I come from a family with six children, three boys and three girls. (Yeah, yeah, I know, just like ‘The Brady Bunch.’ In case you’re curious, I was Jan.) Anyway, our Christmases were quite a magical production, full of rituals and laughter. We all knew the routine. On Christmas Eve we had a traditional Swedish dinner, after which we each opened one gift. We went to church at eleven, and when we left, the church bells were ringing, because it was Christmas. When we got home, we read The Night Before Christmas, hung our stockings, and left my mom’s famous fudge, cookies and milk for Santa Claus.
In the morning we had to be presentable before we were presentable. You have never seen such a flurry of grooming– six of us, hair combed, teeth brushed, faces shining in minutes flat. We lined up at the top of the stairs, shortest to tallest. Every year there was a different mini-drama, as puberty assaulted each of us at different ages. And there was always the question; was it better to be taller than your sibling or to get to the loot that Santa had left first? We sang ‘Jingle Bells’ as we marched into the living room, where there was inevitably an obscene pile of gifts overflowing from under the tree. There was a mad dash toward our piles. We knew which one was ours, because Santa didn’t wrap the ‘Big Gift.’ Then, my parents tortured us by making us listen while my Dad read a witty letter from Santa. How Santa found the time to write such longwinded letters, with so many children around the world to service, I’ll never know. After Santa’s letter, we opened our stockings and two gifts each. Then the kid torturing started again in the form of a mandatory scrambled egg breakfast.
Finally, it was time to get down to the business of gift giving. It was a big business. In a family of eight, where each of us exchanged presents, the cats and dogs were involved, Santa, Mrs. Claus, Rudolph, Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles…you do the math.
We opened our gifts one at a time with every one watching. Needless to say, it took all day. We stuffed our faces with cheese and crackers, cookies, fudge, and donuts, and by three in the afternoon most of us were in a sugar coma. As we grew older, some of us were in Bloody Mary stupors. By the time we got to our formal turkey dinner, we were already stuffed.
Our Christmas Day attire is also worth mentioning. It started out with formal sleepwear and would deteriorate from there, as each of us added every item of clothing we received. We’d chant, ‘Try it on! Try it on,’ and start singing the strip-tease theme when someone got clothes. My brothers have underwear on their heads in most of our Christmas photos.
The day guaranteed a range of emotions from bliss to utter disappointment. Mostly there was great love.
My favorite Christmas memory is about ‘Mr. Christmas,’ my older brother, Tommy. He always left his shopping and wrapping until the last possible minute, adding drama to the excitement of Christmas. One year, I stayed up with him well past three in the morning, hand sewing fabric squares together for a quilt for our older sister, Gill’s, trousseau. Our project delayed Santa’s arrival for several hours. I remember going shopping with him on another Christmas Eve in search of a gift for our fifteen-year-old sister. He was thrilled when he found a stuffed bat that squeaked when he shook it up and down. He added his own pig noises to go with it.
As you have probably figured out by now, Tommy was a completely unorthodox gift-giver. He found great pleasure in bestowing unbelievably odd gifts upon his loved-ones. He delighted in witnessing the confusion on a ‘giftee’s’ face. Once, I was the recipient of a bag of cotton balls and a checker board. Why? He gave my very conservative grandmother a souvenir shirt, with a cow wearing lipstick on it, saying, ‘In the moooood in Rockford, Illinois.’ She was not amused. He was sure she’d like it since she was from Rockford. The best was the ‘nipple shirt’ he gave Gill. (He’d sewn baby bottle nipples onto the appropriate places on a plain, white tee-shirt.) I was mortified for her when she answered the chant and actually tried it on.
Tommy was also known to ask for very strange things from Santa: a nose-hair clipper, a pie in the face, a cantaloupe, and individual toe socks. The year he turned sixteen, however, he earnestly asked Santa for a car. After an exhausting day opening Christmas presents, it was finally time for Tommy’s ‘Big Gift.’ Excitedly, we put on our winter coats and filed into the courtyard next to the garage, forming a semi-circle around him.
‘Tommy, close your eyes.’
The tension was palpable. He bounced up and down in anticipation.
When my dad said, ‘open,’ I was given the distinct honor of presenting Tommy the pie he’d asked for from Santa Claus.
Merry Christmas to the most wonderful crazy family in the world!