Sometimes, the winter holidays don't quite go the way they usually domaybe because something especially good happens, or something bad, or something strange, or all of the above. Or maybe holidays never conform to some fictional norm we tend to cling to. Below, Scene writers recall some truly unusual Christmases, and one Hanukkah as well. Some of these tales are pretty peculiar, some are uniquely moving, some are downright sad. But they all share one thing in common: they made for a holiday like no other.
Virgin Mary Exposed
Until I turned 13, I was nearly the perfect child: the oldest of five, the responsible, respectful, mature-beyond-my-years, people-pleasing overachiever. Then all hell broke loose. As our country bitterly divided over Vietnam, race, women's rights, drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll, so did my small suburban home. Rancorous arguments between me and my parents escalated into screaming matches, scorching words and slammed doors; the subsequent weeping was muffled into a pillow in my mother's room or covered up under the sound of The Doors in mine.
Somehow, every year at Christmas, without even discussing it, we called a cease fire, as much for my four younger siblings as for our own battle-weary souls. For a couple of weeks prior to and a few days afterwards, the fighting stopped, our wounded and weary hearts, minds and souls soothed and healed by the family traditions that defined the holidays in our home.
The Christmas of my senior year during high school, the downtown Catholic church I was attending had a young, radical priest who had written a rock opera about the birth of Jesus. Somehow I had won the part of the Virgin Mary. After school, I went to my job at Pizza Ponderosa and, after that, to the church for rehearsals. The one-night-only performance was set a week before Christmas.
That night, I raced home from work to shower and change; while I was getting dressed, something caught my eye on the mirror over my dresser. Taped to its dead center was my package of birth control pills, which my mother had found in the back of my underwear drawer.
There it was, right on my bedroom mirror, the sacrilegious and sordid truth about Holy Rosary's Virgin Mary. I felt nauseous, I couldn't breathe. I wanted to open my bedroom window and run as far away as I could. Instead, I walked out to the dining room table where my mother was sitting. I stood in front of her and said, "I guess you want to talk to me." Her voice was barely above a whisper as she replied to me with a comment that I can't quite remember. All I know is that it seared my heart, that she obviously intended to hurt me as much as I had hurt her. I turned and walked out of the house, tears streaming down my face, marking a path identical to my mother's.
She did not come to see me as the Virgin Mary that night, though my father did. When I saw him sitting in a pew, tears filled my eyes, as they did his. He was gone by the time the cast and crew had cleaned up the church; I drove home alone to a dark house, laid down on my bed and cried long into the night.
The incident provoked no yelling or screaming. It wasn't spoken of again, and I suffered no further recriminations or punishment. But that week before Christmas, the distance between us was sad and cold and seemed insurmountable. On Christmas morning, as always, my parents had divined just what each child wanted and needed the most, and despite significant financial challenges, somehow they got those things for us. As my brothers and sisters happily unwrapped their gifts, I watched my parents revel in their children's joy. For the first time since the troubles had begun five years before, I saw my family through my parents' eyes, and my parents through my own slowly maturing eyes. At that moment, whether I knew it or not, it was just what I needed most.
It's Christmas Eve, San Francisco, 1980. I'm sitting on the stoop, cardboard under my cold skinny ass, wrapped in my red wool blanket. Mother scolds me nightly about the blanket.
"Leave that blanket on your bed," she says. "Them hobos'll snatch it."
"We call 'em bums now, Mom," I reply, head in our refrigerator. Empty but for a jar of olives, pitted, hidden where butter would go. The blanket around my shoulders like a cape.
Tonight the old man is with me.
He says, "I forgot. What's Christmas?"
I say, "Jesus. Receiving. Giving."
He's a hundred, looks older. Offers his bottle. I drink.
Inside, Mother passes out. I feel it. Last shot at 9, out at 10.
Raffi hollers from across the street. He's shoving a tall red toolbox on wheels, fast, heading west. He's got a Santa hat on with jingly bells.
I yell, "Yo Raffi, what you got?"
He laughs, his jingly bells jingling. Belly pressed fat against the toolbox. "Ho! Ho! Ho!" he shouts.
The old man says, "Jesus is Easter, I thought."
I say, "Easter and Christmas both. Bunnies and toys."
He says, "I wish I was a kid like you."
