Ghosts of Christmas Past

Posted on December 23, 2011

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One Christmas Eve in the early 1960s, my mother told me to go to bed, because Santa Claus wouldn’t come to homes where the children were still awake. This made sense to me. What made no sense, although I didn’t give it any thought at the time, was that the Christmas tree was set up in my bedroom. I guess it’s more accurate to say that my bed was in the living room. This must have had something to do with the fact that there were now five kids in the family, and there weren’t enough places for beds. A light sleeper even then, I woke up at the slightest sound, and when I opened my eyes that night I saw my father putting wrapped gifts under the tree.

Up to that point, I’d been holding fast to the childhood illusion that Santa was a supernatural being who represented goodness and generosity, an otherworldly visitor who came once a year to remind us of what was possible. But now I had to face hard facts, and my mind immediately came to the only logical conclusion I could find: my father was Santa Claus! Just as Superman and Batman had secret identities, Santa had one, too — a person he pretended to be all year long. I’d wondered about that possibility before, but I expected his secret identity to be a retired baseball player, or maybe Captain Kangaroo. The idea that he might be a spice salesman from the Bronx had never entered my mind. On the other hand, this did explain the so-called bowling league on Tuesday nights: he was sneaking off to make toys! But why wasn’t my father wearing the Santa costume now? I didn’t know, but I was sure he had his reasons.

The following year, on Christmas Day, my father and I went to visit his cousin, a man with eyes like those of a barracuda, and lips that never approached a smile. He was, I was sure, a vampire, and I was terrified of him. Again, this was back in the 1960s, when vampires were still people you didn’t want to hang around with. But he was interesting, too. He had the first speaker phone I’d ever seen; it was a black box that sat on his desk, and he demonstrated it for my father and me. He dialed a number, then connected the phone to the box somehow, and we waited. Sure enough, from across the room, we could hear a voice that seemed to come from nowhere. My father looked at me with pride, expecting me to be amazed and impressed. I was certain his cousin had murdered someone, drained his blood, and injected the person’s soul into that contraption on his desk.

In 1965, my grandmother got a pain in her leg, went to the doctor, and found out she had a brain tumor. I was nine, and had no real conception of what that meant. I just knew she had to go into the hospital, and was there for quite a while. When she came home, I interpreted that as a sign that she was getting better. My grandmother lived upstairs, on the third floor, and I went to see her every day. I noticed that she almost never got out of bed, and that her hair was suddenly gone. And she looked tiny, even to me, and I was pretty small myself. For Christmas, I got her a brush and comb set. They were light purple and came in a see-through plastic box with a ribbon around it and a bow. I thought it was a good gift for when her hair grew back. On New Year’s Day, 1966, New York had a new mayor and my grandmother began her last two months of life. She died in early March. The brush and comb were still in the plastic box next to her bed.

Several years later, I’d pretty much decided that my father’s cousin wasn’t a vampire, but just one of those relatives who, for some inexplicable reason, seemed creepier than he probably was. I’d also assured myself that my father wasn’t Santa Claus, or even Captain Kangaroo. But gifts did arrive mysteriously every Christmas Eve, and wherever they were coming from, I was sure that a Frosty the Snowman Sno-Cone Machine would be waiting for me under the tree. It wasn’t. Sensing my shock and disappointment, my uncle tried to ease the pain by explaining that I simply wasn’t old enough for a Sno Cone Machine. I couldn’t accept that. This was crushed ice and cherry syrup, for crying out loud. Besides, his son was two years younger than me, and he’d gotten a chemistry set that included enough acid to melt half of Manhattan. I’d had a vision of people lined up around the block, waiting to plunk down a shiny new dime for a paper cone full of my Famous Old World Style Flavored Sno, with “Snow” spelled without the W, just like they did in the olden days. As the grown-ups gathered the torn and crumpled wrapping paper from the floor, that vision evaporated into thin air. My ten-year-old cousin, meanwhile, got right to work dissolving the lower branches of our aluminum Christmas tree.

On December 21, 1968, three astronauts were launched into space aboard a Saturn V rocket. Their mission was to leave the planet’s orbit — the first humans to do so — and circle the Moon. On Christmas Eve, they broadcast live from their command module, reading from the Book of Genesis and wishing everyone on Earth a Merry Christmas. My family was in the kitchen, eating and laughing and speaking in loud voices, yelling the way they tended to do even when there was no discernible reason for it. I sat on the living room floor, alone, and listened to the astronauts. I didn’t believe the Bible account then, any more than I do now, but it was nevertheless the most wonderful Christmas Eve I’ve ever had. The year 1968 had been, in many ways, a difficult one, filled with anger and hate. For those few minutes that night, it seemed possible that we might all get past those destructive behaviors and realize that we shared this small planet, and that we’d be better off if we could just treat each other with tolerance and respect. The promise of Christmas, the returning light marked by the winter solstice, and the coming new year seemed, at least to me, to be brimming with hope.

Almost three decades later I walked into a toy store, looking for a gift for my eleven-year-old daughter. Wandering up and down the aisles, I picked up and put down dozens of things that seemed too violent, too childish, or just too pointless. One of the items I rejected immediately was a red plush toy that, when squeezed, would laugh like an intoxicated chipmunk. It was called Tickle Me Elmo, and when I looked at its thirty-dollar price tag, I shook my head and threw it back onto the shelf. Nobody, I thought to myself, is ever going to pay that much money for such a stupid toy. Weeks later, just before Christmas, people all over North America were punching and stabbing each other to get their hands on a Tickle Me Elmo. I remember wishing I were sleeping in our living room again, next to the tree, discovering against all odds that Santa Claus was really a mild-mannered spice salesman from the Bronx. My grandmother would be upstairs, cleaning up after our Christmas Eve feast and preparing the next day’s dinner. Those were days when people got excited about a voice coming from a box sitting on a desk. When kids dreamed of something as simple as a cupful of flavored ice. When the world watched and listened as one, and saw pictures for the first time of the home they all shared. They seem like ghosts now, every one of them. And yet, there’s something about them that’s still alive, and still possible. At least, I hope there is.

Merry Christmas.

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Posted in: Family