Story Time With Hank | A Very Cloying Christmas
When I was a kid, I was a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer man. I watched—and loved—all the schmaltzy Christmas specials—your Charlie Browns, your Garfields, your Frosty the Snowmans—hell, I watched Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey once, and didn’t even kill myself after—but Rudolph was my favorite. I bet there’s an Angelfire website that would tell me what that says about me as a person.
I used to watch them with my mom. For a couple of weeks leading up to Christmas, I’d be on the couch and ready to go whenever they started airing holiday fare for the evening. My mom would watch from the kitchen at first while she prepared whatever awful, gray dinner we’d be enduring in a couple hours’ time, but when she got whatever it was into the oven to die, she’d settle in next to me and we’d watch together until the buzzer went off.
Rudolph was her favorite, too, I think. Is there anyone whose favorite isn’t Rudolph, though? It has all the iconic characters you look for in a Christmas special—Santa and the missus, the reindeer and the elves, etc.— plus a dentist, an abominable snowman, a hyper-virile mountaineer. and an island colony of leper toys with a flying lion king. And a smoking hot lady reindeer. Everything that matters.
It’s been years since I’ve watched it, though. I’m not sure why—I can see the DVD, still wrapped in the plastic it came home in when it was impulse-purchased in 2008, from where I’m sitting. And it’s not just Rudolph, either. It’s all the old specials. Twas the Night Before Christmas, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps growing up is not knowing what channel ABC Family is.
* * *
Anyway, I’m a grown man. These days, I like to spend the evenings leading up to Christmas dressed as Batman, peering through windows at happy families trimming their trees, one palm pressed plaintively against the pane. I wait there, in that pose, for hours, waiting to be seen and at least appreciated or maybe invited in for hot cider or something, but I play the role too well—no one ever sees Batman—so eventually, exhausted, with work in the morning, I break character and tap on the glass, but a man dressed as Batman tapping on your window is very different from a man dressed as Batman dreaming bittersweet dreams of the many happy Christmases Joe Chill denied him, and I’m never invited in, I’m always reported to the police. I run home though the shadows and fall asleep in my cape.
That’s what I like to do, but this year I find myself living on the incorrect side of the tracks, where costumed crime-fighters are less well-loved even than creepy peeper types and the populace is largely packing. I may well be the hero this city needs, but I’m not the hero it wants and I try to respect that.
So I went to the bar instead.
* * *
When I opened the door, it rang with the cries of a hundred little, golden bells. The fifteen tables were dressed in cloth of red and green plaid and encumbered with candle-bearing centerpieces made of pine cones that showed, to the observant eye, some evidence of having been dipped in vats of glue and glitter once, decades ago. Arcs of silver tinsel were suspended from the ceiling, and the walls were hung with wreaths at regular intervals, like portholes on a ship sinking peacefully beneath dark, green waters. Amongst the crew, however, spirits remained high.
Donald, the proprietor, rose from his seat at a table near the bar and wished me a merry Christmas with a slap on the back and a flowery lei that I assume he found at the back of whatever closet he dug the other decorations out of. He ladled me a mug of eggnog, ground some nutmeg on the top and pushed me into an empty chair. Also at the table, also be-lei-ed, were Donald’s wife Jules and a couple of regulars, Charlie, who has appeared before in this column (short, white-haired, old Nam vet), and his partner Wayne. And a plate of Christmas baked goods challenging pine cones and candle for primacy of position.
I shook some hands, said some merry Christmases (and a belated happy Hanukkah for Wayne), munched on some kind of wonderful pecan thing, and settled back into my seat.
* * *
An hour later, we were all fat with eggnog and the nostalgia that often seeps into a body above a certain age this time of year. It was like the first third of the second act of A Christmas Carol, times four (Jules, in her cups, abstained).
Donald’s dad used to make a bourbon-rich eggnog not at all unlike what filled our bellies, and everyone, kids especially, would have a mug. With a fire flickering on the hearth and Christmas records softly crooning, the little ones would be passed out cold by seven-thirty; mom and dad would do their Santa-ly chores and be in bed themselves at a perfectly reasonable hour.
Wayne’s older brother came home from school inconsolable: Every house would be visited by Santa but theirs, because Santa was an anti-semite. Talk of menorahs and dreidels and eight days versus one did nothing to salve the hurt, and his parents, after a day and night of steady weeping, ultimately agreed to write a letter to the North Pole, to smooth out whatever differences existed between themselves and Santa, let bygones be bygones, and welcome him into their home for one night every year—with cookies and stockings and whatever it took to make him comfortable—if David would please just shut up already.
You’ve already read what I said, roughly, and I won’t make you do it again.
Charlie went last.
“We used to go to my grandparents’ place on Christmas Eve,” he said. “It was a couple hours drive. But we’d get there and my brothers and I would race to the porch, tripping and tackling each other all the way, and we’d stumble up the steps and push in through the front door.”
“My grandmother loved her some goddamn Christmas. She loved Christmas the way James Joyce loved farts. Opening that door was like opening an oven, but in stead of heat hitting you square in the face, it was Christmas that did it.”
“I asked her one time when I was little where she kept it, all the decorations and whatnot, for the rest of the year. And she said she didn’t keep it anywhere, not exactly. She said she had a secret door, a magic door, hidden in the house and when you opened it, it was the North Pole on the other side. So when the time was right, when December rolled around or whatever—maybe she was a day after Thanksgiving gal, I don’t know—she’d open that door and a whole squad of elves and a reindeer or two for heavy lifting would march though it and decorate her house and leave. And on Christmas Eve, Santa would come through the same way.”
“Well, we spent hours—me and my brothers and cousins—looking for that damned door. My grandparents’ house, it was—from the front it didn’t look like much. Just your standard ranch house. But it was built on a hill, or several hills, and it stretched back a ways so it was bigger than you’d think, with odd twists and turns and little stairways always cropping up where you least expected them. It was the kind of house where you never ended up where you thought you should be when you thought you should be there.”
“So we looked and looked, knocking and prying and whatever else we could think to do, but we never found the door. It would get dark and we’d go sing Christmas carols in the parlor with our folks while Gramps played piano. Then off to bed.
“But I always lay awake as long as I could, listening for that door to open.”
* * *
The DVD of Rudolph, hermetically sealed against the wasting powers of time, is staring at me awfully hard just now from its place on the shelf. It probably won’t hold up as well as I remember, but I believe I’ll open it and take my chances.
Hank Henry is no longer welcome at the local reindeer reserve. Send your sympathies to [email protected]