Henrietta steps outside. We make room on the cardboard. Offer the bottle. She was Henry but switched to dresses. Fancy dresses with frilly collars.
"I'm a thirsty girl," she says. Lifts the bottle. "How's your mother?"
"Is what she is," I say.
Henrietta says, "She oughta stop that stuff. You a young boy. You need loving." Lifts my blanket, puts her big hand on my thigh. Squeezes.
The old man says, "Hey kid. Run to the corner. Get us a pint. We figure this Jesus out."
I pull thorns from my head. Nails from my hands. Snatch his fiver, hop down the steps. Hop like a bunny.
Who Ate the Kishke?
Though I had a healthy appetite at the age of 8, there were certain foods rolled out at Hanukkah time that reeked of mortality. With two much older brothers who continually mocked the bottom-feeder origins of gefilte fish, the pre-digested look and texture of chopped liver, the Jewish guilt on the faces of dead smoked whitefish, and the fossilized layers of rendered chicken fat in a jar, even a lad as curious as I feared to confront the side dish that didn't even pretend to disguise its resemblance to a lower body part: stuffed kishke. (The English translation, "stuffed derma," sounds just as appetizing.)
Since no one in my family could prepare this delicacy from scratch, it came from Louie, the neighborhood kosher butcher whose meat supply had long raised suspicionsbeef ribs that were as tough as leather prayer phylacteries, for instance. Though I now know that kishkes are nothing more than beef sausage casings filled with matzo meal, grated onion, spices and the ubiquitous chicken fat, at the time I was mystified by its eerie orange-brown glow and pockmarked texture, to say nothing of the way it seemed to leak motor oil onto the plate.
It tasted all right, maybe even better than haggis, for all I know. Imagine giving your favorite hot grainy cereal a touch of fatty, piquant meatiness and wrapping it up tightly in a mammal's intestine (OK, forget about the last part). Such rites of digestive passage would become second-nature as the years went by, but my first kishke remains in memory as the oddest Hanukkah ever: an initiation into a world of ethnic foods that bear hints of cannibalism or the end-products of humanity.
Last summer after finishing grad school, I moved home and took up baton twirling lessons. True, I'd just spent the last three years digging deep into Southern literature, but it seemed like a worthy goal. I'd always looked upon those with the gift of being able to perform splits and twirl fire simultaneously as somehow exotic. Still, I never imagined that one day I'd find my own self marching down Broadway for Nashville's annual Christmas parade. For one thing, I'd seen what the other students at BG Dance Studio could do, and for another, I knew my toss and flourish just couldn't compete with those 8-year-olds.
Brian, my ever patient teacher, encouraged me to participate, though, and so on a very cold and rainy December morning I waited at the corner of Broadway and 16th for the parade to begin, ready to hold a banner and spot Brian as he twirled not one, not two, but three batons. Lining the street were parents and small children, teenagers and couples huddled together against the cold, a devoted following of parade faithful. They cheered as we waved and smiled our way down the route, and I'm sure more than one person wondered just who I was. Not only was I not twirling a baton or wearing a brightly colored leotard, but I was dressed in so many layerslong underwear, turtleneck, scarf, gloves and hatthat when I passed by the Channel 2 news camera, my friends resting warm and dry at home barely recognized me.
They did see my fellow small twirlers, though, and that's what mattered. I may have been frostbitten, but at least I wasn't wearing soft-soled dancing shoes and I wasn't expected to do figure eights down the street. Those preteens took Christmas seriously; they suffered through stinging sleet and yet remained festive, ensuring in my eyes a most definite holiday miracle.
Not Exactly CustomaryNot Yet, Anyway
Christmas has long favored the introduction of new customs. When God announced from the manger "I am here," humankind was predisposed to reply, "We are unimpressed," preferring to save our ardor for a time when we could honor the day by dangling hooked things from the limbs of evergreen trees. So for this Christmas, which promises, with likely inaccurate foresight, to be my strangest yet, I'm proposing a new tradition. Like the unattractive genius who convinced the world that women everywhere must offer kisses indiscriminately when under the baleful shadow of the mistletoe, so am I establishing the first annual Fraternity of Anti-Evil Christmastime award dinner. A one-member fraternity, established exclusively for the sake of being able to host a first annual award dinner, the FAE awards its sole prize of 2004, for achievement in the area of artificial pelican befriendship, to the clandestine organization known as the Friends of GP.
