This is the face of readiness.
As you can see, Cuda, the cockapoo who replaced my brother and me in my parents’ home when we grew up, gets his own stocking. He knows which one is his, as I will prove to you in a few moments. But he knows as well as any child who deserves a visit from Santa that he can’t open it until we say he can.
Christmas stockings have always been a focal point of Christmas morning at my parents’ house, and while families who emphasize Santa Claus may experience a decline in stocking-related excitement as the children grow up, the fact that my mother calls explicitly for delivery of the household members’ stockings before bed on Christmas Eve night, so that she can fill them, never diminished the anticipation at all. In fact, the stockings’ role in the festivities seems to have intensified over the years.
It’s a painful memory from early in the marriage for my parents, but apparently, before I was born, Dad forgot to fill a stocking for Mom. The following year, to atone, he filled one at least three times the size of her old one. Over the years, I’ve shouldered a lot of responsibility for Mom’s oversize stocking. First I was just heavily involved in the selection of the items, but then one year Dad decided that each item should be individually wrapped. This tradition stuck as well, and one of the benefits of my marriage has been that now my sister-in-law helps me wrap. No-one does more to make Christmas special than my mother, so it’s a joy to make sure she gets the best stocking of all.
A few years ago, I made her a new extra-large stocking out of royal blue fabric with fish figurines sewn on it. Among the odder elements of my family’s Christmas, the most prominent decorations are tropical creatures.
Oh, sure, we used to have a Christmas tree with glass icicles, genial Santas and shiny, colorful bulbs. We would drive to a nice Christmas tree joint as a family and pick a fragrant pine. Upon set-up, the cat immediately began to drink from the tree’s small metal basin, eschewing her own dish for weeks, and scrabbled repeatedly up the trunk in a wild yuletide jungle fantasy that rattled the ornaments.
But for the last several years, my parents have gone with something easier and more in tune with their year-round decorations than the deliciously piney Fraser firs I loved so much. I think the six-foot artificial palm tree made its debut by the bar at my wedding over four years ago. When we came home for Christmas the following year, it was in the living room, hung with Christmas lights and ornaments.
Last December, Mom brought the lime-green plastic crocodile lights in from the hot tub patio and added them to the tree. This year, it’s decorated completely with birds and tropical fish, though the old Christmas tree skirt emblazoned with Santa’s elves riding trains has remained.
I have to say, it’s growing on me.
As my mother’s penchant for Christmas decorating veered from Santa, rocking horses, bears and reindeer toward a Caribbean beach vibe, one wholly traditional aspect of her yuletide collection has only intensified over the years. From one home-painted crèche set (a representation of Jesus’s birth in the stable), her collection has mushroomed into enough Baby Jesuses to start her own museum. If you don’t believe me, take the video tour.
There were other traditional aspects as well, especially when we used to go to my Dad’s parents’ house for Christmas. My brother, two cousins and I slept out by the tree on Christmas Eve, reading comic books and playing games until we fell exhausted into our sleeping bags. My aunt would tuck us in with all the standard reminders about no shaking, poking or sniffing the presents.
“And no fantasizing,” she added.
“Aw, Mom, can’t we fantasize?” my cousin cried.
Mom made a gingerbread house (always with a gingerbread dog) which sat tantalizingly on the table until after Christmas dinner, the ultimate exercise in self-denial.
Then, the cousins would demolish it.
Later, grown-up family members would go through my grandparents’ vast annual Christmas card haul. They would sort them into categories and declare a winner for each one. As to what the categories were, I wish I could tell you, but I’m sworn to secrecy.
Christmas is about anticipation, and, as you’ve seen, no-one knows that better than Cuda. In fact, he has even more to anticipate than the average family member, because in addition to enjoying his own gifts, he has had a passion for cardboard tubes since he was a puppy – but he must always wait until the moment is right.
When Mom puts on his Christmas wreath, Cuda knows that guests will be arriving shortly. I agree that the wreath is cute, and he wears it happily, but I also insist every year that he looks like Queen Elizabeth.
The Saturday before Christmas, a large crowd arrives for my parents’ annual Christmas party. Dad makes a beverage that, in a cooler, is known as “Beach Power” on summer vacations. In late December, it goes into a cut-glass punch bowl and is called “Peach Power”.
Around midnight, Dad performs an annual highlight of the party: flaming Mexican coffee.
A non-drinker for medical reasons, I am always steeped in the mildly uncomfortable holiday wonder of watching upstanding church members and friends’ parents get mildly snockered. I’ve never made it to the end of the party – I always retire to bed, listening to the laughter and the thunks of the darts games that go into the wee hours of the morning.
Like an impatient little brother, Cuda often worms his way into the bedroom early Christmas morning. Watch what is possibly the greatest example of pure joy ever caught on film, when we tell him it’s finally, finally time.
Whatever you’re celebrating this December, I hope you have as much fun as my family does. Happy holidays!