The Christmases of my childhood were a little too exciting for a delicate flower like me. First there was a rushed examination of the presents; then off to Catholic mass; then off to Uncle Bob’s house. I rather liked that family; we’d get there by about ten o’clock. Uncle Bob was great, very funny, low key; Aunt Margaret was a kindhearted and worldly-wise woman with a coy smile; there were two (boy) cousins about ten years older than me. Very nice, but that was a quick trip. Maybe an hour or so, and then it was off to my grandmothers’ home. (Maternal.) That was a three-ring circus of off-the-hook weirdness, right there.
For one thing, she owned a funeral parlor. She owned two adjoining residential/commercial buildings in Astoria, Queens. The two downstairs units, and both basements, were the funeral parlor; upstairs the two units had been turned into one big residence, communicating in two spots along the way. Death taking no holidays, there was often a wake downstairs, and calls would come in making arrangements for the newly dead. None of that interfered at all with the wild fun preferred by my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts and uncles. (About twenty-five people were typically present; my father’s partying was more restrained.) As with death, life goes on.
There was always the unrestrained drinking of alcohol, Manhattans being the preferred drink. All of these people bought their whiskey by the case. Christmas dinner was about three o’clock, followed by the opening of presents (youngest first, etc.). By then almost all of the adults were well into the lampshade hat zone, literally. They’d have been into the Crème de Menthe, with the bright green teeth to prove it. This was the World War II generation, and every party was 1999 for them. Cigarettes were everywhere.
As a small boy, this was very strange and a bit frightening to me. As time passed, it grew into a bearable enterprise with a chance to see my cousins. By the end of the run I was married and my son was the first to open his presents, as the first great-grandchild and the youngest at the party.
The Rehabilitation of Christmas
My little family moved to California around this time. There were years when we didn’t really know a lot of people, and there were no relatives around. We started our own Christmas tradition of having a big turkey party for the friends that we did have. There were a couple of transplanted New Yorkers, and a few of their friends. All of them were writers with no family aspirations and nowhere else to go for the holiday. We had a couple of friends, coworkers of mine, who lived far from home and needed an invitation. This type of gathering grew over the years to include larger groups of people, mostly regulars, with celebrations on Easter and Thanksgiving, along with BBQs on Memorial Day and Labor Day. But we’re here to talk about Christmas.
We were blessed with a second son within a few years of the relocation, and we purchased a little house of our own. Our boys were always great about Christmas morning. They always woke up around first light, of course, but they never bothered us. They’d play in their room or go in the kitchen for some milk or something; they would just kill time pleasantly until we woke up and came out. We’d all be dressed in robes with tussled hair. And we’d open the presents. Our system was to distribute the presents and then take turns opening one at a time. We’d take lots of pictures and get a few sets made so that we could send sets to the grandparents. All OG stuff; film cameras; pictures sent as hard copies by U.S. Mail.
I would already have started playing my Christmas albums. Phil Spector; James Brown; “A Rhythm and Blues Christmas;” Der Bingle; Nat King Cole. That went on all day.
We’d have a little breakfast that included a certain amount of chocolate, and then get ready for the company. My wife would start the turkey. If the year had advanced somewhat, I’d be off to the Honey Baked Ham store for a spiral cut ham. We’d tell people to come between one and two, but there were always a couple who’d be there by noon, and they’d show up hungry and thirsty, too. They were innocent, so it was never annoying.
The conversations were wide ranging and entertaining. Writers may show up early, and empty-handed, but they do make the proceedings more interesting.
By this time I was starting to really enjoy Christmas. All of the old discomfort had been replaced by the warm feeling of having a nice family and being surrounded by friends.
Here’s my best memory of Christmas: even long after my sons had moved out of the house, they preferred to sleep over on Christmas Eve so that we could all wake up together and have our little Christmas morning together, just the four of us.
It all seems so distant now, in light of events, and I’ll admit that it can all be a little difficult for me, but I’ve had a nice Christmas this year in spite of my nature. We got a tree, a very nice five foot tall artificial tree, nicely decorated. (Previously my tree had been an eight by ten photo of a Christmas tree.) We threw two parties here at the condo, one last week for friends and one on Christmas day for family. Both were very nice affairs, very comfortable, with plenty of Christmas spirit and very little drinking. My gift giving this year was limited to cookies and chocolates for the ladies in five offices up at school (those that help me out with scheduling and getting paid), and Christmas envelopes for the staff here at the condo. There are eleven of them, security guards, housekeeping, and two mechanics. If I told you how much was in their envelopes, you might think that I was some kind of cheapskate, but it was more than a day’s pay for them, and I could tell that they were very pleased. Thailand is not a tipping country in general. The office staff at the condo got a nice box of cookies (their salaries are a bit higher, so I figured that they were taken care of).
2016 is shaping up to be an odd holiday season. At Christmas, we are expected to look back and be thankful for having gotten through another year with the help of our friends. This year most people would say that we have less than usual to be thankful for, the efforts of our friends notwithstanding. At New Years’ we are tempted to look forward to a new year full of promise and hope for the best, but this year that whole idea is also a burn.
We can hope for the best, but let’s also remember that when things seem like they could not get any worse . . . they can always get worse.