(For Carla who always loved Christmas.)
I can’t remember a Christmas that went according to plan. The volatile mix of alcohol, overheated expectations and subsequent disappointments, and long simmering feuds held by relatives trapped together for long periods of time in cramped spaces, usually led to one or more incidents each year that we all wanted to forget. But why go into all that trauma? David Sedaris’ collection of essays, “Holidays on Ice” covers that ground better than I ever could. I’ve decided instead to respect my wife’s wish that I not mention holiday horror stories at Christmas time (again!), and have cobbled together best moments from two or three Christmases long ago. Let’s pretend that they add up to one relatively peaceful, delightful Christmas.
On St. Nicholas Day my Mom and Dad woke me up at 11:00 at night and led me out to the living room. My sister Carla was already there, but my brother Tony was left sleeping in his bed. He still believed in Santa Claus, and we were about to put up the Christmas tree. (In our family mythology St. Nick brought the tree on his namesake day, Dec 5.) Dad had already wedged a balsam fir tree into a bucket and placed it in a corner of our living room. The lights, tear drop shaped bulbs of orange, blue, red and white, were already laced among the branches. We began to dust ornaments and hang them on the tree. Mom supervised and showed us where we had left open spots. We hung lead tinsel strand by strand.
As we worked Dad went into the kitchen and fried up some cheeseburgers. We sat down and ate our late night snack and admired our handiwork. The tree gleamed and sparkled with light, and the ornaments were old fashioned, intricate and lovely. The manger scene reminded us that Christmas was about Christ, but the stockings full of candy that Mom and Dad handed us (St. Nick also gave us our goodies on Dec. 5th.) told us that the holiday was also about sugar and chocolate.
Tony woke up the next day and found his stocking on the end of his bed, and when he wandered out into the living room and saw the tree we all enjoyed the look of wonder on his face. Carla and I felt older and wiser, and I wanted to gloat to him about my inside knowledge, but my sister and I stuck to our promise to not tell Tony about the true provenance of the Christmas tree.
A few days before Christmas Dad took off work, and we spent our time together opening Christmas cards, watching movies on TV, and relaxing. On Christmas Eve we went to the Schmalstig family Christmas party. We kids played with our 20 plus cousins, drank eggnog, and witnessed our parents indulge in a bit too much booze and get loud and boisterous. Marvelous family secrets were divulged when the adults thought that no child was listening.
The next morning we opened presents, and I got a toy machine gun. It made a rat-a-tat sound when I pulled the trigger, and my finger was sore by the end of the day. I wanted to take it along to Grandma’s house after we went to Mass, but Mom wisely vetoed my request.
Grandma Reger was busy in the kitchen when we arrived at one o’clock, and Mom helped her with the final preparations. The dining room table was set with the best china, ornate silverware, cups and wine glasses. We kids and my Dad joined my grandfather and great uncle Norby in the living room. Bowls of nuts and chocolates were set out on the coffee table. Presents from our grandparents waited for us under another Christmas tree, but we knew not to touch them until later in the day. Grandpa and Uncle Norby smoked cigarettes and talked about the old days, politics, the current state of degeneracy among young adults, and other topics that I found boring. I cracked open a Hardy Boys mystery that I had received that morning and read until Biff discovered an old cave filled with pirate treasure guarded by skeleton ghosts. I was interrupted just as a bony finger touched Biff’s arm when Mom called us to dinner.
The table was spread with cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, ambrosia salad, and a giant, golden turkey. Grandpa poured everyone a glass of wine, including the kids, and we had a choice between a sugary sweet Mogen David and a bitter white Sauterne. I always went for the sweet wine and enjoyed the soda pop alcoholic buzz. Grandma was in a good mood and urged us to fill our plates and take seconds. Grandpa said a toast at some point, and we clinked our glasses together and cried, “Merry Christmas!”
Grandpa helped my grandmother to clear the table after the feast and to wash up the dishes. When the dining room and kitchen were in order once more, everyone gathered in the living room and the kids were finally allowed to open their presents. I got a winter coat from my Grandma that she had designed herself and hand sewn. The cloth was thick and warm and the stitches neat, and I knew that she had taken a lot of time to make it for me. She looked a little stern when she told me, “I broke five needles sewing that coat,” but I could tell that she was pleased that I liked it.
The mood got a little tense in the afternoon as Grandma Reger waited for her son, Bill, to make an appearance with his wife and newborn. They had spent the day with Aunt Karen’s parents and were due at the Regers’ late in the afternoon. They arrived at five o’clock, and Grandma relaxed and smiled once again. Supper was set out at six, and we ate turkey sandwiches, olives, ambrosia, fruit cake and nut bread. No one was in the least bit peckish, but we ate anyway. Pumpkin pie and whipped cream were served as dessert, and when I staggered away from the table I couldn’t imagine feeling hungry ever again.
Dad drove us home around nine. Mom turned on the lights on the Christmas tree, and we kids inspected our loot once more. I fired the machine gun until Mom told me that I could kill more imaginary soldiers the next day.
Mom switched on the TV and found a holiday movie. Bing Crosby crooned a song about snow and Christmas, and we relaxed warm and content in our little brick home. It always felt good to return to our normal behavior after a day spent at Grandma’s striving to be our most polite and best selves.
We kids stayed up later than usual (our final treat), and I fell asleep almost immediately when I finally lay down. But before I drifted off I looked forward to the next day when I could play with my toys once again, eat more turkey, and enjoy the sense of comfort and security I got when my family was happy together and we had nothing pressing to do.