Here’s what Christmas has always meant to me — happy kids.
What’s better than that?
And I mean, happy kids when I was one, and since I’ve had some of my own. That’s what Christmas means to me: not just a little happy, but really, truly happy — at least momentarily.
For me, it’s never been just about the gifts. The gifts can make you a little happy … but it’s the whole season that can really do the trick.
Christmas starts far earlier than the 25th, though not as early as Costco or Target or other retailers would have us believe. For them, Christmas is the next major holiday after “Back to School” — I think it starts the DAY after school starts. Oh sure, Halloween and Thanksgiving are in there, but I swear I saw Christmas items for sale in mid-September — it’s not even officially fall yet, is it?
I resist summer Christmas shopping. Part of that is because I enjoy the other holidays too, part of that is because I’m rarely in a position to buy two holidays ahead, and part of that is because once I’m IN Christmas season, I’m all in. It’s like being in love.
For me, Christmas season starts the first time you don’t roll your eyes or change the channels when you hear a Christmas song — whether you’re in the car or in a store or wherever. The first couple of times, if you’re like me, you ignore the song/season, or dodge it — maybe because you know all the work that goes with it.
But the first time you accept it … tap your toe, nod your head, hum along … it’s Christmas time — just not the barking dogs doing Jingle Bells, please.
That first weekend, you pull out the decorations from the garage, from storage and from that little box under your bed. It all depends how much you have and what you forgot that you bought last year on the 26th when they were marked down.
I don’t put them all up at once … I like to savor the decorating. I like the tchotchke, the silly decorations the kids made in first grade, the fun signs hanging around the house: “Winter Wonderland,” “Merry Kris-Moose.” Yes, it has a picture of a moose. That’s one of my favorites…for no real reason.
There are so many Christmas knick-knacks that when everything gets taken down and put away in January, it makes my house feel clean … empty and dark.
Inside lighting — I love it. The little porcelain village set up on my bar, the lit garland along the mantle, the strings of light that only half work, so you throw them in a vase or a pot where you don’t notice. But, all of that stuff comes after the outside lights.
As a kid, a real highlight for me and another sign that the season had started — was helping Dad put up the lights. Unlike other “Dad chores” that I now realize you get your kids involved in so you don’t have to do them anymore (lawn, car wash, pay for college), putting up the lights was something my Dad enjoyed and helping him with it was a rite of passage.
As the oldest of six kids, it was never a foregone conclusion that I, or some, or all of us would get to help Dad with certain things. For one, I realize now that a trip to the hardware store to get the replacement bulbs might have been his only moment of silence and sanity all week. But, when I got to go along and then come home and actually replace the bulbs that had died — I was helping make Christmas happen.
Whether it was decorating the bushes and trees in the front of the old NJ house that would be covered with snow, or sticking them to the low-hanging slate roof on the stucco house in Florida, the lights were going up and staying up. My dad had a tradition — we used green lights only, kept them on through mid-January, then turned them off … but left them up.
Then on St. Patrick’s Day (yes, two months later) we turned them on, of course! THEN, they came down.
These days, I prefer the multi-color C-9’s (never understood the “illusion” of the white dangling snowflake lights, which are supposed to look like snow hanging off a Southern California roof.) To put mine up, you have to climb a ladder and walk across the peaks and hills of the roof. That’s what my teenage boys love these days and my home insurance broker would hate.
That’s now, when they’re only partially afraid of the whole ladder to the roof thing.
In the old days, what they loved was the Christmas boutique at their pre-school, which also was an indicator the season had begun. Not just for the knick-knacks and silly stockings — they were also always a fan of the fudge and Christmas cookies.
But what it also meant was that they got to see Santa.
Each year, the kids would sit on Santa’s lap … usually too shy or overwhelmed to do more than sit and smile for the Polaroid photographer. Two kids, one picture, mom or dad pays the $3, and off you go, whisked off so the next child could go up. Christmas was in the air.
Santa appeared at the boutique in three two-hour shifts, generally with a slightly different appearing Santa — it’s almost like it was a different dad Santa each time. The Santa wearing the heavy velvet suit and (hopefully) some padding who had the early shift had the best chance of truly being jolly, and smelling like fresh-falling snow on a November morning in Sherman Oaks.
The ones who had the later shift were more likely to smell like … the one who had the shift before him, unless they went a touch heavy on their own cologne.
As a veteran, I usually got to pick a shift and then would just be sure my boys visited Santa on a different shift. One year, it worked out that between sports schedules and other calendar challenges, the only time to get the boys there was going to be at the same time I’d be there. I was going to be “at the office,” their mother would take them, and then I would meet them there after they had seen “Santa.”
