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“White Christmas” November 22, 2013

In the movie, The Bishop’s Wife, there is a scene between the Professor and Julia inside Maggenti’s flower shop. The Professor becomes wistful and says, “I like to have a Christmas tree because it reminds me of my childhood. I find, for some good reason, that this is a good time of year for looking backward. Can you imagine me ever having been a child?”

My mother was so much the child at Christmas that she had two trees. A living green tree in the family room and an artificial, 1960s silver Alcoa in the living room. Each year, when Christmas was over, she would ask my dad to plant the green tree outside the family room window so she could continue to enjoy it until it turned dead brown. Like most families, our Christmases were a collection of rituals. It always began with stringing the large, multi-colored bulbs around the house exterior. It wasn’t engineer precise, but it was festive. And staking out a flat plastic Santa in his sleigh and eight tiny reindeer on the front lawn. Then the Alcoa landed and the green tree was purchased and installed and covered with old and new ornaments, one of which featured the smiling face of country singer Slim Whitman. But, that’s another story.

These ceremonies would be followed by the baking of peanut butter, chocolate chip cookies and the making of my dad’s classic fudge. Mom would purchase her favorite fruit-filled and ribboned hard candy that always ravaged someone’s tooth. We’d write our letters to Santa, mark the gifts we wanted in the Sears and Penny’s catalogues, and visit the basement of the downtown Sears store, which was transformed each year into Santa’s Toyland. My youngest little sister, Cindy – AKA Sammy – remembered that the Sears & Roebuck “Wish Book” always arrived in brown paper. She would use a Bic pen to circle and circle the things she wanted until the circle was imprinted on the pages below. It really didn’t matter how many times she circled her wishes because Mom bought us pretty much everything we asked for. Her childhood Christmases had been pretty bleak and she wanted to make sure ours weren’t.

And then the Santa games would begin. As the oldest, I became the first non-believer. My next oldest brother, Tommy, and I would start looking for the gifts our parents had squirreled away. In closets, in drawers, under beds, in the garage. And we’d try not to leak the deflating truth to our younger sibs. They religiously continued to put out milk and cookies for Santa and Santa always ate them. On Christmas morning, for some strange reason, Dad just couldn’t eat another cookie.

Sammy remembers Mike Cannizzaro, Tommy’s father-in-law, playing pinochle on Christmas Eve with our folks and threatening to start a fire. Sammy was on the verge of realizing that Santa was a myth, but she still made sure there was no fire that night before she went to bed to dream of sugar plums. Inevitably, my father would have to assemble something each year. The directions were horrible, usually written by someone in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the Philippines, and the toddy for the body didn’t help. From bicycles to cardboard kitchens, he put them all together on countless Christmas Eves. As I got older, I helped. And I passed the responsibility down to Tommy and then to my next youngest brother, Wendy.

One Christmas, I remember rousting Tommy, who was 15 months younger than me, out of bed, scurrying down the hallway, and peeking through the hallway door into the kitchen where my dad was busy wrapping gifts on the gray Formica table. I recall with a smile the year he tried to wrap our football helmets. My oldest little sister Debbie still remembers the breathless anticipation we all experienced when Mom made us all wait in our rooms, so the parents could get their coffee, pry their eyes open, have a cigarette, and make sure everything was perfectly set up before we could burst into the wonderland of gifts. Only to be blinded by four, white-hot lights. One holiday, my father had bought an 8MM camera with a light bar to capture the festivities. The lights were so bright, every movie featured people squinting in pain, their hands thrown up to cover their faces. His footage was pretty much the same each year. Up the tree and down the tree. Then shots of presents piled under both trees. And close-ups of sleeping animals and dozing humans. One year, somehow, my father double-exposed the film. He must have forgotten that he had already recorded Christmas when he shot the family vacation to SeaWorld. When the film was developed, it featured dolphins dancing through the Alcoa.

For my family, Christmas was all about the music. And still is. I can never get enough of Bing singing “White Christmas,” Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” or “Run Rudolph Run” by Keith Richards, or “Mary, Did You Know?” by Kenny Rogers. It was the quickest way to get into the spirit. And the movies. Holiday Inn, White Christmas, The Bishop’s Wife, A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life. And, over the years, like the music, more classics were added. The Nutcracker, twenty-four hours of A Christmas Story, a Muppet Christmas Carol, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, thirtysomething Christmas, Scrooged, Love Actually, and The Family Stone.

Then there were the gifts. The wonderful, every-kid-had-to-have-one presents, like the testosterone-fueled, hand-to-hand combat of the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots; the eloquent, loquacious Chatty Cathy; or the very cool, just-like-the-movies 007 gadgets. There was athletic gear, like the full football uniforms we three boys got which, Wendy always reminded me, let Tommy and me whomp on him without getting into trouble. And my sisters’ vanity sets, which were full-sized, hard plastic make-up tables with flip-up mirrors, little side drawers, and fake make-up. There were gifts that changed everything, like the year Wendy got his first guitar and amp. A Sears Silvertone. And who can ever forget the bright shiny spokes of brand new bikes flashing in the winter’s sun. Once all the presents were distributed, Sammy and Wendy would then stage their annual who-gets-to-open-the-last-present contest, with both of them tucking away at least one present to be “discovered” after everyone had opened their last gift.

And what would Christmas be without the food. Turkey stuffed with oyster dressing ground up in an old hand-cranked meat grinder. Dips that made our mouths water. Clam, onion, bacon. Crackers, chips, pretzels. A salt overdose. Egg Nog, hot chocolate with marshmallows, Tom and Jerries. A sugar overload. And the rest of the traditions. Mike Cannizzaro coming to the house dressed like Santa Claus and stealing presents from under our tree. Debbie making cowboy jackets and shirts for us older boys and my best friend, George, who had his own routine of making sugar-covered walnuts, which always seemed to have a shell or two left intact because he’d had a few too many Buds while making them. Singing Christmas Carols in our neighborhood and with our step-mom Jo’s family after Mom passed away. Searching out creative stocking-stuffers for my wife Robin, my step-sons, and her family.

Each year, we added more rituals. The Nutcracker Suite ballet at the San Francisco Opera House, La Pastorela at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, Christmas in the Adobes in Monterey, the Modesto Symphony’s Candlelight Concerts, the gift exchange at Tommy’s house, cruising Christmas Tree Lane, decorating sugar cookies for Robin’s cookie exchange, holiday open houses, and the Christmas parades in Twain Harte and Modesto. They say Christmas is for kids. At this time of year, I often wish I were a kid again.

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