Christmas was my Sister # 3 asking for a tree, which we eventually got in 1986. On the big day, she told me that she had a dream that our dad was going to get us a tree. She relayed to me that it was the first time a dream of hers had come true. It was thrilling, how tangible her dream come true was–a plastic four-feet tree sitting on top of our coffee table in the “old house”– a rent controlled one bedroom in the heart of the Nob Hill– a single string of lights loosely hung around it with a few plastic ornaments we painstakingly chose that same day. If you had asked me then what the difference between our tree and that one at Rockefeller Center, I would have said it was a draw.
That year, the gift was the tree. There was no need for wrapped gifts underneath it. I don’t even think we had the concept of that yet.
As we got older, Christmas became more ritualized and often set by my dad’s work schedule and my sisters’ planning. Usually this meant that my sisters and I would figure out what we’d do for dinner that night–which usually entailed going to Lake Tahoe for the day to partake in a possibly white Christmas in the Sierra Nevadas and then head home in time for a dinner at a Chinese restaurant, because you know what’s open. All the while, Sister #3’s David Foster’s holiday CD played on repeat. This was our tradition. Sometimes we’d take the a detour to Reno and hit up a buffet and some slots. My parents would hand us $20 and we’d spend about half an hour throwing that money away. My mom would watch as my dad played his favorite: Wheel of Fortune. One time he won $600 and we carted out of that casino like we’d just robbed a bank.
We’d come home and open gifts. This was our show. The sisters ran this. We’d exchange gifts with each other and this really meant that I would get the best gifts, as I was the youngest and the poorest. My parents would play along usually but the crux of the gift exchange was to get something so awesome for my dad that we wouldn’t be yelled at for exercising the most base of American principles: wasting money. We did fail miserably only once and it involved a gold gilt rotary phone from Radio Shack.
I have no problem celebrating Christmas. I love Christmas. I love the lights. I love getting together with family and eating a shitload of calories. I love Stevie Wonder’s Someday at Christmas holiday album. Before I had kids to drag around everywhere, I used to love the fake fir scent permeating every overly heated department store I entered. I’ll even hit up a midnight mass if any one of my family really wanted to go.
I do have one problem: Santa.
By the time I had learned about Santa and his NSA ways, I already knew he was a phony. I grew up in a one bedroom apartment: was Santa going to ring our doorbell or break an entry? This would be creepy and my parents would not be happy at all unless this man was delivering to them what they wanted: a new house. How could a rotund, white man ever know what I wanted? The only time I’d really ever seen white people was on TV and they lived in houses with chimneys and driveways and had mothers and father who spoke English. So many also had blond hair, so similar to the white hair on Santa’s fat head. I knew Santa was going to skip my apartment–and he did.
It wasn’t Santa who got us that tree. It was my Dad and Mom who decided to choose the cheapest and smallest tree at the place they had seen these things being sold: Walgreens.
Once my kids rolled around, the exercise of Christmas fundamentally shifted for me. My partner spoke of this “magic” of Christmas that we should imbue in our offspring. Magic? Pray tell. Do kids believe the charade? Apparently they do! Hence, magic!
Okay, so I love my partner. He is the man; so I listen and I play along. Play along I do, but I cannot feign a relationship with a German saint popularized by Coca Cola with the reddening of Christmas. When I try, I catch myself sounding like a wolf in sheep’s clothing: Yes, if you don’t eat your veggies, Santa won’t be happy. He wants you to poop. He likes fiber. He wants you to have an easier time pooping.
My need to rationalize his conditional benevolence is made harder because I do not follow Christian doctrine–oh right–Dude, I’m not Christian. My partner renounced his Roman Catholic upbringing his senior year in high school–as it became more clear that getting up early on Sundays with the lure of brunch after church just wasn’t enough to keep him at the pews.
He just hasn’t yet renounced Santa and that’s perhaps the most Catholic you’ll see him getting these days. On a related note, mommies like me may morph into the anti-Christ by merely questioning stuff so like this; informing my biggest gripe against Santa; I’m expected to like him (and then pass the blind allegiance to my children) because America!
I can’t reconstruct the magic of something I’ve never experienced. If my partner wants to create the magic of a world-traveling, flying fat man who creeps into homes with gifts that he’s learned of telepathically, then that’s my partner’s job. I also don’t think it’s necessary for my sons to experience the mythical cult of Santa in order to be happy, thriving and well adjusted children in America, but I’m willing to go along for the ride. I just can’t promise that I won’t be questioning all along the way.
My big white hope is that I’ll be able to instill the same awe in my sons for the little things, like four-feet plastic trees from the corner drug store that we got for them on sale. That was magic to me.
That may be best takeaway from Christmas I may pass on to them: after-Christmas sales.