Myth and reality: Christmas in the present

by Brian Clarey

Myth and reality: Christmas in the present Santa Claus comes early to my house.It’s a deal we make with the fat man every year: He hits us up acouple days in advance so we can get on the road to Long Island and the people we see up there, it seems, only at Christmas time.This is a tradition that goes way back in my family. Santa used to come early to my house too, when I was a kid, because we spent Christmas Day across the river in New Jersey, in a house surrounded by dozens of cheery Italians sipping scotch and telling the same stories over and over. Being together was more important to my family than any Christmas morning mythology, and we kids didn’t ask a lot of questions.We loved it, my sisters and I, when we’d scamper down the stairs a few days before Dec. 25 and start tearing into the goods, our parents sitting bleary-eyed by the tree as we brought our presents over to them for inspection. The other kids in the neighborhood loved it, too — they’d come over and get a preview of their own magical morning a couple very long days away.Some of the kids would grill us about our family’s special relationship with St. Nick. “You mean, he just knows to come here early?” “How does he know you won’t be here on Christmas?”“You don’t even have a chimney.”  I know my children get the same treatment from their own generation’s faction of naysayers and haters, because they told me so. And truth be told, the Christmas myth is starting to wear a bit thin on the kids in my house, the 8-year-old in particular.Two years ago he found a bunch of toys and stuff in the back of his mother’s station wagon. Last year he wanted to sleep in front of the fireplace — yes, I have one of those these days — so he could see the fat man with his own eyes. There was some talk of setting a trap over there by the fire logs. This year he spotted some video games under the seat in my car, and the episode triggered… something of an inquisition.“What were they doing there?” he asked me.“I’m going to donate them to poor children who don’t have enough video games to play,” I said.“Why were they all the way under the seat like that?”“Oh,” I said, “I guess they must have slipped down there while I was driving.”“Why can’t we play them?” he asked.“Because they’re not for you.”He considered this, and then laid down a pretty good question: “Doesn’t Santa come to poor people’s houses?” he wanted to know.I didn’t know what to say.“Sometimes he doesn’t,” I answered.“Even if the kids have been really, really good?”“Yes,” I said.  “Even if the kids have been really, really good.”But early this Sunday morning the toys were there under the tree, sure as shooting, and all conspiracy theories vanished right there in the dawn.My wife and I looked on bleary-eyed, sipping coffee and examining new-found treasures.That part of it — that fiery conflagration of hot toys, coveted gadgets and various princess-themed swag — is over for us, and what awaits is the essence of the holiday.We’ll shoot up Interstate 95, stop for some Roy Rogers off the highway in Delaware and be on Long Island in time for happy hour, which starts pretty early up there. And by the time you read this I will be ensconced in the bosom of that big, crazy family of mine.Things change. The family has gotten smaller and larger through the years, and the young ones especially seem to wear different lives every time I see them. One cousin has recently graduated from college and is living as a professional hipster in Brooklyn. Another, just 12 years old, is fronting a garage band called Zero Tolerance. Grandma’s been through some surgery and my uncle has a new job.But things stay the same, too. My oldest sister and my oldest son will insist on playing a little family-style poker, which for our family means 10 bucks a head. For Christmas dinner there will be meatballs, lasagna and really good Italian bread, the kind you can only get in New Jersey or New York. None of us could imagine eating a turkey on Christmas Day. There will likely be a bottle of bourbon stashed somewhere in direct violation of the no-alcohol policy set a few years ago.Before we eat, we’ll open the last of the presents. At some point during dinner, my grandfather will snap out of his trance and say his trademark Christmas line: “I wonder what the poor people are doing.” My grandfather, a bootstrapping Italian born to immigrants, used to say it as something of a boast, but in the current generation it plays more like a lament. A prayer. Afterwards we’ll sit on the couches at my aunt’s house and cull the same memories we do every year, surreptitiously slipping off to hit the bourbon, just like we always do.And then it’s Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
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