To explain: in July 2003, I attempted through the strategic display of lawn ornaments to disguise an unsightly tree stump in my front yard. I purchased a large plastic pelican so that the garden gnome sitting atop the stump might have an audience as he affected to deliver a speech on why he was a more qualified candidate than the squirrel. But within hours of its purchase, I was startled to find that the pelican had been stolen.
This September, I began receiving, without return address and postmarked SAN DIEGO, a series of photographs: the pelican blindfolded, the pelican trick-or-treating, cheering for the Red Sox and, most recently, visiting Hawaii (though the islands look more drab than I've been led to believe). Each picture was signed "Garden Pelican" or "G.P."
The FAE ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 19. On that night, I will welcome the award's recipients into my home (the FAE's limited resources dictating that the dinner be a pot-luck), where, I am confident, the first chapter in the case of the missing pelican will reach its close and all will be revealed in the ruddy glow of our shared and time-honored commitment to anti-evil. Thus I do my part to further the evolution of Christmas, exemplifying virtues that it never knew it had.
A Blazing Christmas
In the watery world of south Louisiana, Father Christmas arrives by boat rather than via reindeer sleigh. The Mississippi River was, after all, the first road into the territory, and the land along it was divided into pie-shaped wedges that fanned back from the banks so that each plantation had access to the outside world. On Christmas Eve, these plantations made bonfires on their piece of levee to show Santa where to stop as he made his rounds. In recent years, the displacement of much of the agriculture by the oil, gas and petrochemical industries has just added fuel to the flames.
In 1984 my husband and I were living in New Orleans and not making our usual Christmas pilgrimage home to Cincinnati. We decided to check out the bonfire tradition that natives had told us begins on Thanksgiving with the construction of wood skeletons for the flames, with each town along the river erecting its temporary monument. So on the night before Christmas we set out on the River Road, expecting to witness another of the picturesque holiday customs that also include a brew called Café Brulôtbrandy, Curaçao and black coffee with spices and burnt sugardeep-fried turkeys, and the greeting of the New Year by banging on pots and pans.
What we found was a spectacle worthy of an army of pyromaniacs. The bonfireswell, forget the Boy Scout manuals. Along the levee, 30-foot-tall pyramids blazed as towering infernos of civic pride. And the winding, two-lane path of the River Road was a sea of automotive revelers, with traffic-calming provided by deep-fried Cajuns wielding cans of gasoline as they darted back and forth between cars. After an hour of wondering if there was enough water in the Big Muddy to extinguish the flames when the oil refineries combusted, spouse and I peeled off from the parade of fire and headed home.
The Worst Kind of Travel Delay
It was five days before Christmas and to be still at school was almost too Dickensian. Yet there I was, trekking through the snow on Dec. 20 to catch a shuttle to the airport. When it finally arrived, the bus set off on a route so circuitous that the driver might have been trying to elude a CIA tail. Even so, there was something magical about the Christmas lights in Pittsburgh's hilly neighborhoods.
We arrived at the airport just as my flight was due to depart. This was back in the days when airports had more in common with bus stations than shopping malls, so I was not happy. Pittsburgh may have been the home of the then-mighty USAir, but the airport's only food options were a few vending machines, peanuts at the bar and a hot dog cart that was never around when needed. I scanned the flight information boards and I saw that my flight hadn't even boarded. A Christmas miracle? Not quite: the entire East Coast appeared to be shut down. Settling into the low-slung tandem seating, I pulled out my Walkman and used my backpack to prop up my feet.
There was a certain amount of tension in the gate area; airline personnel appeared shaken, and flight updates were even more noncommittal than usual. Something was definitely up, and passengers filled in the blanks with rumorsplane crash, bomb scare at JFK. After a couple of hours and a CNN update or two, there was an official announcement: Pan Am Flight 103 had crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all on board and some on the ground. Among the passengers was a large group of Syracuse students returning from a year abroad. What I remember most about that Christmas of 1988 is the sadness and remorse felt in that waiting area and the stunned faces of my fellow passengers, many of them college students like myself, on our way home for the holidays.
Three Chords and a Painful Truth
Four months after I turned 12, my daddy, Jabo Jowers, decided that if I was going to play electric guitar, I was going to play a first-class electric guitar, and I'd be playing it on Christmas day. So a week before Christmas, Jabo drove me to Augusta, Ga., to Schneider's Music Center.
