies with faces; cookies baked and cookies unbaked; well, you get the point. Then there was my Grandmother’s contribution to prepubescent tooth decay with her own plethora of extravagant cookies, pies and pastries. As I look back on the scene now with an adult’s sardonic eye, I wonder if there wasn’t just a little bit of a cooking match going on between my mother and my Dad’s mom. Of course, you never would have found us boys complaining about any real or imagined baking war that rewarded us with such copious tasty spoil. It is well known that tough competition demands tireless stamina from an athlete, and such a frenzy of yearly baking creativity must have required Olympic fortitude on the part of those two women. We wasted no time in inhaling pound after pound of these tediously prepared delicacies. At the speed I was downing the small trophies of my Mom’s arduous labor, December 26th might well be “an apple for desert” day. “David, don’t fill up on cookies. We are going to your Uncle and Aunt’s for dinner.” Mom was such a killjoy sometimes.

Uncle Huck was really cool. He represented himself to us as an old Indian tracker, who would, at a moments notice, find Indian arrowheads and wild sassafras in the woods behind his house. He made us sassafras tea and explained to my brother and I ways to get food by living off the land. His real name was Francis. He was given the nickname Huck as a youth because of his woodsy personality, which reminded his friends of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. He had bird dogs and rifles and told us all sorts of Indian stories. My brother and I were totally convinced all his stories were true, so we revered him, holding him in awe. Aunt Lenabelle made clothes and held sewing classes in her home. She also loved antiques, filling her house full of them. Her hair was always fashionably chic and this year, as every year, it was stylish and jet-black. My Dad’s brother-in-law and sister had the biggest house in the extended family, so they opened their home at Christmas for a big family dinner and gift exchange. I believe my Uncle and Aunt provided the turkey and ham for the whole crowd. Every other family represented brought enough side dishes and deserts to feed at least a dozen or so people, so the event always promised to be an epicurean delight. On top of that, this year, every adult bought a gift for every other person there. The pile of presents under that tree was absolutely stupendous. Oh, I must mention, Uncle Huck and Aunt Lenabelle always decorated the house tastefully, but out did themselves this year by investing in an impressive, brand new, modern, silver, aluminum, Christmas tree. It was filled to capacity with a vast variety of decorations and lights that tested my observational skills. It seemed to me that no two objects on that tree were alike. I stood there dumbfounded. This was my Uncle and Aunt’s tree and it was strikingly apparent to my worldly wise eight-year-old mind that they were the coolest and were flashingly well off.

My Grandmother was the oldest member of our clan and held a matriarchal influence over this and most family events. At her insistence, no one would taste even one morsel of this mouthwatering smorgasbord until the Almighty’s blessing had been respectfully invoked. The whole room of cousins, siblings and in-laws silently bowed their heads while my Grandmother eloquently thanked her Lord for the generous prosperity HE had provided for all her offspring and their families throughout the past year. The silence was maintained for only a few more brief moments until dissonant sounds from seemingly endless plates of food being passed around; hearty adult laughter and my brother dropping his silverware obliterated any hint of sober piety. “Eat slow and eat lots”, was my Dad’s admonition to us at this family gluttony pageant. Suddenly a large trembling blob was thrust under my nose. “Here, have some of this great Jell-O someone made.” This wiggling mound looked to me like a small bumpy lime mountain with oddly shaped chunks of unrecognizable things imbedded statically throughout its’ semi-firm innards. Why do people make so many bizarre shapes and combinations of jiggling gelatin for family celebrations? I was never quite sure how to classify any of them. Were they vegetables, fruits, garnishes or deserts? It seemed no one else was sure either. Three or four would be passed around with the Turkey and stuffing and half a dozen others would be sitting with the rest of the deserts. Times must be changing for I’ve noticed that I don’t see the quantity or variety of gelatinous experiments I was accustomed to being subjected to as a youth. I suppose I will just have to endure the passing of yet another childhood era with a resolute and contented stoicism. It seemed everyone’s favorite treat was my Grandmother’s strawberry pies. The story was that she owned a restaurant/bakery years ago and had come up with her own recipe. It happened that she was supposed to be making a lemon chiffon pie when she realized she did not have enough lemons available. She did have strawberries, however, and used the same recipe substituting strawberries for lemons. The creation was an immediate hit and became a traditional staple for our family gatherings. Most people have had lemon chiffon or banana cream pie with a meringue top. Well this was the same idea but contained cooked strawberries whipped into a semi-solid cream. It was quite sweet and was the first desert to disappear after dinner. The demand by the members of the family was so great that she had to make several of the pies. It eventually got to the point that it was even necessary to cut the pies into many small pieces in order to avoid the woeful cries of disappointed gourmet pallets.

Finally, it was time to satisfy the mounting tension and find out what was in those brightly colored packages under that magnificent metallic tree. Tom wanted to play Santa, so the two of us rummaged around in the pile of treasures helping distribute the stacks of loot to the lucky beneficiaries. Aloud I said, “Wow, a new red sweater!” “Thanks so much for these really nice dress pants.” “ I really appreciate these 3 pairs of wool socks, thank you so much.” Most of the gifts I got this year from my Uncles and Aunts were clothes. Secretly I was chagrined. It was especially disturbing to notice the approvingly enthusiastic smiles on the faces of my parents. They appeared to get such heartfelt pleasure whenever I opened another drab item of apparel. I dutifully put on the required demeanor of sincerest gratitude, hugging and kissing the generous souls who were so delusional in the conviction they had deeply blessed me. I was so relieved I had gotten a pile of toys earlier in the day from Mom and Dad, otherwise the whole season might have been a bust.

Tom’s favorite present that year was a mock white bear skin rug with black spots, ala “Cruella DeVil”. The incongruity of a bear sporting a Dalmatian's hair coloring had no adverse impact on his Christmas pleasure. He cuddled with that thing for hours. He just loved it. The grown-ups enjoyed watching him as much as he obviously enjoyed lounging on it. A Dad myself now, I’ve discovered that the “cuteness factor” never ceases to entertain fawning parents and relatives alike. The only other time I saw a rug similar to that one was years later in a rather risqué magazine I saw while loitering in an airport terminal news-stand. It wasn’t a young boy lolling about in that picture, as I recall, but that’s another story, and this, finally, concludes mine. Written February 11, 2001

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