It was brutal out last night. I had to bundle up and head out into the freezing rain with a meager few dollars in order to get a few gifts for my family for Christmas.
Ok, that’s not true. It was about 60 degrees and misty, and I was sweating by the time I got to the Subway, but it was brutal nonetheless.
For some reason I was thinking of John Walton, making his way home in the dead of night; dragging a bag a presents for his brood, hoping to make it home safely before Christmas. I remember watching “The Homecoming” every year; the worried look on the face of Olivia as she prayed for her husband’s safe return. The utter relief she felt when he finally burst through the door. The joy on the kids faces as they opened their gifts. And then there was John-Boy, waiting until last to open his gift; a stack of Big Chief writing tablets.
“I guess that Santee-Claus heard that you wanted to be a writer.”
Things weren’t always so cheerful around the McAllen home at Christmas. It started out well enough. There were piles of gifts, and an abundance of food, and more than enough love and smiles to go around. There were letters to Santa and sleigh rides when it snowed, and of course, there was the endless stream of Christmas cartoons that we watched every year: Rudolph, The Grinch, The Year without a Santa Claus, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and my favorite, Mr’s Magoo’s Scrooge. I can still remember the image of Christmas morning when we would get up and race to the living room, and be absolutely overwhelmed with the sea of toys and gifts that lay scattered about under the fully decorated Douglas Fir that wasn’t there when we went to bed the night before.
Things didn’t stay that way forever and a few years later, it was quite the opposite. Like so many other families, we had entered the world of split holidays, and contentious arguments, and financial uncertainty. On Christmas Eve, we would spend the evening with my father’s family, returning home some time after midnight, only to find my mother sitting alone at home with the radio playing solemn Christmas songs while the WPIX yule log played on an endless loop in the background. My mother would feign excitement as we showed her the gifts we got at Nanny’s house, but her face was a mask that couldn’t hide what she was feeling: “I didn’t sign up for this.”
Christmas day was usually spent with my mother’s family. We were a huge, fairly close-knit group, but I was one of 23 grandchildren and I got lost in the crowd, and I wanted nothing more than to be home playing with whatever toy I had received the night before.
Things had improved by the time we were teenagers, but something had been lost in those early years. The happy memories that were projected in books and movies didn’t resonate, and each year as December rolled around, I dreaded it. I never felt that holiday joy that everyone else seemed to revel in. I hated shopping. I never knew what to buy, or how much to spend. I never knew who I should get a gift for, and worst of all, I never knew how to react when someone got me a gift.
“Oh, a green sweater. Just what I always wanted.”
It only got worse when girls entered the picture. If you had a girlfriend, it was expected that you would buy them a piece of jewelry. And how long you were dating determined what you bought. Under a year might mean an ankle bracelet, but if you were together over a year, forget it. You were expected to get her a double-heart ring, or the necklace with her name in diamonds.
My old man had the perfect solution –
Break up with them right after Thanksgiving… Give them a call after Valentines day.
Our last Christmas with Mommy was the worst one. We spent it in cramped chairs in a tiny room on the 4th floor of Lutheran Medical Center. We stayed until she fell asleep and then trudged to my cousin’s house on Staten Island. She passed away 2 weeks later.
After that, I decided to boycott Christmas. No more shopping. No more gifts. No more wrapping. Oh, how I hate wrapping.
It was the 10 best Christmas’ of my life. Everyone would be talking about how busy they were, and how much shopping they had to do, and how much money they had to spend, while I sat on my couch with my feet up laughing at their plight.
Then I met the woman of my dreams. It just so happened that she loved Christmas. She loved everything about it. The tree, the food, the gifts, the lights, the baking. Everything. Even the wrapping.
I married her anyway.
Along the way, I told her of my distaste for the holidays. She was miffed when I told her that I don’t participate in any Valentine’s Day nonsense, but she acquiesced. She wasn’t about to give ground on Christmas. I explained to her in no uncertain terms why we weren’t getting a real tree for Christmas. I told her about the dangers, and the waste of money. I was even prepared to have one of my fire-fighter friends tell her about how many Christmas tree fires he had put out, until he told me that he gets a real tree too.
I lost that round.
Since then, it’s been an endless stream of holiday revelry; shopping and decorating and baking and christmas songs.
Ok, I don’t hate it.
I headed out into the city tonight under the guise of last minute shopping, but I really only had one goal in mind – to find something to write about. It didn’t take long as me and Pa Walton headed to the N train.
The city was packed with revelers and tourists, all spending money they don’t have, on gifts they don’t need for people they don’t really like. That’s ok. Keep spending. Keep that economic engine rolling. My 401k needs a boost.
Along the way I was struck my how many homeless people were in the city. I lost count after 20. People on the train, people in doorways, two different sets of couples sleeping on the sidewalk. I even saw a woman with a sign that said “homeless and pregnant”. I have no idea if she was telling the truth, but I was forlorn just the same.
Where did they all come from? Did Guiliani and Bloomberg have them hidden in a dungeon somewhere, only to be unleashed when DiBlas came to power? I mean, I haven’t seen it this bad since the 80’s.
I ran out of singles pretty quickly; there simply wasn’t enough to go around, and I’m not sure if it actually helps anyone anyway.
I live in Dyker Heights now. I live on a quiet street, but a few blocks away is a six block enclave of endless Christmas lights and decorations. People come from miles around to gape and gawk at them. There are buses that bring tourists to see the spectacle. The cops have actually closed the streets around the area, and sit on guard all night. Are they worried that someone might steal a blowup Santa from someone’s lawn?
It’s pretty disturbing when you think about it. I can go from an upper-crust neighborhood where people have so much money that they throw it away trying to outdo their neighbors for best nativity scene, to an endless stream of homeless people living atop subway gratings.
We have some fucked up values, to say the least.
I trudged home around midnight, my body frozen and sore from the miles long journey.
Ok, it was only 6 blocks, and it wasn’t cold, but I like the visual.
The house was dark, save for the glow of the Christmas lights from my live Christmas tree. I slipped up the stairs to kiss my wife goodnight. We talked for a few minutes about what needs to be done in the next few days; cookies that need to be baked, octopus that needs to be cooked, last minute gifts that need to be purchased.
No need to get me a gift. I got mine in June. Best Christmas present ever.
When we were little, she would tuck us in, kiss our foreheads and say the same thing as she shut out the lights.
Merry Christmas, folks.
You too, Mama.