The Best Christmas Ever!

(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.


Fast Food Work is Fun: Part II–Christmas Party

In 1981 some friends and I rented a house in a neighborhood known as Slidertown near the southern edge of downtown Dayton.  We were a group of artists and students from the University of Dayton, and used the building as a collective studio.

That year I worked full time at Godfather’s Pizza to save up for a return to school to finish my B.F.A.  I decided to throw a party for my coworkers while the studio artists were away on Christmas vacation.  I tidied up the main room, hung some garland, made a huge pot of barbecue using my Mom’s recipe, set up a record player and bought a six pack of cheap beer.

Folks arrived in twos and threes and brought snack food, wine, beer and booze.  There was a keg outside of dubious origin that may have been lifted from the restaurant’s premises.  The party was subdued for the first hour or so, but picked up as more alcohol was consumed and inhibitions began to fall away.

I stepped outside to get away from the noise and burgeoning chaos and talked to a day manager and Debbie, a night shift manager from another store.  Snow was falling lightly in big, puffy flakes and started to accumulate.  Street lights sparkled on the surface of the snow and on the ice in the bare branched trees along the street, and the night became hushed and still.  We heard a jingling sound and muffled clop-clops, and when we turned to look up the street we saw a man wearing a buckskin coat and cowboy hat riding a large white mare.  The horse had a belled blanket on its back.  The man dismounted, tied his horse to a post in a bent chain link fence and helped himself to some beer.

I never learned the cowboy’s identity and never found out why he was riding a horse on Brown Street–the nearest stable was at least 10 miles away–as I was nominated to drive Billy home.  Billy was the son of a friend of the restaurant owner.  He had the eyes and lips of a young girl, seemed very thoughtful but was a little mentally slow.  He appeared to be sensitive, and while he could do the work at the store he often seemed on the verge of tears.  Now he was on the verge of passing out, and I had to help him into my Pinto station wagon.  He lived in Centerville, a wealthy suburb on the far south side, and I had to stop for gas.  Billy began to dry heave when I pulled up to the pump, and I ordered him to open his window and hang his head outside my car.  I was flustered as I filled my tank, and discovered the next day that I had forgotten to put the gas cap back on.

We made it a few miles down the road when Billy threw up on the side of the car. He was rendered speechless for another mile, but was able to give me slurred directions when we got nearer to his home and he began to recognize familiar landmarks. We eventually made it to his neighborhood.  The houses were mini-mansions set far back from the road amidst stands of maple and oak trees.  Billy got out of the car when I slowed to a stop as I tried to decipher his final directions, and he started to stagger through shallow drifts of snow beneath the trees.  I called out to him to try to get him back into the car, but he waved and shouted something unintelligible to me as he stumbled up a driveway that may have belonged to his father.  I waited to see if he got inside as I feared that he might freeze to death in the cold, but he waved me off as he pounded on the front door.

When I returned to the party three fourths of the booze, beer and wine was gone, nearly all the food had been eaten, and folks were scattered all over the house in small clusters.  I could smell spilled beer and pot and the delicate aroma of boozy vomit.  Dee sat in the upstairs hallway holding her stomach and moaning.  She told me that she was in a lot of pain and that she had drunk too much.  I offered to take her to a hospital, but she refused.  She was afraid that her abusive husband would find out that she had gotten sick on Jack Daniels again.  Megan, a dark haired beauty too young to be drinking anything stronger than root beer, told me again and again as she struggled to remain standing that Dee was all right.  Buford was lying on his back a few doors down, and he gurgled to me with a smile on his face when I checked up on him.  Downstairs someone cranked up Molly Hatchet on the stereo, and it was nearly loud enough to drown out the sound of a crash.  I ran downstairs and found an overturned trash can on the floor in the main room.  Beer cans, bottles, paper plates and plastic cups were spilled out in a nasty jumble, and there was broken glass nearby.  A couple rolled around on a sofa a few feet away, and the throes of their passion may have caused one of them to kick over the can.

I retreated outside again, lit a cigar and stared at the stars, and pondered my folly.  The snow stopped and the temperature dropped down to near zero, and the chill did wonders to clear my head and force me to reconsider nearly all my choices in life.

Around 2:00 I went back inside and told everyone to leave.  They staggered out in twos and threes, Dee among them having recovered as predicted by the raven haired Megan, and they wobbled and wavered their separate ways.  I got up at noon the next day and started to gather trash and sweep up party debris inside the house and out in the yard.  (Nothing calls the spirit of the holidays to mind like the sight of a crushed beer can next to a pile of cigarette butts in the snow.)

When I went back to work the next day Buford shook my hand and thanked me for throwing the best party ever.