Editor’s Note: This essay is a revised version of an article the author wrote years ago for Seattle Weekly.
I don’t know about you, but when I see the first Christmas decorations arrive in stores, usually just after the 4th of July, I feel an alarming twinge. I still remember the magic of seeing my little face reflected in a box of golden balls on a dark night, or lying on the floor looking at the ceiling glow from multicolored lights and winking Mazda bubble lamps on the tree. But that was in single-digit years, and since then I have come to regard Santa and his sleigh as a modern iteration of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Obviously I am not alone. Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life contemplated hurling himself from a bridge on Christmas Eve. Somehow, we’re not surprised when we hear about the tornado that destroyed an Arkansas trailer park and left aluminum Christmas trees scattered over a 20-mile swath of destruction. And why do newspapers print advice about how to survive Christmas and not kill your relatives? Merry Catastrophes To All!
I remember hearing my mother’s Christmas memories. Her father, having slaughtered the Christmas goose, chased his screaming children around the house blowing honks on the bloody esophagus. As the holiday approached, he drank more and mumbled his favorite English phrases: “Sonny Beech!, Got Tem!” Drunk on a step ladder, about to place the angel atop the tree sparkling with glass ornaments brought all the way from central Europe, he toppled over, crushing both tree and ornaments. “Sonny Beech! Got Tem!”
I also remember my own horror stories. I was 19 and miserably in love. Dressed as Santa on the snowy night before Christmas Eve, I had delivered gifts to the inmates of a hospital children’s ward. On my way home, still in red suit and white beard, I thought to stop at the house of my beloved, tip-toe to her bedroom window and whisper greeting. I tapped on the glass, saw the curtain move and heard her scream bloody murder. I stumbled back to the road, her parents’ shouted queries trailing off as I got into my car.
Six inches of snow covered the scrap lumber that had been left, nails up, where I parked, and as I drove off, the car fish-tailed alarmingly. Getting out, I had two flat tires–and a flat spare. Nothing left but to find a telephone booth and call for help from Aurora Avenue, where crapulous patrons of local bars driving unsteadily home rolled down their windows to jeer: “Hey Santa, where’s your reindeer?”
Ah, but this was only the first of my misadventures. The following year it snowed again, even deeper. Once again it was the ominous night before Christmas Eve. In front of my house I was about to put on tire chains for another romantic visit. Through the picture window I could see my harried mother finishing her Christmas cards. The simplest method was to lay the chains out in front of the tires, slowly release the clutch and ease the car to their middle.
But I had a ball of ice on my shoe; my foot slipped off the clutch peddle, and the car lurched through the window. It also broke off a standpipe sending water gushing into the air and into the house. Enraged, my mother began to revolve inside her skin, her eyes periodically bulging from their sockets to deliver a death ray that would have scared the bejesus out of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. At that very moment, my father, who knew how to turn off the water main, arrived home from work.
On cue, one year later, the celestial clock struck its doleful tone on the snowy night before Christmas Eve. Once again, I was in my car, this time delivering swags since love had fled my star-crossed life. The roads were icy; I was without chains of course, and a friend followed me in his van down the twisting road leading to my house. Just past where the guard rail ended (of course) the car slithered out of control and crunched to the shoulder, its rear end teetering over an adjoining swamp. He drove me home where my parents asked if I, meaning my car, was all right. We had had a little accident, I said, but were taking care of it. We left with a bucket, a length of clothes line, and, for reasons I cannot remember, my concertina.
When we got to where we’d left the car it was not there. My friend’s flashlight probed: all we saw were the skid marks meandering to the shoulder above the gelid swamp. He delivered me safely to my house where I fell asleep to the sound of my parents’ roaring abuse.
As it happened, a passing wrecker had seen my car and towed it off. He called the next morning and my father drove me to the yard to retrieve it, no worse for wear, but me $75 poorer. It was after that and the hostess meatballs gift that I joined the Peace Corps and got out of Dodge.
Years later I came home, went back to school and got a job. At last I was on my own. Girlfriends and cars may pass away, but I had survived what I assumed was the worst Christmas could do. But if you marry for love you marry into a family that inevitably expects its child to come home for the holidays. Children complicate the scene and generate those situations that lead one to look, like Jimmy Stewart, for the nearest bridge. I believe Zorba the Greek had Christmas in mind when he summed up marriage: “wife, house, children: the full catastrophe.”
And just as movie episodes and clever lines help us survive life, I learned to mitigate a great deal of holiday stress by making up parodies of Christmas favorites. I got a lot of mileage out of Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” by substituting Satan for Santa Clause: “When all of a sudden I heard on the roof, the stamping and clawing of each cloven hoof.” Again, I am not alone; some precocious little kid has gained eternal fame by misspelling Santa Claus as ‘Satan Claws’.
When I was little, public schools typically put on Christmas pageants where each class was marched out to sing carols. My 4th grade class sang “Up on the rooftop.” My version begins: Up on the rooftop scales and claws,/Fires belch from gaping maws./Flee from the heralding poltergeist;/Down through the chimney comes Antichrist.
Little kids generally find the boxes toys come in more interesting than the toy, but as they grow up they grasp Santa’s marketing strategies: the more expensive the toy, the better, and the kid who dies with the most toys wins. So as prices metastasized I rewrote Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song’s refrain “Daylight come and I wanna go home” to “Christmas come, wanna crawl in a hole.” The lyrics went this way: Spend a month’s pay on a plastic toy./Super dad ‘til the battery die./Come Mr. VISA Man tally up the damage./Christmas come, wanna crawl in a hole.
In the futile effort to satisfy both families, we suffered the additional curse of having both of them living close enough so that we could visit them on the same day if we didn’t mind spending it behind the wheel. Siblings pretended to vie for the dubious honor of hosting gigantic double, triple or tetra-tri-dodecan family get-togethers, but all desperately hoped to escape the madness, to fall seriously ill, to die unexpectedly.
Every year it was the same rhetorical queries, “Are you kids planning anything for the holidays?” Who? Us? Never us! As Christmas approached, tensions mounted: how would we do it this time? What excuse could we come up with? The year when our son miraculously developed chicken pox just before the holiday left us beside ourselves: we could tell the truth!! We could use the old truth ploy!!
One such family disaster inspired a parody of Kipling’s “Gunga Din.” You can talk of eggs and beer when you’re midway through the year/An soakin’ up the sun on pastures greener./But mind you to remember, you’ll be eye to eye December/With the livin’, breathin’ Hell of Christmas Dinner.”
One of the best Christmas stories I ever heard was told to me by a friend who witnessed it as a child in Mesa, Arizona. In 1930, the editor of Mesa’s Journal-Tribune sought to stimulate Christmas shopping in town by having a man dressed as Santa parachute from an airplane to a field and lead a parade to downtown. But when the date for the widely publicized even arrived, Santa was drunk, so editor McPhee took a dummy from a store window, dressed it in the Santa suit, and gave it to the pilot with instructions to pull the parachute’s ripcord before he tossed it from the plane. McPhee hoped to meet the dummy on the ground, don the suit and lead the parade.
People came from all over southern Arizona came to watch the spectacle. Eager children craned their necks as the plane droned overhead. A spot of color appeared in the bright Arizona sky. But then, as often happens during Christmas, things became macabre. The parachute failed to open, and the crowd gaped in horror as Santa plummeted to earth.
Still don’t think that’s funny? Here, have a meatball.