There, Abe Schneider maneuvered Jabo and me over to a hollow-body Gibson electric guitar, an ES-330-TDC. The C stood for "cherry"cherry red.
Abe handed me the guitar. I played what little I could play, which was the first two chords of the Outsiders' "Time Won't Let Me." That was enough for Jabo. He told Abe, "Ring it up."
"Well, Mr. Jowers," Abe explained, "he's going to need an amplifier."
"The guitar's $200," Jabo groaned. "How much for the amplifier?"
"Another hundred," Abe replied as he hooked up the cord from the guitar to the Ampeg Rocket II amp. "I'll give you the cord, no extra charge."
I played "Time Won't Let Me" again, this time amplified.
"Sounds good, boy," Jabo said as he handed Abe three hundred-dollar bills.
The guitar stayed in Jabo's closet until Christmas Eve. That night, he brought my mother, Susie, into the living room, along with the guitar and amp. "Play something for your mother, boy," Jabo said.
I was tired of "Time Won't Let Me." So I played a little "Gloria"A, D and E, over and over again.
Susie stood up and looked at Jabo. "You pissed away $300 for that?" she huffed. Then she stomped out of the room. Just left me and Jabo sitting there, looking at each other.
Four months later, Susie had a heart attack in the middle of the night and died on the way to the hospital. But before she went, on her way to the ambulance, she took my hand and said, "Be a good boy."
Right then, all I could think was, "You don't like the way I play guitar." So I got really good, just to spite her, and to put an ironic spin on that "good boy" farewell.
When I was 5, Santa called me. My parents and I sat at the kitchen table, eating dinner, when the phone rang. I raced across the room to answer. Christmas was still two weeks away.
"Hello," I said.
"May I talk to Claire Suddath?" It was a deep, grown-up voice. He sounded muffled, like he was calling from far away.
"Claire, this is Santa Claus. I received your Christmas letter, and I have a few questions I'd like to ask you."
I agreed, although I didn't believe this man for a moment. Santa was too busy to bother with me. And yet the voice did not belong to my grandfathers, uncles or any of my parents' friends.
"Well, I see here that you asked for another Teddy Ruxpin, but my records indicate that I gave you a Teddy Ruxpin last year. What happened to it?"
"My dog chewed it."
"I see. We'll just have you make you a new one, then."
Santa asked a few more questionswhether I had been naughty or nice, that sort of thing. I asked him about his reindeer and what kind of cookies he liked to eat. We talked for only a few minutes before he had to go.
That was 17 years ago, but I've still never asked my parents who was really on the phone. I know he wasn't real: I learned that lesson the year Santa forgot to remove the Toys R Us price tags from his toys. But whoever it was, he was a nice guy.
Christmas Without Grandfather
Since my grandfather's death in 1999, the family Christmas ties have become looser with each passing year. My mother, my grandmother and I continue to gather for the holiday, but more because of force of habit than celebration. For Christmas 2003, the decision was reached that we wouldn't bother with exchanging gifts, and we'd instead save our energies for a family trip to Las Vegas in January.
Of course, such pronouncements often get cast aside, and Christmas Eve 2003 found a profound inequity of stuff among the three of us. My grandmother was in tears because she felt like she'd forgotten us, my mother was annoyed because the whole thing was emblematic of our familial difficulties with communication, and I was already freaked out about having to work Christmas morning at my movie theater job. There are few things more hateful to me than Americans going to the movies on Christmas Day. I understand it, though, because all that family tension builds up and the only place open is the movie theater, so it's either go there or kill someone.
At the time, I was in a serious and protracted Lord of the Rings phase and, while holiday shopping and noticing a Sean Astin connection, picked up a DVD of the film Rudy for my mother. (She loves inspirational sports stories.) Normally, I'd argue that exchanging gifts is just another example of how tradition and commerce get commingled, but in this instance, a budget-line DVD helped to smooth some rough water. By the next morning's early breakfast, we were all laughing about the whole misunderstanding.
2003 wasn't the year that Sean Astin saved Christmas, but it was the year I realized that the holiday had no power over me anymore. Now I just accept that Christmas is the time when you show the people you love what they mean to you by spending money on them, and that's all it is. We had a great time in Las Vegas, though.
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