As adults, Sage and I never celebrated Christmas. Neither of us follow Jesus or Santa Claus (I’m agnostic, Sage is an atheist) and so it seemed hypocritical. For some time when Daegan was younger we would celebrate solstice. We’d decorate the house with lights, make paper lanterns in preparation for a celebration/parade downtown and go. It’s a bit different than the Santa Claus parade (which we’ve never been to) but still very fun.
And it ends with a big beautiful bonfire.
After some time we fell out of the habit of celebrating and now we pretty much have two traditions left: Christmas morning we have breakfast with other friends (and strangers) from around the city who get together at a diner. Sometimes we just talk, sometimes there are crafts to do, other times we’ve been known to sing. In the evening we usually have dinner out at a restaurant that happens to be open.
But in my childhood there was a more traditional celebration. Here are a few stories:
Up Before Dawn
Christmas eve would come and I would hang up my stocking. We always rented our house and my parents didn’t want to put holes in the wall and so I would hang my stocking on the back of the chair.
Then I would go off to bed, barely able to fall asleep for all of the excitement I had for the next day. It didn’t help that my parents and any guests did not go to bed. They’d be drinking and getting louder and louder. Eventually, though, time would take its toll and I would fall asleep.
But I wouldn’t sleep for long. I would almost always wake up about 5:00 AM, excited to see what Santa brought me. And so I went downstairs. I was able to read from a very young age so at age four it was no problem for me to know which gifts were mine. I didn’t want to bother anyone and so I quietly found each of my presents and then opened them all up before anyone woke. Then in my mind I had a bit of a politeness dilemma. I wanted to be quiet and let people sleep. But at the same time I wanted to thank my mom and dad for the gifts and so that won out. I tiptoed in to their bedroom…
“Mom…Dad… Mom? Dad?”
“Thank you so much for all of the nice presents.”
“Wait… what time is it? Did you open all of your presents?”
A year later my parents gave me a very clear directive: I can wake up at whatever time I like, but I can only look at what’s in my stocking. We were all happy with that and so I woke before dawn on Christmas morning as usual.
I opened my stocking and found so many great things: matchbox cars, a “book” with about ten rolls of life savers, chocolate Christmas eggs, tiny books and all sorts of things. Finally, at the bottom of my stocking I felt two small things – they felt like rocks. I pulled them out. They were shiny and black.
I got coal in my stocking. I think “I’m a good boy! I do whatever my parents ask! There must be some sort of mistake.” And so I do what seems to me to be the only reasonable thing: I open the back door and throw the coal as hard as I can in to the bushes where it can’t be seen. Surely Santa just accidentally left it there meaning it for someone else.
When my parents woke up they asked me about what Santa put in my stocking as they drank their tea.
“Oh, three Matchbox cars, some life savers and other candy, a story book…”
“Nothing else? Santa didn’t leave you anything else?”
“There was some coal too…”
“Ah – Santa left us a note about that. He said you were mostly good so it wasn’t all coal, but you did need a warning. So he gave you and your friend Johanna a bit of coal. You need to include her little sisters more when you play.”
God Works in Mysterious Ways
On Christmas Eve the year I turned ten, I learned the truth about Santa. I was in bed trying to fall asleep and listening to grownups in my family drink and party. At one point I heard my Uncle Mike call out to my dad:
“Hey! Someone help me put together this punching bag.”
The next morning, when I saw a floor-mounted punching bag next to the tree I figured it all out. I wasn’t particularly surprised or upset and actually felt pleased with myself for solving the mystery – just like the people on Scooby Doo.
I was excited about this gift but far more excited about the walkie-talkies my dad got me. I was excited to use them to “call home” from my walks in the woods. Sadly I’d learn quickly that their range wasn’t much beyond the yard. But what we also learned was that they could also be picked up by the CB radio we had in the guest room.
Later that day, after drinking a bit too much, my grandfather went to bed in the guest room. Even in my family in which most people drank a lot, my grandfather was known for drinking too much. And so, my Uncle Mike invited me to get in on another caper. Instead of playing Santa, we’d play someone even more powerful.
“Go in the guest room, Todd, and turn on the CB Radio.” he said.
I tiptoed down the hall, quietly opened the door, and turned the radio on. And then I carefully closed the door. Giggling quietly I ran down the hall and back to my uncle.
When I got back he pressed the “Talk” button on the radio and spoke in a deep voice:
“Otto…..OTTO…..Listen to me. This is God speaking.”
“Otto. Are you listening? Pay attention to me now. You need to stop drinking now. You must never drink again.”
And then we put away the walkie talkies and went about our business for the rest of the day.
My grandfather woke up soon after that. That night he didn’t have his usual wine. The next morning he didn’t either. For the rest of the time I knew him, he never took another drink. I may have figured out my Uncle Mike was Santa Claus, but I’m not sure he ever found out his son was God.