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Make with the presents or Mrs. Claus gets it

Dear Santa Claus,

Please bring me a tape recorder.  And maybe some other stuff.  [Pause.]  This note is to remind you.  [Longer pause.]  Now do what I say.

— Charlie, dictating his 2008 letter to Santa (first draft)

Christmas kicked my ass.  Oh, it was a magical whirl of childlike wonder, to be sure, but that whirl was brought about by a great deal of work indeed.  It wasn't so much Christmas itself that did me in; it was Christmas plus the day after, when we had sixteen people over for two roast turkeys, two kinds of dressing, three vegetables, five kinds of cookies, one hopped-up preschooler, one freaked-out infant, and one dinner napkin on fire.

Flaming damask aside, everyone fervently agreed that it was the best family Christmas in years.  It was worth it to see Paul's high-strung sister drink a glass of wine without touching it with her lips.  To hear Charlie, a genial host, conversationally ask the group the next morning, "What do you think you'd like for breakfast, guys?"  To know that I could lob Ben into the festive crowd and know, whoever had him, that he'd be happy and well cared for.  To miss the Christmases we used to have, but not, all things considered, too much.

But it was hard.  This was only our second Christmas at home, and the first was determinedly low-key.  Without any practice, then, we didn't really know how to do it without fumbling through many of the details.  I muffed the cookie-baking, forgetting a life-threatening nut allergy.  The present I was happiest about giving Charlie fell flat.  And because all my energy had been focused on the feast we'd have the day after, our Christmas day lunch — "Oh, yeah.  Uh, lunch. Well.  Huh." — prominently featured Annie's Shells and Cheddar.

So the holiday wasn't perfect.  But then it didn't need to be.  I learned really good is really great.  And if Christmas nearly felled me, I got in a few licks, too.  "Christmas kicked my ass," I told Paul, sagging against him when the last guest had left sometime Saturday afternoon.  "I don't know," he said, and rubbed my back.  "I think Christmas limped away with a few broken bones itself."


Charlie did get the tape recorder he so sweetly demanded of Santa.  (Why, yes, we do lie to our son about a big sloppy stranger who invades children's homes on the holiest night of the year and tempts them with expensive playthings.  Doesn't everyone?  I have no regrets.  The bigger Christmas whopper by far was the one I told just before bedtime Christmas Eve: "Hm, Charlie looks like he might have a bit of a rash.  Do you think he needs some Benadryl, Paul?")

In the grips of a giddy muse, Charlie immediately sprawled on the rug and laid down a Christmas track [.MP3, 524KB].  (His trusty sideman, who might otherwise have accompanied him on bells, was, alas, napping at the time.)

I hope, if you celebrate, that your Christmas was a good one.  And I hope, if you don't, that you got a good laugh out of us foolish bastards who do.


It was a point of honor with my dad to save his shopping for Christmas Eve.  In the early years that meant scouring the nearly-stripped shelves of Sears for the few things that hadn't been bought.  (Dad: "Do you think your mom would like this spice rack?" Julie: "Well..."  Dad, a little desperately: "But it comes with a jar of fenugreek!")

Now, of course, all the stores are open and thronged.  In more recent years he'd pick up his keys and ask, "Who wants to go on a run?"  And I always went, happily but rolling my eyes, knowing him to be not thoughtless but clueless.  I wanted to go, but I had to, as well, if my mother weren't to receive, say, the biggest gift box of whatever cloud of celebrity perfume my dad first stumbled through upon arrival at the mall.  ("Ohhh, Janet Reno's Incursion!  How nice!  Thank you!...And the dusting powder.  Lovely...And the bath oil.  Thanks...And the deodorant?  Hmm...Aaaaaand the greaseless antifungal salve.")  It's a tradition I miss, this mad Christmas Eve dash, but one I don't care to carry on, since the heart of it was my dad.

The tradition that sprung up alongside it was the Christmas Eve meal of chili.  My mom would make a big pot, and it sat on the stove and simmered all through the afternoon and evening, to be eaten when we were ready, between trips to Radio Shack  — "I wonder if your mom needs a new pocket-sized digital multimeter...But, look!  It even does capacitance testing!" — and frantic eleventh-hour present-wrapping. That one I do miss, for everything it signified: not only warmth, bounty, and easygoing hospitality but the graceful accommodation of a family's longstanding foibles.

We want our own traditions, but haven't figured out yet how to make a start. What are your most beloved traditions?  Do you mind if I steal a few?  Because listen up, Christmas: next year I'm coming out swinging.