I used to like Christmas, way back when I was a kid—when we would sneak down the stairs before dawn and the first creak of the wood beneath our feet would elicit, “Get back in the bed!” from our father. Then we would slink back to our beds to lay in wait until we thought our folks were asleep again before making another silent night try at the stairs.
Eventually we'd make it, either because we had mastered the gauntlet of squeaky steps or Dad was tired of yelling at us. Yet, even then we were not home free. We would slip into the living room where our new toys lay in neat piles around the tree. It's hard for kids to remain silent once faced with a room full of the most desirable toys they can imagine. Over-enthusiasm often resulted in, “Get back in bed!” from an angry father.
If we could survive the initial excitement of seeing the toys, we then had to content ourselves with not actually playing with them. Sure, once in a while there were quiet toys we could get by with touching, but most often the most fun toys were the most noisy and they were strictly off limits until Mom and Dad actually got out of bed and came downstairs. We were never beyond being driven back to our beds.
Sometime after dawn Mom would come down the stairs and make coffee, then start breakfast. At that point it was safe to start admiring the new toys, though not quite safe to start playing with the noisier ones. Dad would come down soon after Mom, but he would go straight to the kitchen table and start sipping coffee. It always seemed like they had stayed up too late on Christmas Eve or didn't sleep well. It was best not to be too insanely noisy until after breakfast—or at least until dad came in to get involved.
Often dad came in before finishing his coffee to see what we had. He was sometimes known to find a particularly special toy we had totally overlooked in our wide-eyed wonderment. He was also, more often than not, the loudest of us all. He was the one who could dare to shoot the cap gun in the house or test the siren type horn on a new bike. If he was the first one mom yelled at, we were golden.
Then came breakfast, for those who could pull themselves away from that special new prize that couldn't be easily carried to the table. Mom always made a wonderful breakfast, but breakfast on Christmas morning was the best. Maybe it was because we had been awake all night and been in a state of strict sound control for hours, or maybe the grits were better while wearing a new cowboy hat or playing with a new yo-yo.
It seems there was always some kind of racetrack or train that required setting up. Dad would start on that after breakfast and we would spend a good part of the day on it—not setting it up, playing with it. Now that I'm older I look back and think that the best part was not the racetrack or train itself so much as enjoying it with Dad. He liked the toys as much as we did.
Years later, after I was married, my father actually gave me an electric racetrack for Christmas. My wife thought it was a little odd, until she saw me and Dad spend hours setting it up and playing with it together. The track didn't see the light of day again until our kids were old enough to enjoy it, but the real gift had been the time together, not the toy.
Dad has always had a special place in my idea of Christmas. I have an old beat-up plastic lawn Santa that I put out every year. It's another of those things my wife thought strange before she knew the story behind it. I was probably four or five, I couldn't have been more than six. I can't remember where we were going, maybe to buy Mom's gift, but it was just me and Dad. Those were always special times, whenever I had Dad all to myself.
I saw the Santa on top of a store or gas station, and I wanted it. I was a good kid. I didn't beg or pitch a fit or anything like that, I just said I wanted one—that's all. That's all it took. Dad went in and bought the Santa for me. It wasn't even for sale, it was part of the businesses decorations, but he talked the man into selling it to him. I still have it. I always will.
That's how Christmas was back then, magical. But we grew up and the world changed. I remember when Christmas ended. I was ten or twelve. I was the youngest in my family. My brothers were in their late teens, four and six years older than me. They had stopped caring about Christmas years before. The magic was dying, but I was trying to hold on to it even if toys were giving way to clothes and I was the only one who woke up early anymore.
I knew Santa didn't really bring toys. He had suffered a midlife crisis back in the roaring twenties and ran off with some elven bimbo leaving Mrs. Claus to tend the reindeer. Santa was always a bit of a lush anyway, look at the stories of Father Christmas back in Europe. It wasn't Rudolf's nose that was shining. I knew that it was my parents who stayed up half the night putting toys together so no one would find out Santa was off in the Bahamas drinking rum and banging an elf half his size.
Santa wasn't what really made Christmas for me anyway; it was getting up before dawn, the danger of that ninja walk down those creaky stairs, that first illicit look at the gifts beneath the tree, the hushed excitement waiting for Mom and Dad to wake up so we could share it all with them. I didn't get as many years of that as my brothers did. They started sleeping later as they got older. Soon it was just me and my nearest brother sneaking down, then I was alone and the magic died.
It wasn't long after that the gifts were wrapped and under the tree long before Christmas morning with little tags that said, “From: Santa” on them. That pretty well ended any reason for the predawn raid on the Christmas tree. Nothing was opened until everyone was up, some time long after breakfast. For me Christmas had totally lost its magic. I didn't get it back until playing Santa's helper for our nieces.
My wife and I would sneak over to her sisters house after midnight and help put toys together without waking up the kids. That was as good as the predawn raids when I was their age—sitting up half the night trying to put toys together without making a sound. The wine didn't help, or maybe it did. It probably made the work more fun while making being quiet more difficult, but I loved those nights. I had found the magic again.
