My mother needs no one’s gifts. She is an artist of every Christmas wish that as a poor child she was ever denied. Each year she adds to her already colossal inventory of holiday decorations, enough decorations to cover every inch of a house five times the size of hers.
I found her in the kitchen stuffing calamari with her fingers. From the number of active pots and pans I could tell she was cooking to serve the twenty or twenty-five people who stopped joining us for Christmas Eve the year she and my father divorced.
“Merry Christmas, Son!” she yelled, brandishing one of the unlucky squid.
“Hi, Mom. Calamari, huh.”
“It’s traditional. You have to have the seven fishes.”
“Because it’s Christmas Eve and we’re Italian.”
In the old neighborhood she probably heard reasonable and partially informed explanations of these traditions hundreds of times, but figuring people who knew about them would always be around to remind her what they meant, she never bothered to commit whole stories to memory. But even her fragments fall to dust as my mother roams mall Christmas shops, seeking material to replace the holiday immaterial that was all and essential enough not to
stay with her in her time of need.
“Sit down, Son. You want coffee?”
Before I could answer, the cup of coffee, creamer, and sugar bowl appeared in front of me. I poured the cream, stirred in a teaspoon of sugar, and was about to take a sip when she asked like an eager child, “Do you want to see the decorations?”
“I see them, Mom. You did a great job.”
“You’re sitting in the dark. You can’t see anything in there. Let me show you the whole house.”
She led me first to the mechanical Santa dolls in the front window: one lying in bed, snoring, and the other sitting on a chair, soaking his bare feet in a tub of water, moaning, “Oh, my feet. Oh, my aching feet.” She had surrounded these exhausted Santas with syncopated multicolored flashers and dashing reindeer pulling empty sleighs.
“The duality of Santa,” I said.
Mom looked over her work and asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well, look at it. It’s strange, don’t you think? All this Christmas activity, the lights and the reindeer, and look at the two Santas, they’re wiped out. It’s like you’re trying to say something about the nature of Christmas.”
“Eh,” she said, waving her hand in dismissal. “You’re always reading too much into things.”
“Well, Mom, then what does it mean to you?”
She regarded the scene again. “It means I got a good buy on the two Santas, and without the lights you can’t see them in the window.”
“And that’s it?”
“And the kids love it. They always come to look. In fact, I’d rather show them than you. You can see the rest for yourself, and if you see something you like, take it home. I have to go chop up the octopus.”
Not too many people in suburbia eat octopus, but plenty of them do create elaborate holiday window displays. In fact, while some of Mom’s decorations–the snowing mistletoe, the singing miniature Christmas trees, the computerized wooden soldier chime orchestra–are unique, many others–the magnetic skating pond with holiday soundtrack, the backlit scene of Santa and Mrs. Claus cooking dinner, and even the motorized crèche–I have seen before in the living rooms, bay windows, and lawn displays of other suburban households. And while I can begin to venture a guess at my mother’s motivation, I’ve always wondered why other people make such a big production of the holidays.
To my mother the reason is compensation and the living out of a third-generation American fantasy. To my neighbor Walter it’s something else. This year Walter mowed the words “SEASON’S GREETINGS” into his miraculously evergreen lawn. “I think you missed some of the “G”,” I told him, one morning after he had woken me up at eight a.m. to put on the finishing touches. “but otherwise it looks o.k.”
“It’s my contribution to the neighborhood.”
Your one and only, I thought.
“It’s my way of saying thank you,” he added.
For putting up with a schmuck like him the rest of the year.
“It’s my way of saying “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Chanukah!”
Walter’s roaring lawnmower and handiwork were still on my mind when I banged my head on my mother’s indoor holiday wind chimes.
“Mom,” I said with anger, rubbing my forehead, “what good are these without wind?”
“Sometimes there’s a breeze,” she answered, returning to her octopi.
