© 2022 Robert Sickles
Chapter 1. The Classical Era
In my FOO (family of origin) we had a very Bobby-centered Christmas. My letter to Santa was a majestic contribution to American nonfiction. For my own version of Ralphie’s Christmas Story morning, I may have even had a pair of bunny slippers. (Thank you, Jean Shepherd, for helping me remember.)
After lunch you’d think I was going sledding when I put on my flannel shirt and sweater, snow pants, sneakers, galoshes, mittens, hat and coat. Mom said I had to dress warm for the Christmas Day drive to my Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Bud’s house, just 40 miles away. I think the idea was to sweat me down a couple of pounds before turning me loose in front of the snack table.
We were the first to arrive. There was a little time to enjoy the calm before the storm, but two more carloads would arrive soon. This was the house with plenty of room for kids, because there were plenty of kids—9 of us cousins, fairly close in age, all jazzed up on fudge, Pepsi, candy and cookies.
A couple of us liked to play nicely but the terrorists marauded our games and scattered our plastic soldiers and wooden blocks all around the room. Things got out of hand, and invariably tears were shed over a new toy being broken by a rampaging hooligan.
Our parents were sequestered in the kitchen and forbade any intrusion until we were called to dinner. We could hear them praising and dissing their kids:
“Mikey is reading so well, he’s just fascinated with the Sunday Times, reads it front to back!”
“Oh really? Well, Jimmy had to go to the doctor Monday to have kidney beans removed from his ears again…”
Mom managed to point out my oddness. "Bobby made a shirt for his teddy bear, and he loves his Easy Bake Oven!"
About the time we kids had zero appetite for food, a rich meal was served on the dining table. The kids got to take their plates to the uncarpeted rec room and eat on the folding chairs and tray tables. Mashed potatoes wasn’t deemed by us to be edible, but as a valuable ammunition for the food fight. If you were careless enough to eat some dinner, you could run the risk of tossing it up on the back seat of the car. That never happened to me with mashed potatoes, but I did once have an unpleasant night with molasses cookies.
By the end of the evening, we kids were exhausted and cranky. Christmas night’s gathering ended with 9 children having a seething hatred of somebody or everybody. Someone was crying inconsolably, and I went home with an armload of broken presents. The late-night ride home was mostly quiet, our car like a decompression chamber. I looked out at the houses with colored lights in the windows and sank into a melancholy post-sugar buzz, post-Christmas let down.
Chapter 2. The Dark Ages
Except for the hoopla of being with my cousins, and the excess and let down of Christmas Day, there were very few family traditions I could hold as sacred. No special recipes, no singing of carols by the fire, no favorite stories. I had nothing to let go of into my adulthood, when I fashioned a belief system that rejected the hustle, expense and high expectations of Christmas… the American version of a consumer holiday.
I liked the ideals of sharing very significant gifts and having moments of spiritual connection. Doing good deeds and all that. What do chopping down pine trees, shopping for carloads of forgettable gifts and stringing up thousands of blinking lights have to do with the miracle of Christ, or the blessings of St. Nicholas?
I was frugal, Christmas was extravagant. I was spiritual, Christmas was profane. I was rational, Christmas was humbug.
But then, I met Linda.
Chapter 3. The Renaissance
It was a steep learning curve for me. I underestimated the tsunami force of Linda’s love and her desire for just-right Christmases. She had keepsake decorations, photos of kids with Santa, traditions, recipes… and a few simple requirements we ought to have discussed beforehand.
I argued with her over the need for a Christmas tree. Maybe I thought it was too early, but Linda grabbed her purse, took her daughters and roared off in the rain to get the tree herself. It was a tense moment when they drove back with that tree, but I had enough sense to be ready with the saw and tree stand. In following years, I bloody-well went out and helped pick a tree.
The same year, Linda sewed Christmas stockings for the kids and us and hung them from the mantle. How was I supposed to know that it was important to fill the stockings with little gifts? It’s a mistake I made only once. My patient wife realized I was not a bad man, just one who’d gone feral and needed whispering. I had been in the wild for so long, but was responding to gentleness and love.
After another clumsy stab or two at Christmas, I finally became sensitized and resolved to do it better. How didn't I know this, it's about giving symbols of love, not just buying stuff. I not only figured out the nuances, but began to appreciate a net positive effect, that is, a happy wife and a happy life! It was a Darwinian adaptation, I was responding to my environment and thriving!
I’ve really turned into a Christmas lover. When we go into town, sure I’ll take a spin through the Christmas shop. Off for a vacation? I look for a souvenir ornament. Want to ride around and look at peoples’ lights tonight after the Candlelight Service?
We store Christmas in a closet under the stairs. The day after Thanksgiving, every ornament, nativity scene, place mat, mug and teddy bear is unpacked and lovingly displayed. And there is still time to share love with the lonely old guy or needy family.
Kernel of truth: It’s never too late to admit you feel like a child.
I loved my Remco Pompom Gun! Santa was amazing that year, just before he asked my parents to take over.
East Shore Road, Indian Lake, Denville, NJ. The dog's name was Schatzi (sweetheart in German.)