Christmas isn’t an easy time for me. Merriment aside, falling into the holiday spirit either takes hold early on or requires considerable time to catch up to me.
With our lives so hectic and so many demands that we place on ourselves or are placed on us by others, I sometimes find myself dreading the holidays, the gatherings of friends and family and cheer we all find so dear.
Still, that’s not to say that I’ve lost my Christmas spirit, or even misplaced it. Far from it. I think that for many of us, it’s a time to embrace good cheer, those we hold dear and weigh a tear or two.
It’s a tough time for me because I lost my Dad on Christmas Day. My wife Cheryl and I were newly married and my widowed father was living with us. A month before Christmas, he started complaining of chest pains. After an exam, our family doctor diagnosed angina and prescribed medication. He was, after all, said our doctor, 82 and in good health otherwise, but with old age, like a vintage clock, wear and tear just takes its toll and one begins to wind down.
My heart sank, too, but I did my best to put up a positive front. The day before Christmas Eve, he endured chest pains that his medication would not ease. A rush to the hospital, a time in the emergency room and an ER physician explaining to he and I that my father has suffered a serious heart attack. Pulling me aside and into the hallway, the doctor said the next 48 hours would be critical. I can still feel the knot in my stomach and pain in my heart after those words sank in, even after all these years.
On Christmas Day with our family around his beside, I presented him his own gifts: an electric razor, a pair of warm gloves, a pair of black shoes that made him smile.
His heart monitor that measured beats by number and graphic lines caught my attention and the accompanying beeps distracted me. From the corner of my eye I saw him lurch forward while sitting up in bed. In my mind’s eye, I sensed an alarm going off.
What I remember is staggering backwards, my mouth open and trying to utter the word “nurse!” There was a rush of people brushing past me. Someone took my arm and ushered me into the hallway. I sensed my wife at my side, my aged uncle standing bewildered nearby, my older half-brother in a panic. I remember a waiting room and our family doctor, an old and dear friend, saying that he was gone.
I recall a numbing goodbye, my father’s eyes closed and his skin so very pale, a crisp white sheet tucked in just under his chin.
I don’t remember the rest of that Christmas. Only the wake and funeral that took its place. The electric razor I gave to my brother. I kept the gloves for myself. The new shoes became part of my father’s wardrobe that we buried him in.
Still there are Christmas memories that I will always carry with me, some so very warm and others absurd.
In my northern New Jersey community, there’s a ranch house that I pass on my walk into town to savor a cup of coffee and gather my thoughts after a morning of writing. At the end of this driveway and just past the house stood a majestic elm, its limbs spread out welcoming and far reaching. Well after Thanksgiving when the weather dropped below freezing, the homeowner would spray the tree with a garden hose and ice would form, layer upon layer, and after a time it became a crystalline beacon that was both beautiful and beckoning. At night and under a spotlight, it glinted like a score of stars in the night sky. It was quite the sight and it spoke lovingly of the season.
It was a tradition that the homeowner carried on for years and something all of us, neighbors and passers-by looked forward to.
One year, after building up and layering ice, the tree moaned, cracked and split in half, one side falling into the back yard, the other across his attached garage roof.
I can only imagine the pained conversation he must have had with his insurance adjuster.
On occasion if I drive my wife to work some mornings, I would joyously take note of one home owned by an elderly couple in a nearby town that sported a model train display across their front lawn around the holidays. It would go up just after Thanksgiving and run through the New Year. Sometimes beyond. There were curving tracks and wooden bridges and little holiday scenes interspersed and in between. A Pilgrims’ feast would make way for a Santa’s Workshop and Toy Warehouse, the little train and accompanying cars toot-tooting with a puff of stack smoke as it chugged by. And even if it snowed, the little village and rail line would run day into night, the flakes urged away by a leaf blower set and handled gently to preserve the scene.
I noticed this year around Thanksgiving that the train scene and setup was no more. Passing by at night, there were no lights on in the house. I never saw a for sale sign on the lawn or if there was one, I never noticed.
My heart sank at the loss of those cherished memories until the other day when I took in the house once again and in the darkened living room, a Christmas tree sparkling with the promise of hope and good cheer. In the driveway was an SUV with a rear-window placard proclaiming “Baby on Board.”
Growing up, Christmas was a time of joy, family and food. After all, we were Sicilian and there was no compromising tradition. A fresh tree would occupy the living room corner, and we would hang tinsel and fragile, glass ornaments after my father strung lines of colored lightbulbs, half of which would have to be replaced from the year before.
There were no LED lights then. If your finger lingered on a bulb, the ensuing burn made for a lasting impression, despite all the warnings from adults to never touch.
One year, my older half-sister for Christmas (was I five, perhaps six?) gave me a toy Winchester Wild West rifle which fired plastic bullets. I remember being enthralled with the gift, tearing open the holiday wrapping paper and freeing the firearm. While the adults told stories and caught up over the past year over a mix of wine or eggnog, I quietly learned to load the rifle, find the trigger and prepared to put the Lone Ranger to shame. My eye went to the Christmas tree and the hand-painted glass ornaments that shimmered in the light. With a bit of practice, I took out six of the globes before my father took away my latest fancy. I recall Dad giving my sister a “you should have known-better” glance. It turned out I was a pretty good shot.
I’m pretty sure I was seven when I came to understand the following Christmas that there was no Santa.
We had no fireplace in our two-bedroom apartment in my grandmother’s house and there was only one spot to leave cookies and milk — Right by our 21-inch black and white RCA television set that showed us the yule-time log ablaze on a channel based in New York and not the North Pole.
That Christmas Eve as we all retired for the night, I took a last glance in the living room that doubled as my playroom and smiled at the lovingly decorated tree.
The tree lights would be turned off in a short time, because as my parents would say (it would lose something in the literal translation from our native tongue into English) “As much as we all love Santa, he doesn’t pay the electric bill.”
I remember the excitement of awaiting Santa’s arrival in the dark, warm and filled with anticipation under the covers of my bed. But drowsiness would overtake excitement and sleep would in midnight time take hold.
In a dream-state that Christmas I recall faintly hearing Santa making his way across the living room floor dragging a bag filled with wrapped gifts and toys. Why, I wondered, did I not hear the prancing of reindeer hooves on the snow-covered roof?
In a frantic moment I sat up stunned and wide awake after hearing a momentous crash and thump in the darkened living room as Santa came in contact with my metal-framed, spring-braced rocking horse rearing up and to one side of the tree.
And why was it that Santa was cursing in Sicilian? My mother came to my door, looked in at me and put her finger to her lips. She rushed to the living room and there was more commotion and a stream of epithets, in Sicilian, the likes of which I’d never heard.
That next morning, the Christmas tree was bright and encircled with wrapped gifts and joy. We all opened our presents and savored Christmas cookies. I do remember that Laurel & Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers played on the TV as background and that Dad, well into the evening, walked with a slight limp.
This Christmas Day I’ll recall and embrace the true nature of Christmas, its meaning and the spirit of Santa, especially when I visit my father’s grave, part of my own tradition. If I can manage it, I’ll go through the decades-old box of Christmas decorations and bring with me a hand-painted glass ornament that survived my long-ago target practice. I do believe Dad long ago forgave me. His gift to me of love and undying devotion I’ll carry with me always.