Christmas has gotten way too complicated.
Staring helplessly at the indecipherable instructions for my daughter’s new IPOD, I break out in a cold sweat. It dawns on me that I have as much chance as breathing life into this pricey little gizmo as George Bush has at getting lucky at a Teamsters Christmas party.
My wife long since gone to bed, it was up to me to play Santa Claus for the two kids who stopped believing in the jolly old elf years ago.
I didn’t have a beard, my belly didn’t shake like jelly (well, okay, maybe it does), my nose wasn’t like a cherry, and I didn’t grip the stub of a pipe in my mouth. Nevertheless, this Ghost of Christmas ‘Presents’ was doomed to failure.
Dejected, I flopped into a chair next to our tree and slowly sipped one of the season’s most noxious beverages, egg nog. It wasn’t always like this, I whined inwardly. Why, back in my day there were no such things as V-Casts, X-Box’s, or I-Tunes. And, you didn’t need an engineering degree to slap together a Schwinn.
Exhausted by my fruitless labors, I reluctantly gave myself up to the Ghost of Christmas Past....
Christmas was always a big deal at my house.
No sooner had the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade concluded than my father was rattling around in the basement, grumpily searching for decorations he’d dumped into boxes last January. As always, he groused that this year he’d make sure to label everything so he didn’t have to paw though cartons like an alley cat digging for fish heads in a trash can.
Triumphantly emerging from the cellar several hours later, he tossed each of us an impossibly knotted ball of Christmas lights. He ordered us to unravel each strand and check to make “damn sure” each light worked. Meanwhile, he’d be in the house, inventorying our mother’s Nativity salt and pepper shaker collection.
How he managed to pull this off from the couch we never knew.
As darkness began to fall, we proudly informed our father that we were ready for his inspection. We confidently assured him that each strand was meticulously unwound and each bulb was double-checked for brightness.
Glancing at our work like a stern field marshal, he walked up and down the many rows of uncoiled lights, barely nodding his head. He gave no indication whether he was pleased or not.
With a final nod, soft grunt, and glance at the setting sun, he pointed at one set, “That one.” Dutifully, we pulled out the old wooden ladder and positioned it under the porch eaves. After handing him the approved string of lights, we watched Dad whip out his staple gun like Sarah Palin at a moose hunt at Staples. After a few choice holiday expressions of goodwill, he managed to secure the wire strand under the gutter.
After my brother plugged in the lights, bathing the porch in a soft red, yellow, and blue glow, my father pointed at the other strands and said, “Take those downstairs.”
“Tomorrow,” he said, “we’ll get them tomorrow.”
In other words, halftime was over.
Lights forgotten, the next day was devoted to the annual Real Tree or No debate. Each year we always argued over the wisdom of tramping through a muddy lot, binding a deformed evergreen with twine, flopping it onto the car’s roof like a dead antelope, and wedging it into a tree stand which was usually missing a leg.
Put that way, we went artificial. At least then we wouldn’t have to forget to water it, vacuum millions of dead needles from the oh-so-classy gold shag carpet, or surreptitiously dump its drying carcass on the neighbor’s lawn come the first night of the new year.
Unfortunately, when we got to the store, our parents fell in love with, of all things, an aluminum tree. Crowing that it was the future of fashion to have such a monstrosity perched in the living room window, they assured us we’d get used to it.
When we complained it had no color, they showed us the snazzy color wheel which came with it (“All the primary colors! Plus Green!” the ad roared).
In retrospect, I now realize that nothing screamed the 1960s quite like a tree made of Reynolds Wrap. Back then, though, all we knew was that it looked like something you’d see in front of the Munsters’ house.
Enamored of their choice, my parents tossed the future in the open trunk and headed home. Right past several lots full of natural trees that looked downright beautiful by comparison.
As Christmas Eve drew closer, our disdain for that hideous tree was replaced by a sort of fascination. Who could have guessed that its metal branches could pick up FM? Or that the color wheel made for a wildly spinning torture device for our sister’s Barbies?
There are many things in life that I wish didn’t exist: mimes, televangelists, Katie Couric, you name it. We looked at Christmas carolers in much the same way.
Don’t get me wrong. Christmas carols, with the possible exception of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” are some of the most beautiful pieces of music in the world. When you really want to get in the Christmas spirit, nothing does it for me like “The Little Drummer Boy.”
It’s just that I objected to being ripped from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and banished to the front door to gawp as a mob mangled “Away In a Manger.” Now, if the Vienna Boys Choir showed up on my front porch, you’d have a deal.
I also had a problem that neither of our parents sat with us as we endured off-key holiday favorites by a gang whose hearts, if not talent, were in the right place. No sooner had the Yuletide revelers clambered up onto the porch than we were ordered to sit and listen while Mom and Dad hid in the kitchen.
Thankfully, the impromptu concert usually only lasted for three songs. At which time, our father would throw the group a few dollars, wish them a “Merry Christmas,” close the door with an alligator smile, and turn off the porch light to avoid further intrusions.
Meanwhile, much to our dismay, the Peanuts gang had already started singing, “Hark, the Herald Angel Sings!”
Now, there’s a Christmas carol for you!
As the clock struck nine, we all scooted to bed. Our parents warned us to remain in our rooms all night; it wouldn’t do to surprise Santa as he somehow managed to squeeze through our furnace grate (we didn’t have a fireplace) to place wonderful treasures under the ugliest tree known to man.
OK, so we bought it. Then again, we believed in the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, and that a nun could fly. After all, it was no crazier than believing the Partridge Family could sing.
We tossed and turned throughout the evening; our pent-up excitement made sleep impossible. To pass the time, we regaled each other with tales of what Santa would bring and mortified our sister by making fart noises under our armpits.
As midnight approached, my brother hushed us-there was the sound of movement downstairs. Instantly calling a halt to our armpit symphony, we strained to hear what was happening.
“Santa’s here!” my little brother gasped in wide-eyed wonderment as he slid beneath his covers.
Straining my ears, I heard something, too. The muffled sound of scuffing feet barely disguised a quiet rustling of paper and shuffling of boxes. Even so, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. It was only when I heard a sharp bang followed by a string of colorful words that I knew the magic of Christmas had arrived.
Thus buoyed by the wonderment of the moment, I happily closed my eyes and drifted away to sleep. I was confident that I was due for a windfall of goodies when I awakened.
Next: "Santa"monium at the Penwasser house!
Next: "Santa"monium at the Penwasser house!