Once we had kids of our own, I got my chance to play Santa—since he had yet to return from his tryst with that elven Jezebel he ran off with. For awhile they were on top of some mountain in India. Ole' St. Nick got involved in the whole 'Tune in, Turn on, Drop out' thing back in the sixties. He got tired of that after awhile—all the hippies did—and he showed back up in the late eighties and had a billion dollar public offering on Wall Street. By the late nineties he was riding high on the DotCom boom and had the elves working for pesos south of the border making cheap toys to sell at Wally-world.
Mrs. Clause did alright for herself, though. She turned the reindeer loose, closed up shop and moved south. I ended up marrying her. My wife is truly the Spirit of Christmas—past, present, and when she's mad, future. That future one always scared the crap out of me every since I saw the movie at the theater with my brother when I was six or seven. That skeletal hand pointing at the grave... talk about a Christmas Eve nightmare.
But things were a little different around our house than they were when I was growing up. My wife's family had some bizarre tradition of sitting at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning. They might try to sneak down and peek without leaving the stairs, but none of that slipping in and playing with the toys while their parents slept. They sat there impatiently while their parents went down and made coffee, cooked breakfast, and presumably checked to make sure old Santa hadn't left any stray receipts from K-mart laying around. Once their parents were ready they would call the kids down and they would file into the room in an orderly fashion. (Actually they would race down the stairs, climbing over top of each other if they could, and you didn't want to be in their path as they rounded the corner into the living room).
I guess that could work with a house full of girls, but guys are a little more sneaky and aggressive. Maybe it was like that at my house before I was old enough to remember, but my brothers just kept sneaking past so my folks gave up. I don't know, but I could not imagine doing Christmas that way. But we did. My wife demanded our sons wait until we were awake before they raided the tree. Of course I let them sneak past. It became a yearly debate as to whether they had to wait or not. It took all the mystery and sneakiness out of it.
Then there is the way we open gifts. When the time came to open gifts at my house growing up it was every man, or boy, for himself. All you could see were arms, legs, and paper. We would almost knock the tree down gathering our goods and trying to knock each other out of the way. Then it was a battle for mom and dad's attention—“look what I got!”. But not in my wife's world. They took turns and opened gifts one at a time as the rest of the family patiently looked on.
Christmas morning at our house is a quiet, sublime, practice in self-control and decorum. Each gift is opened in turn with my wife noting what and from whom on a note pad for future thank you notes. Time is taken to savor each item before moving on to the next. One of our sons has taken to removing the paper carefully so that it might be reused, though it never is. It ends up in the fire just like it always did when I was growing up. It is nothing like the wild exuberance I knew as a child.
But that's not why I hate Christmas, not really. If you haven't noticed yet it is that no account, womanizing, drunkard in the red suit that I take issue with. Father Christmas was bad enough, with his evil elves who would kidnap little children who had been bad and take them away to the work houses, and his drunken orgies by the Yule fires at night. But the American Santa is far more insidious, and far worse, with his capitalistic gluttony, and his busty little elves who sell everything from computer games to car tires to the little blue pills that keep Santa going all night.
Maybe it is people like me, who mistake the joy of Christmas as the rush for stuff, who have created our culture of excess. Christmas has become a time of women fighting in the toy store over the most popular toys, and people robbing and stealing because of the pressure to provide their children with more than they can afford. We have come to equate the richness of the season with how much money we spend. We cook tons of food that will never be eaten while women and children starve in the streets of our cities. We stuff ourselves and drink ourselves into a stupor in celebration of a child born in a barn and laid in a feed trough because his parents were homeless at the time.
I have learned a lot from my wife over the years, and one lesson is the meaning of Christmas. That slow, ordered opening of gifts, making each a thing of wonder not just the next thing to be ripped open and thrown to the side. That exacting list honoring those who gave each gift as if they were the only one. That time spent with family, one-on-one and together. As I said before about my father, the time together was the true gift. That is what the magic of Christmas past is—my father playing with our toys and making the most noise, my mother cooking breakfast and watching her boys (including my father) play, my brothers teaching me how to sneak down the stairs and trying to keep their little brother quiet.
It is the time spent with family that I remember, not what was under the tree, and it is that closeness that I miss. Christmas has become a nightmare of traffic jams and crowds as we chase after the commercial shop, shop, shop, of our modern Yuletide. By Christmas Day we are exhausted and broke. Commercialism is what I hate about Christmas. We have not learned from the story of the miserly Scrooge that we should love people more than money, we have learned that love requires shopping. That's what the billion dollar Santa industry has fed us all our lives. It took my wife, Mrs. Claus, to teach me differently.
This year I'm going to try not to be such a humbug. Like old Ebeneezer, I'm going to remember what makes the magic—time spent with those I love. Ole' Father Christmas can take his little silicone elf and retire to Vegas. Me and Mrs. Claus are gonna stick with “peace on earth, good will toward men.” And “God bless us, every one.”