When I was growing up in the 1970s, the end of Thanksgiving signaled the countdown to Christmas. What a time; watching animated specials on TV, preparing speeches for the school play, drawing winter scenes of fireplaces and reindeer-laden roof tops, and making a wish list for Santa. They were the happiest days of my childhood.
One year that all came to an end, as detailed in last year's popular post "The Clue, Santa's Nose and the End of Innocence" The following year, I still made a wish list of things I wanted for Christmas, but without Santa, the magic was gone. Parents buying toys off the shelf of Bargain Town couldn't touch the image of elves making them by hand. To make matters worse, I couldn't resist the urge to look all over the house for my presents. I found them all before they had even been wrapped. I had ruined Christmas, and it was nobody's fault but mine. Self-inflicted pain always hurts the worst.
By the time I was in eighth grade, my life had changed dramatically. I was lucky enough to go live with my sister Susan, my brother-in-law Terry and my two little nieces Erin and Beth. I realize now it was a bigger adjustment for them, but my biggest concern at 14 years old was food. In that department; the transition was seamless. Susan was also an excellent cook, every bit as good as Mom. Looking back, I feel sorry for the economics and logistics of feeding a growing (expanding?) teenage boy. I remember her shock that I could drink a gallon of milk a day and consume an entire box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and 2 hot dogs for dinner. When it came to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, Susan put just as much love and effort into it as Mom. Those dinners had become the most important part of the holidays to me; they nourished my soul, and provided an all-important connection to the past.
I tried to help out with my nieces. I learned how to hold them, feed them and change their diapers. I grew accustomed to throwing a clean cloth diaper over my shoulder to protect against them spitting up on my shirt while burping them. I babysat so Susan and Terry could go out once in a while. As they grew, they became more my sisters than just my nieces, and I started to really enjoy my new role.
After Walter Payton had converted me into an NFL fan, one of my favorite Chicago Bears was a rather rotund offensive lineman named Noah Jackson. I developed a game where I would cover the far end of the downstairs couch with pillows and blankets, and stand Erin and Beth on the near end armrest. At least one would be holding a Nerf football. I would get a running start and yell "Noah Jackson!" as I left my feet, tackling both of them and landing on top of the pillows. They would squeal with delight and say "Do 'gain!" over and over.
When I started high school, they reached that wonderful age where they understood the concept of Santa and Christmas. I helped them draw and color Christmas scenes. I asked them about school plays, and what they wanted from Santa. I even told them that elves were monitoring their behavior and reporting back to the fat man.
During those years, we established a Christmas Eve tradition. After the girls went to sleep, Terry and I would assemble all their toys so they were ready to be played with immediately the next morning. I would play my video copy of It's A Wonderful Life, and the floor would be covered in parts and instructions. Good thing we weren't trying to impress Santa. The instructions always seemed like they were originally written in a foreign language, like Swahili, and then translated into English by a one-eyed Russian dyslexic with a speech impediment. If any elves were listening, the sheer volume of expletives would have qualified us both for a lifetime supply of coal. After everything was finally done, I'd stay up and read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol until I fell asleep, usually well after 3 in the morning.
Although I was never happy to be awoken only a few hours later, it was always worth it to be in the living room and see Erin and Beth come down the stairs. At first, their little faces looked both sleepy and skeptical, as if they weren't quite sure if they were dreaming. Thirty minutes later, the room was covered in wrapping paper and filled with joy. The magic was back.
Merry Christmas -- may you see it through the eyes of a happy child!