I wasn’t crazy about the arrangement. I didn’t really like the idea that they might somehow recognize me beneath the 20-pound costume, hat and wig … but I had a plan.
The photographer was a friend who knew the boys, they were probably around 6 and 4 by then. She was going to hold their attention, call them by name, keep the focus on her, then get the picture and get them on their way. Very little – if any – Santa mingling.
As I sat in the big red chair, I enjoyed each moment with the children coming through, giving my best jolly Ho-Ho-Ho, asking if they’d been good, or what they wanted — sometimes asking to make sure they left a cookie out for Santa, as Gail snapped the pictures and moved them along.
Soon, I saw my boys in the back of the line and cut down on my patter as they got closer, in fear they’d recognize my voice. Gail kept the line moving; we were on track.
Soon, my boys were second from the front of the line. In front of them? Triplets. All of them were almost too big to still be in the triple-wide stroller they were fidgeting to escape.
Soon, they climbed out and were escorted to see Santa by the mother and her sister, and their mother, and an uncle, and Grandpa — this was suddenly a family reunion at Santa’s chair. The triplets were all positioned on and around Santa. Gail snapped the picture and the triplets were ready to go.
Then the aunt asked for her own picture. Then Grandma. Then Grandpa. Then another family member I hadn’t even seen.
Now the kids were overwhelmed, and fidgety, and crying, and jumped down on their own, one hustling over to mom, two just fleeing to different family members.
Poor Gail was trying to corral them, and pull and peel off the 4-5 Polaroid shots, and collect the extra money, all while circling around the loveseat-sized stroller.
Meanwhile, the moment the triplets left, my boys took it upon themselves to head to Santa, position themselves on his lap, and wait for the photographer. Gail was dealing with each relative wanting to only pay for their own picture, each needing change, one reminding the other she was still owed a dollar from pizza last night … while my boys were already on my lap … waiting … watching.
With a a muffled/disguised Ho-Ho-Ho, I bounced them on my knee a little, watched Gail making change, and thought “HURRY!!” They were still several years from questioning Santa’s identity (hell, my 14-year-old STILL wants to believe … but I think it’s because he knows it’s in his best interest).
Finally, Gail was almost ready. Suddenly, my oldest turns in slow motion and goes practically nose to nose with me, staring through the costumed Santa glasses, peeking under the white curly wig, and stares into my eyes…STARES…blankly, then inquisitively, like, “Hey, something seems … familiar here.”
Then he stares, maybe for a moment, knowingly.
Suddenly, Gail calls them by name, snaps the picture, and off they go. My older son gives one last look back … and I turn away.
Later, when my shift is over, I circle out in the crowd and meet up with the family. I ask if they have a cookie for me — I ask how their day has been, and casually (I thought) ask if they had seen Santa.
My youngest nods and grins. A happy kid.
My eldest, the old soul, is holding my hand as we walk to the car, looking down.
“Yeah Dad. He had black boots, just like you.”
My Doc Martens were the best I could think of to wear — so that Santa wasn’t wearing sneakers.
“Well, a lot of guys wear black shoes,” I said, scanning the area for ANY other guy in black shoes … and coming up empty.
“And he kinda smelled like you,” he said, continuing his passive-aggressive interrogation.
“You mean, like … cookies?” I stumbled.
Then he stopped, and in slow motion turned toward me again, pulling my hand down a little to try to bring me to eye level.
“And he had green eyes, just like yours.”
Well, there it was. The final accusation.
I knew that the words that came out next would shape the next few Christmases … and I didn’t have long to respond.
“Well … of course! They’re … Christmas tree green!”
He looked at me, looked me in the eyes, and evaluated that answer.
And then, he smiled.
Maybe it was the kind of smile you make when you’re satisfied with the answer … or maybe it was the kind of smile you make when you know someone has just tried to give you an answer, but you know otherwise.
Either way … he smiled.
A happy kid at Christmas time. What’s better than that?
Mike Brennan has been a Pulitzer Prize-nominated newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, an investigative journalist, a nationally touring stand-up comedian, a joke writer for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a morning radio host, a professional auctioneer for numerous charities, an editor, and a film and TV script consultant. He is currently working on a romantic comedy screenplay, and a humorous book on being a father, called The Tooth Fairy Doesn’t Pay for Yellow Teeth. He has lived in the Valley for 19 years, and has two teenage sons. Contact the author.