An odd thing about kids is how they can achieve far more than they’re capable of, but only when there is some dubious reward. I’m thinking in particular of my brothers and I a few weeks before Christmas. Pick any Christmas between, say, 1971 and 1978. In our early stages, we believed in Santa. We visited him at the mall routinely, excitedly read off our laundry list of toys we wanted. We’d see him at the firehouse, too, which had Christmas parties for all the kids in town. We believed in Santa Claus … but we knew the closet in our Dad’s room.
The closet in our Dad’s room was where our parents stored the presents they were buying us in the weeks leading up to Christmas. We’d see them coming home from shopping trips after work, vainly trying to hide the names on the bags: Boscovs, Sears, Listening Booth. Up to Dad’s room they’d go. Close the door. Shuffling sounds. Door creaks. God damn, they’re putting our shit in the closet for safe keeping.
Even earlier than that, we could rationalize that Santa would break into our house and leave everything in Dad’s closet because he’d be too busy to come down our chimney on Christmas Eve night. But after awhile, no, we knew Santa Claus existed in theory, and accepted this, knowing all the goodies were sitting in that closet.
But it wasn’t enough to let them sit there for weeks leading up to Christmas. We needed visual evidence that our shit was there. We had to see it, take the stuff out of the shopping bags, hold the boxes, and know we were getting that stuff.
This is where the diabolical brilliance of children comes into play. My brothers were handy with tools, in this case, the properly sized screw driver. That closet door was locked. Granted, an older, feeble lock that probably could have been picked if we were so inclined. But, like seasoned bank thieves, my brothers thought it made more sense to simply remove that ancient lock apparatus that was screwed to the wooden closet door.
Not as easy as you’d think. The key was to not chip any of the yellow paint – the screws were painted over, so we’d have to get an old cloth, not too thick, and wrap it around the screwdriver. And there were at least two screws and accompanying gaskets that we’d have to assiduously remove from the casing holding the lock, pry it from the wall without chipping any paint on the wood door, then reassemble it all afterwards … like marines re-assembling their rifles blind-folded.
That was the first part of the mission. The second was to take a mental picture of the closet layout. If our parents were smarter, they would have stacked a ton of shit – old board games, winter coats, shoe racks –against the inside of the door, made note of the order it was stacked and wrote it down. So that when they went in again, they could check if these items had been moved, as they would have if we’d swung the door open and they all came crashing down on us.
We were that meticulous, sometimes even writing down the order of the bags stacked in the closet, but usually just taking that mental snapshot of what was there so that when my parents went in again, they wouldn’t recognize that we had been in there on our recon mission. I’m surprised we didn’t wear gloves to hide our finger prints.
And previewing the booty was incredible. I remember that feeling. Such a rush of excitement to realize what we had asked for, we would be getting. I recall this feeling with records, and two in particular: Queen’s News of the World and ELO’s Out of the Blue. Christmas 1977. I loved those albums like you wouldn’t believe, floored by both, the last really good album by both bands. I could imagine my Dad buying these albums at Listening Booth, thinking, what in the hell is this kid listening to, but it got a lot worse than that! Both albums inspire those teenage memories of rushing upstairs, slapping on the Radio Shack Nova 40 headphones, cracking open the cellophane, getting that new album smell, opening up the gatefold cover, dropping the needle on the vinyl, and getting lost in the music for a good few hours. Just sitting there on the bed, facing the stereo, with headphones on, reading the lyrics and liner notes. How many hours did I spend in that pose for the next few years as I absorbed the bedrock sounds of my musical education.
So, right about now in 1977, my brothers and I would be in that closet, looking at stuff like this, never taking more than five or 10 minutes. We’d also be wary of any sounds – a car approaching, a door slamming, footsteps on the street outside, as presumably our parents could come home any minute and catch us up there. Putting everything back was a painstaking process. Again, meticulous order had to be observed for replacing the bags exactly where they were, and then rescrewing the lock to the wooden door. It wasn’t easy! And the odd part was, we’d do it routinely, a few times every Christmas season, to see if anything new had been added to the collection in the ensuing weeks.
