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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Ghost of Christmas Presents

When I was growing up in the ‘50s, Christmas Eve looked no different from any other night of the year in our small suburban house near Chicago. Unlike our neighbors’ festive decorations, there were no lights adorning our windows, no life-sized Santa Claus or manager scene on the front lawn, no twinkly Christmas tree in the bay window.

We’d eat dinner as always, then later that night, my father and I would be off to midnight mass at the nearby Catholic Church, where I sang in the grade school choir. My mother would be home—she being a loyal Lutheran—likely still wrapping our Christmas presents. As for my brother, I imagine he’d be off with friends, telling our father he’d make mass at one of their churches (wink, wink).

It was exhilarating being allowed to stay up so late—usually nearing 1:30 am and just home from a joyous service that had welcomed love back into the world.

My brother would be back from whatever mischief he’d been up to, and we’d each be allowed to open just one Christmas gift from our relatives “back East,” those aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived in Philadelphia, the place my parents had left in the late ‘30’s.

Then it was to bed, and to awaken the next morning to see our house transformed, as if in fact Santa Claus had been there in the middle of the night, to drop off huge stacks of presents along with a fully decorated Christmas tree.

But there was no need to believe in Santa by this time, of course. We knew who’d made the magic happen, who’d starting buying gifts in July, who knew even without a list what would cause each of us to yell out with surprise and pleasure when opening them: the shiny bracelet, the record player, the plush sweater.

And not to be forgotten were the current pets who called our house home, thanks chiefly to my mother who, over the years, had rescued, adopted, or simply opened the back door to any number of stray dogs and cats. They, too—Fawn or Tawny, Taffy or Stranger—would have their own gifts of catnip toys and chew bones.

Years later, my father once told me that every year he’d beg my mother, “Marian, please go easy on the gift giving this year.” That was just one of the major differences between them: he held his money close, she threw it around.  In fact, there were those Christmases, when days later, my mother would discover a gift for one of us hidden in the back of her bedroom closet.

I wish I could remember that last Christmas with my mother. It was 1963, and she was less than six months from dying.  I’ve no doubt she put on the same show, though by this time my brother was married and living nearby. And the decorating was done before Christmas Eve. And the tree was likely one of those flocked things.

But she still would have generously welcomed holiday visitors to the house—the nearby neighbors, all of our friends. She would have gotten in plenty to eat and drink, likely even had bought each person a small Christmas something from the local five-and-dime.  She would have played lots of Christmas songs on the organ, while everyone stood around singing loudly though mostly in tune. Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, and my favorite, O Holy Night.

What I remember about the next year, 1964, was that my father, bereft, had no idea what to do for Christmas with her now gone. She was Christmas, he knew that, we all knew that.

But on Christmas Eve, with not a present under the fake tree, the doorbell rang. In walked my brother and sister-in-law, my father's emissaries, each smiling broadly, a St. Bernard puppy nestled comfortably in their arms. They carefully placed her on the floor, not far from where I was now standing, eyes unbelieving. Then I noticed the bright red ribbon around her neck, a root-beer barrel piece of candy tucked in the middle just under her chin.

"Merry Christmas, Carol."

I can still see her, that precious puppy, the most irrational choice my father could’ve made. He did not even like animals, had lived with them only because my mother wouldn’t live without them.

But what else could he have done? How else could he have welcomed love back into our broken world?

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