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Posts tagged ‘Holiday’

I saw Mommy dissing Santa Claus

Ho ho...no (Wikipedia)

Ho ho…no (Wikipedia)

Prepare yourself for a special holiday memory.

I’m seven years old. It’s Christmas time. My mother is leaning against the butcher block in the kitchen.

“I have to tell you something,” she said to me. She paused. She struggled to suppress a laugh.

“There’s no such thing as Santa,” she said. And then the laughter came pealing out, like Christmas bells.

I think I said, “All right,” and then went on with my childhood. After all, we lived on one floor, so I could see the Christmas tree, and my parents putting presents under it, from my bed at night. Spoiler alert! If that was something people said in 1982.

And Christmas went on, too. We always hung stockings, got presents, and listened to worn cassettes of my father’s favorite carols. We drove around in the evenings to look at the neighborhood lights; we went to Rockefeller Center to see the big tree. My father decorated a meticulous tree; my mother made Belgian waffles on Christmas morning. Glad tidings, comfort, joy, all of that.

I asked my mother about this special memory recently, to see if she would admit to it. “Oh yeah,” she said. “If I couldn’t have Christmas when I was little, why should anybody else?” she said in a sing-song voice. Her sense of humor saves her from being the cynic of the Western world.

My mother emigrated to New York from Italy when she was five years old. She was born in a tiny mountaintop town, in Calabria, one of the poorest southern regions. The house she was born and lived in was built, like much of the town, around 1450. Dirt floors; smoking fires in the hearth; animals in the courtyard. There may have been a manger.

“There was no Christmas over there like here. We didn’t have much. Definitely no Santa,” she said. “Christmas was about going to church, the presepio [the Nativity scene], and the food.

“We didn’t have these endless supplies of food, everything was very limited. So whatever sugar or honey you had, you saved for Christmas.” My grandmother made Calabrese Christmas sweets, things we still love to eat, mainly variations on fried balls of dough dipped in honey or sugar: scalidi, struffoli, zeppole, turtiddi. And Christmas cookies. My husband likes to joke that cookies in my family are basically hard pieces of bread with sprinkles on them. But when you think about how getting sugar would mean walking an hour to the market town, it doesn’t seem so strange.

“And then, La Befana would come for Epiphany.” La Befana is the Italian equivalent of Santa Claus, in the form of a witch, left over from Pagan times, who comes on Epiphany Eve in January and fills stockings, certainly not plush ones with Snoopy on them like mine, with oranges, nuts, and candy. These things, part of my own children’s daily lives were cherished treats in Calabria. If you were bad, La Befana brought you coal. So that part translates. It’s the only part that does.

“When we got here, we didn’t speak English. We just didn’t get how Christmas was done,” my mother said. “The first year, we didn’t have a tree. We certainly didn’t have presents. Later we did have a tree, but Christmas was always a hard time. Your grandfather worked in construction, remember, so he was out of work all winter. So things were very lean until he could work again in the spring.” My mother was the youngest of five, with two sisters who were much older. “When they started working in the factory [they were seamstresses], I would get a doll, or they would make me a dress or a sweater. But still, the presents were the least of Christmas.”

Even in New York in the booming 1950s, where they had come to escape the want of the isolated villages of the Italian South, they still would hold sugar and honey in reserve till Christmas. I can see why the idea of Santa – even now, when we can dump entire pots of store-bought honey on trays of scalidi – would make you laugh, a little bit.

“But when we got married and you guys were little, we did Christmas the usual way. Your father always had that kind of a Christmas. His parents put up the Christmas tree on the 24th after all the kids were in bed, so they would wake up to a big surprise on Christmas morning. It was special for him. And Christmas was always special for you, too. But as for Santa, I don’t know. I just could never get into it.”

We gave Santa Claus lip service growing up, but I don’t have any memory of really believing, waiting for him to materialize in our house in the night. We didn’t have a chimney, so that didn’t help either. The presents, in my mind, were always from my parents, even though they kindly wrote “from Santa” on the labels. I have a friend whose parents did not go in much for Santa either. “We worked hard to buy those presents,” her mother told me. “Why should Santa get all the credit?” A fair point.

As for my all-American kids, two boys, ages six and three, they are excited about Santa Claus. As is their privilege. And I encourage them to believe. But what I don’t want, especially when I think of how Christmas used to be for so many in my family, and how it still is for so many people, is for the focus of Christmas to be receiving gifts.

Instead, let it be sweet treats, bright lights on cold nights, being good to each other. My three-year-old is thrilled to screaming at the sight of Christmas lights glowing in the dark; I would rather him hold on to that wonder than the mystery of a man in red bearing judgment, and Legos.

That’s not to say those two will wake up on Christmas morning to a house full of nothing but the smell of good cheer. I look forward to treating them at this time of year. What I don’t want is to dangle the old man in front of them as a threat, and tell them he’ll turn the sleigh around if they are not good; if they don’t stop yelling; if they don’t pick up their toys, or eat their vegetables. That doesn’t seem right.

So, how to handle Saint Nick? Short of calling the boys into the kitchen to deliver some bad tidings?

“Am I a good boy?” my six-year-old asked me the other day. I could see he was apprehensive of the judgment that was coming, the ups and downs of his behavior that year dancing through his head.

“Listen to me,” I held his face, looked him in the eyes. “You are a good boy. Let’s end the suspense. Santa is coming for you.”

His eyes widened. “But can he see what I am doing? Can he see me when I do things that aren’t good?”

“Santa can see that you have a good heart. You are a good brother. You are a good friend. Even good boys make mistakes sometimes, and he knows that. Everybody makes mistakes. But he knows you are good. So just keep showing him the good boy you are inside, OK?”