When I think about Christmas, I don’t think about love, or baby Jesus, or even the presents themselves. I think about activities like those noted above that are indelibly stamped on my mind as “1970s Christmas in rural Pennsylvania.” Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is one of those things, and one of the few uncomplicated memories I have of my childhood Catholicism. In short, it was a beauty. A candlelight mass around midnight, with full choir, and the congregation bearing candles, all other lights dimmed or off, the priest swinging his can of burning incense. Just a magical mass that was always SRO. We'd get a free box of chocolates on the way out. And it didn’t end there. The capper would be coming home to find all our presents laid out (our parents would bag this mass for that reason), tearing them open, and having a blast.
Why we didn’t do that every year, I don’t know, as it was a perfect formula. When we didn’t go to that midnight mass, the same thing inevitably happened: us waking up at two or three on Christmas morning and busting downstairs to open the presents that our parents had laid out an hour or two earlier. We never could make it to a typical Christmas morning to rip open the presents. Christmas Day itself was always anti-climactic.
In our teen years, I can also distinctly recall bagging the early Christmas Eve mass, which was nowhere near as magical as the midnight one. Pretty much a typical mass around four or so, I guess we were given the choice of going then or Christmas morning … at a time in our lives when our grandmother had had a debilitating stroke, could no longer attend mass, and we liberated ourselves from the responsibility of church-going. In general, I really disliked church – still do. It bored me, felt much more like dull punishment than a spiritual calling, and always felt more appearance-based than soul satisfying. You want to believe in God, you surely don’t need a church to do it. Nothing against churches – I can clearly see their purposes in any given community – but it just wasn’t for me.
The one year that sticks in my mind was all of us going to Long John Silver’s and having a fish dinner, a bunch of teenagers, in our Sunday finest. It just felt too weird. And I didn’t like Long John Silver’s to begin with. I could sense the guilt floating around the table at that meal, that maybe we should have bit the bullet and gone to church. It’s one of those gloomy parking lot memories of my teen years, waiting in a parking lot of a mall for the driver (usually Mom) to show up – it just felt like such a depressing few minutes. For some reason, every time I hear the song “I Never Cry” by Alice Cooper, I can remember waiting for Mom one Christmas season in the parking lot, on a dark snowy night while that song played on the radio. Bagging church at any time felt like that: watching and waiting. Waiting for the bells to ring, or the driver to show up, setting us free to go, back to our normal lives, where we didn’t have to indulge in these charades.
Right now, I’m watching a VH-1 special on Fleetwood Mac … Tusk. Yet another great Christmas album from that time period! I guess Christmas will always be indelibly tied into music with me, as it meant getting 3-4 usually very good albums. Starting in October of any given year, I’d have my musical radar up for potential Christmas albums, and bands would often release good albums in the fall, and “Best Of” albums meant for huge Christmas sales. I can’t remember who got Elton John’s Greatest Hits for Christmas the year it came out, probably Brother M, but that had to be the biggest album of the early 1970s. That thing was worn out by February, and I was the one who went on to be the huge Elton John fan, buying all his albums as they came out and back-tracking his earlier ones. (As I may have noted earlier, the first album I ever bought was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, with snow-shoveling money. And I can just about pinpoint it to January or February of 1975 as buying it directly proceeded flipping out over the greatest hits album.)
Even without Dad passing on over the holidays a few years ago, Christmas just aint what it was for me. I think you need kids for this, and even then, you’ll be observing their excitement rather than experiencing it directly. It’s all about the food for me now, hanging out and relaxing with a few days off from work. Not this milestone of happiness that sprung up annually, the kind of thing that haunts you in a way as time goes on. I don’t recall being a particularly happy or sad kid, remember bursts of both with a lot of down time in between the highs and lows, but childhood Christmas is one of those memories that always seems like nothing but good. I have my doubts about adults who don’t sense that bridge between childhood ecstasy and adult pragmatism when it comes to Christmas. But I can’t blame them for trying.