I love Christmas. I inherited this from my mother, I suspect, who is a first ballot lock for the Christmas Fanatic Hall of Fame.
My mother is a Christmas juggernaut. You can follow. You can assist. But otherwise, get out of the way or you’ll be run over by joy.
It begins on “Christmas Saturday.” Christmas Saturday happens one or two Saturdays before Thanksgiving Day. My phone will ring early on a Saturday morning, and I’ll pick it up to hear Christmas carols blaring like jet engines from my mother’s stereo system. Seriously — it’s no small wonder why her neighbors don’t call the police. And why the police, then, don’t call an ambulance. Why she isn’t darted in her front yard with a sedative.
Oh, this is just the beginning.
She bakes Christmas cookies with cookie cutters that once belonged to my grandmother. For all I know, my great-grandmother. Or maybe the cookie cutters came over on the Mayflower. Shaped like a full-length profile of Santa, a Christmas tree, a star, a candy cane.
My mother meticulously ices each cookie with frosting, according to a golden tablet titled “Christmas Cookie Frosting Rules That Must Be Obeyed.”
Stars have yellow frosting. Christmas trees, green with a brown base. The Santas take forever: A red cap with white trim, a white beard, a red coat and pants with white trim, brown boots.
I was (and remain) better at eating the cookies than icing the cookies. The brown frosting was chocolate flavored. As kids, it was not uncommon for my sisters and me to bite the chocolate boots off the Santas, leaving the now mangled, crippled elf to flounder on the cookie tray. Mmm! Delicious!
There’s homemade candy. French chocolates (rolled in coconut), rum balls (rolled in nuts), divinity (made with real vanilla) and the best homemade fudge this side of Paradise.
In my maternal family gatherings, we don’t dream of a white Christmas. We dream of pancreatic shock. We dream of insulin.
Oh, and bagels, too. Chewy and dense. Literally the best piece of bread I ever put in my mouth on any given day. Before she dies, I’m going to enter my mom in a Goy Girl Bagel Cookoff. Because she’ll win. If my mom opened a Jewish deli, well, as long as she stayed in the back, no one would be the wiser. As a kid, I remember her saying, “We’re the only Gentiles on the block who have bagels every Sunday.”
Hours and hours and hours in the kitchen. Hard, hard work that isn’t work at all. Not to my mother. Work would be not being allowed to do it. That would exhaust her.
Then come the Christmas decorations. There are four ceramic angels in red dresses, each holding a candle. Each angel is standing behind a block letter, spelling “N-O-E-L.” Well, I should say it’s designed to spell out “Noel.” Pretty sure that’s what the manufacturer had in mind. But, as we descend upon our mother’s house, my sisters and I rearrange the angels when my mother has her back turned. So, as they walk into the foyer, house guests could be greeted by angels saying, “Leon,” or “Elno,” or “Oeln,” or “Nelo.”
“What the $#@! does NELO mean,” my mother demanded in a shrill voice, long tired of this sophomoric pranking from her disrespectful (but well-meaning) cherubs.
“It’s a sequel to the Pixar movie ‘Nemo,” we suggested, provoking my mother’s ‘go to,’ DEFCON ONE retaliation: “When my mother was alive, I would have never treated her like this. But, she’s dead now …”
Do bagels, eaten in time, induce Jewish guilt?
The crown jewel, however, is the nativity tableau. The creche. Purchased by my grandmother in 1937 at some five-and-dime store for $10. According to lore, my grandfather was furious.
The Great Depression was on. And my grandmother was a legendary spendthrift, no matter good times or bad.
Seventy-seven years later, the goat in the barn has only one horn. The paint on Gaspar’s beard is badly worn. But, this year, as in every year, a light glows from inside the stable. On Christmas Eve, when all the lights are out save for this light, the scene transfixes me, just as it did when I was a child. I smell the hay. I hear the thud and rustle of farm animals.
I hear the cries of a woman in travail.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.