Christmas Past

People who hated Christmas used to bother me. I hated hearing their diatribes about commercialism and expense and depression.

Over the years, though, my dreamy view of Christmas tarnished.

I can’t remember many Christmas presents from childhood, but I do remember so many other wonderful things. I think it was 1975 when Uncle Bob and Aunt Carol came over on Christmas Eve. They sat in the dining room with my Mom and Dad drinking and laughing. Uncle Bob was a riot. I can still see him in his white crew cut, smoking a Camel, drinking whiskey. Those World War II guys understood the value of whiskey.

After Bob and Carol left, we went to Midnight Mass, as my sisters and I did every year.. It was one of the last Midnight Masses with songs that people actually new. Sometime around 1980, the Catholic Church, in its infinite wisdom, decided to ban “O, Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” in favor of crappy, sappy songs written by some pedophile priest now serving time for violating an alter boy.

On Christmas Morning, the Nahers, our nextdoor neighbors, would be over bright and early–right after 10:00 Mass. Mrs. Naher sort of raised me, but the Nahers were summer people, through and through. Mrs. Naher grew up on the Meramec River in Valley Park, Missouri, back when Valley Park was still “the country.” She was remarkable athlete who played professional women’s baseball during World War II. Her water skiing skills were famous on the Illinois River and Lake of the Ozarks. The Nahers had Cardinal season tickets, and they took me to my first major league in 1971. Joe Torre hit a homerun, and I wore my number 9 jersey. Bob Gibson got the win.

When the Nahers crossed the yard on Christmas morning–and doesn’t Christmas always seem like a Sunday?–my parents groaned. “Oh, God, look at the house. And she’s so clean.” But to my world, their arrival, more than Santa’s, started Christmas Day. They were like the Christ child’s birth—to me. That’s because God reveals himself through other people.

Throughout the day, our house on Scanlan, with the fireplace roaring and drinks pouring, filled hour by hour. Moe and Karen and George arrived after Noon Mass. Aunt Mame would come with Aunt Margaret and Uncle Charlie. I have a great picture of Uncle Charlie wearing a broken toy fireman’s helmet with a built-in microphone and speaker one Christmas day in about 1969.

Uncle Pat and Aunt Lil would stop by, usually with a few my cousins—Pat, Jack, Jim, Colleen, Kathy, and Christina. Uncle Pat was my mom’s brother, and the kind of guy every boy should know, but few ever will. He was in the Navy before Pearl Harbor. I have a book about his Catalina unit. I miss Pat.

Moe Gibbons, whom I mentioned early, was damn funny. He was a large man who found a seat and kept it. He liked whiskey sours and wit. He didn’t tell jokes. He just supplied hilarious commentary throughout the day.

Jim and Eileen—Jim’s my dad’s younger brother—always showed up about 4 or 5 in the afternoon. By then, though, it seemed so late. The adults’ voices were much louder by then, and the laughter seemed to come from the very walls of that great old home.

After childhood, Christmas seemed to get better. Even the Christmases spent beneath the ocean on the USS Woodrow Wilson and John C. Calhoun were special. On the Calhoun, we had an XO, David Rifkin, whose love of Christmas infected the entire crew. Yeah, Dave was Jewish, but it didn’t bother him, so why would it bother anyone else? He wore a Santa Claus had the whole patrol.

Sometime after that last Christmas at sea, which ended the day before Operation Dessert Storm began, I lost that Christmas feeling. I haven’t gotten it back.

When I think of Christmas now, I think of the money I don’t have to buy the things I’d like the people I love. I think of middle school principals who kick kids out of dances for wearing Santa costumes, thus threatening future generations with the terror of religion. (Because Santa, you know, is what Christmas is really all about.) I think of the tragedy that happened at Christmas in 1994.

I wish it weren’t that way. I wonder, now, if that’s how my mom and dad really thought of Christmas. I wonder if they hated Christmas worse than the Grinch, but they put on happy faces and opened their home to everyone we knew. I wonder if, somehow, through their generosity, which continues to this day, the Christmas Spirit infected them as they saw the joy they helped bring to others and the joy those others returned tenfold.

I hope my kids have Christmas memories as wonderful as mine. Tomorrow on our way to my mom and dad’s house for a smaller version of that old Christmas party—they’re in their 80s now—I’ll mention something of these thoughts to the kids while their captive in the car. I’ll mention that, when they’re my age, they’ll remember the people and the parties, not the toys. Then I’ll wish I hadn’t said it, because it sounds just like my mom.

And that ain’t so bad, after all.

Merry Christmas.

Please check out the other Christmas entries on Outside the Beltway’s Linkfest