After what seemed like mere seconds, I was rudely shaken awake. “C’mon,” my brother excitedly cried, “Santa Claus came last night!”
That he seemed genuinely surprised caused me a little concern. Where had he been all these weeks? Of course Santa Claus came last night! Who’d he expect, Nixon?
We bounded downstairs to a dazzling rainbow of brightly wrapped presents beneath our garish tin pole. Quickly diving into the pile, we were brought up short by our mother’s shrill, “Nobody opens anything until your father and I get there!”
Thus admonished, we perched of the edge of our avocado and gold couch, nervous energy barely held in check. It seemed an eternity until our parents trudged like zombies into the living room.
Coming out of her narcoleptic daze, my mother gushed with mock wonderment, “Wow! What happened here? Did Santa Claus come?” (Amazingly, she sounded as shocked as my brother. What was it with these people? Did they all have brain damage?).
Ignoring her faux amazement, my father hesitated several seconds. Finally, he took a deep breath, sighed, and nodded.
Instantly responding, we dove under the tree, intent only on finding that which was ours. Gripped in a giddy paroxysm of joy, I joined the frenzy of ripping anything with my name on it to shreds. We were a brood of children possessed, we were seized with the spirit, we were seagulls descending on a chicken bone.
After we had torn open our presents and cavalierly tossed the discarded wrappings throughout the living room, our parents solemnly proclaimed that it was time for church. As much as tinsel, mistletoe, and holly wreaths, they declared, Christmas was all about sitting uncomfortably on wooden pews and incoherently mumbling our way through carols.
Despite the fact that Paris Hilton makes more appearances at Mensa meetings than we did at Mass, we were “going, goddammit!” our mother piously announced. So, after scrubbing melted chocolate footballs from our faces and exchanging footie pajamas for swanky “Dad N Lad” polyester wear, off we sped in the family Batmobile to “Our Lady of Barnum Avenue” church.
Upon arrival-five minutes after the service started, naturally-my father ushered us into the very last pew. “That way,” he whispered to us, despite withering looks from Mom, “we can beat the traffic.”
Even though I somehow doubted that departing parishioners were the same as fans leaving a Yankees game, I believed in my Dad. After all, he gave us such pearls of wisdom as, “Seatbelts can only trap you in a burning car. Underwater.”
Gratefully, services stopped being held in Latin during the early 60s, so we actually understood what was going on. I wondered why they kept “Adeste Fideles,” though, but I now suspect it had a lot to do with teenage boys giggling through “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
The service was fairly tolerable. There were a bunch of holiday hymns, a Christmas sermon about how Jesus never got coal, what my father called “bells, whistles, and secret handshakes,” and my brother needing the Heimlich maneuver to get that communion wafer out of his throat.
Before you could say “Dominus Nabisco,” we were done and headed out the door in front of everyone else.
As badly as we felt for being “Twice a Year Catholics” (the other time, of course, being Easter), I really was convinced our father was a deeply religious man. After all, anyone who invoked the name of the deity as often as he did while watching football must surely walk with the angels.
Once home, we joyfully returned to our toys, although now we wanted to see how creative we could get. For instance, G.I. Joe (with “Kung Fu grip”) didn’t fare too well in the Vietcong EZ Bake Oven. We also discovered that, if you removed the rubber suction cups, toy arrows sharpen up real nice and stick in the couch. Or each other.
Meanwhile, our mother bustled about the kitchen merrily preparing the “Holiday Feast.” The star of the show was, of course, the turkey, which had been slowly mummifying in the oven the past two days. Its aroma filled the house with flavor as its burning grease flooded the kitchen with smoke.
Besides the turkey, though, our Christmas feast featured food you’d never see any other time of year. For instance, I can’t imagine any egg nog keggers at a Fourth of July picnic.
When presented a choice of turnips, squash, candied yams, egg nog, deviled eggs, cranberry sauce (always from the can), plum pudding, marzipan, the horrifying blood pudding, mincemeat pie (which always struck me as some sort of Dawn of the Dead concoction), and that ubiquitous doorstop, the fruitcake, we children usually settled for white meat, Hungry Jack mashed potatoes, and marshmallow snowmen.
After which, we fought over the drumstick. And flung dinner rolls at our sister.
Sufficiently gorged, we retired to the living room to see how else we could tear apart our presents while Mom hosed down the dining room. Dad, on the other hand, now comfortably attired in his festive holiday outfit of tee shirt and tighty-whiteys, plopped down in front of the television and scratched his back with a fork.
As the afternoon dragged closer toward evening, our eyelids grew heavy. Our early morning rampage had finally caught up with us and, chocolate-fueled frenzy notwithstanding, we were sliding closer to sleep.
Through lidded eyes, I remember my father lurching toward the kitchen. Before I lapsed into a food coma, I remember a faint, “Boy, I sure could use a turkey sandwich with Miracle Whip.”
With a jolt, I felt myself roughly yanked from my reveries by a shaking hand. I forced my eyes open to look directly into the beaming face of my daughter.
“Merry Christmas, Daddy,” she smiled.
I nervously looked around the room, half-expecting to see a virtual bloodlust of demons whipped up into holiday froth by the intoxicating scent of evergreen and sight of ribbons and bows.
Instead, I saw a calm scene of my wife, sipping her first cup of coffee and my two children quietly sorting through gifts.
Sheepishly, I informed my daughter, “I’m sorry, honey, I couldn’t figure out how to program your IPOD.”
My son, ever the optimist, calmly looked over his shoulder and reassured his sister, “No problem. I can do that for you.”
Hearing that, I realized I’d been home for the holidays all along.
Looking at my children, I smiled.
Smiled at the “Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come.”
Okay, time to go away for a few days to spend some time with family. Sadly, there'll be no aluminum tree this year. Happy Festivus and Merry Christmas!