I guess the best thing about Santa is that it gives you something magical to believe in, in the bleakest nights of midwinter. So let him believe. But also let him believe in the good within himself, year round.

And let him believe that Santa uses the same wrapping paper as us. And has the same handwriting as me. Wouldn’t that be magical?

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It’s the great Halloween anxiety, Charlie Brown

This is real-time anxiety happening here, as I write at the coffee shop while C is at kindergarten. This morning I sent him to his school Halloween celebration as half a vampire.

Weeks ago, C decided he wanted to be a vampire for Halloween. His Dad bought him some rubber teeth and face paint, so he’s set there. So what else does the costume entail? I struggled to think.

I’m not that creative when it comes to sewing or Halloween costumes. And I’ve never really enjoyed trick-or-treating that much. For me, as a nervous kid, it was just another avenue for rejection – who would invite you to their party? Would you have to go out alone? What if your costume wasn’t any good? So you see what my start-point for Halloween is.

The cape was crucial to C’s transformation to vampire. “I’m going to wear my superhero cape,” he declared. It’s royal blue with a big yellow thunderbolt on it.

“But a vampire wears a black cape,” I told him. No. He doesn’t want to wear a black cape. OK.

I looked online to see what a kids’ vampire costume looks like in the marketplace.

No. That’s ridiculous. I just can’t. And come on, I thought, trying to cajole the Halloween spirit out, I can make a costume myself! Isn’t that what Halloween is all about? That should win points. With whom, I should have asked.

I scoured the local craft shops (O look at me! Aren’t I great for avoiding the big-box stores!) for more vampire accoutrement. Since grown-up, sexy lady vampire was out of the question, I didn’t find much. Just an adult-sized wig that I thought I could trim and gel, but it just ended up looking like a shedding black cat. So I bought a white dress shirt, by “Joey Couture,” which felt like tissue paper. I added some navy sweatpants, for comfort. I found a medal he’d won as a party prize. With the teeth, the pallid face, black-rimmed eyes, and blood-red lips (I am confident in make-up, at least), C should be good to go.

Then the notice came home from school. No fake blood. No face paint. Nothing violent. The teeth would definitely be confiscated, ala A Christmas Story. Rats. Maybe I can turn him into a True Blood-style vampire, ala Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgaard). He’s already got the hair and the J.Crew sweaters. No cape and Dracula gear required…no, probably not.

This morning, C gamely put on his sweatpants, his shirt, his cape. “These are the most important parts of a vampire costume anyway,” he said.

We opened our front door and headed to school. Heading down the steps, I noticed someone stole our pumpkin. No jack-o-lantern tonight. Keep going. A group of C’s classmates was walking up the street. A witch, a tiger, a princess. “Are you a superhero?” the witch asked.

“I’m a vampire,” C said quietly.

“He’s a baby vampire,” I said, to the parents, I suppose. “His teeth haven’t come in yet.” I felt the need to make excuses, not for him, but for myself, as I started to get the feeling I let him down, with his dressy-yet ready for gym class-superhero get-up.

When we got to the playground, the place was swirling with store-bought costumes of every variety. More tigers. More princesses. Superheroes of every stripe. A ninja. And C, with his halo of blond hair, his blue eyes and long, drooping eyelashes, hardly looking like a creature of the night. “Are you Superman, C?” asked one of his friends, dressed as a superhero whose name I didn’t catch, resplendent with fake muscles.

“No!” T spoke up, marching up to this macho man, in his Snoopy Halloween t-shirt. “Vam-pah!”

The bell rang, and C got in line. He was quiet, but he always is when he heads into school. Yet my sinking feeling was growing. What if I’ve failed him? I worried. What if my poor attempt at making a genuine Halloween costume, with my lack of skills and vision, is going ruin his first schoolboy Halloween? What have I done? Good grief.

My face was a mask of cheer as I said goodbye. “You look so great!” The parade of costumes started moving. “Good-bye, Vampire!”

Even T was in on it. “Bye!” He jumped and waved. “Arrgghh!” He did his best scary monster sound.

We trudged home through the hurricane-tossed leaves. It’s my job, I thought, to fill C with confidence, so he’d be dashing around the schoolyard, cape flying. And just because I didn’t press click on a costume because I thought it was tacky, maybe he feels less-than. And the fears started gathering strength and speed as they swirled through my mind. What if he, because of this botched first attempt, never likes Halloween again? He was so excited about it this year. He drew a jack-o-lantern in the October 31 box on the kitchen calendar. He decorated our house with orange streamers and webs and fake spiders. He told everyone he was going to be a vampire. And now, as they are probably at this moment marching through the school hallways showing off their costumes, is he?

My mother made incredible Halloween costumes for me as a kid: a parrot with crepe-paper wings, the Statue of Liberty, with green face paint and a dyed sheet. I was Halley’s Comet the year it appeared, as a giant painted sandwich board affair. One year I was Where’s Waldo, that was pretty good. And, despite all my worry, when I think back, I did go to parties, and trick-or-treating; I roamed streets with silly string and shaving cream. I did have fun. So this anxiety comes from me, not my experiences – and it’s still in me. As I write, I am making a vow to not dump all that in C’s trick-or-treat bag, as it were.

Maybe Halloween is never going to be like it was in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I’m not going to be able to cut holes in a sheet, throw it over the boys, and send them out into the night, all innocence and sincerity. There are going to be store-bought costumes, and stickers instead of candy, and rules to follow to make Halloween palatable for the modern school day. But it will always be there, and C loves it. So it’s time for me to put aside my inner Charlie Brown, so that C doesn’t become the same: all good intentions sidelined by worry and fear. Better to be like Linus, willing to look a fool in a pumpkin patch, because, pure in spirit, he believes in the Great Pumpkin.

As as for T? I think he’s a Lucy-type, so we better all beware.

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