The sound of the wind chimes hitting my head was just as annoying to me as the sound of Walter’s lawnmower, and similar to the sound of the wind chimes other neighbors, the O’Neals, had strung above their threshold.
“What do wind chimes have to do with holidays?”, I asked Mr. O’Neal.
“Well, they’re, ah, festive,” he answered, reaching up a finger to sound the chime. “And that’s not all. They also deter criminals. Criminals hate noise, so I went out and got the loudest chimes I could find. This model right here,” he said, sounding the chime again, “should scare the pants right off any self-respecting prowler.”
Many have been the nights I’ve lain awake unable to sleep for the sound of Mr. O’Neal’s chimes, furious but secure in the knowledge that he and his family were safe inside their din. What about Mrs. Schenk, the old lady in the house next door?
“Mrs. Schenk,” I asked, “what do you do for the holidays?”
“Young man, that’s an excellent question. No one’s ever asked me that before. Years ago, I liked to dress the late Mr. Schenk up in a Santa Claus outfit and sit on his lap, so he could grant my wish.”
“But now that he’s gone, God rest his soul, I dress my cats up like Santa’s elves, and Idress up like Mrs. Claus, and on Christmas Eve we pretend he’s out delivering presents to all the good little boys and girls. It would be better if he came home in the morning, of course, but by then we’re all asleep.”
I felt sorry for this woman who, as I had recently discovered, liked to stare from her window at me in my underwear. Any sense of pity left me, however, when she said with a wicked eye and tone, “Young man, maybe next year you can be my Santa.”
I could never be Santa, I thought, studying the ornaments on Mom’s tree. One ornament was a bisected ball housing a scene of elves who seemed to be goosing a gaggle of sugar plum fairies. So being an elf might suit me fine. I resolved then and there that in my next life if I were to come back shorter, every holiday season I would don the gay apparel of an elf and do my best to drive overzealous revelers berserk. Cassio, the mailman, himself elfin, echoed my sentiments.
“Man, you can keep the holidays!” he said, coming up the walk to hand me my December 23rd mail.
“What’s the problem, Cassio? What’s up?”
“Man, these holiday packages are killing me, man. Tell me something. Why do people gotta send these baskets of cheese and salami and shit? I mean, what are you gonna do with a basket of salami?”
“No, me neither, man. I don’t like salami. Or cheese neither. Gives me heartburn. So you probably got all these people out here running around with heartburn, looking for gifts at the last minute, ’cause they feel guilty that people they thought wouldn’t send them nothin’ sent them this stuff that gave them the heartburn in the first place. My wife’s home with heartburn right now.I’m telling you, man.”
He shook his head slowly.
“And so all these people get in a pissy mood, and they don’t give me no tip…And I don’t even want to bring this stuff. It’s really UPS should do this, anyway, but people these days are too cheap, so they send these little tiny packages of little tiny salamis that fit in my bag. It’s messed up, man, it’s really messed up.”
“So what do you do for the holidays?”
“Me? You know, I do like everybody else, ‘cept I don’t order no cheese or nothin’ like that. For me it’s like a family thing. My wife and my kids. You know, we stay home, we eat, we ask each other what we want from Santa, we go to church. You know.”
“Sounds nice,” I said, meaning it.
“You know,” he continued, “we have the family over, too. My wife, she has a big family…with big mouths. I can take about two hours, and then I have to go upstairs and turn on sports radio or something. A lot of the times, you know, I tell them I gotta go out to the yard and finish decorating, so now they think I really like to decorate, so they keep bringing over more and more decorations for the yard every time they come. And you seen my yard. It’s like real small and right next to the railroad tracks, so how much can I decorate? And the only people who see are the people on the train. And the front yard’s like real tiny, too, so now I gotta find places to put all this stuff they bring, so they don’t get pissed off. So I string it up. It’s not even Christmas yet, and I already got deers and sleds and shit flying over my yard on speaker wire, crisscrossing and what not, crashing into each other. It’s a bad scene, man.”
“Yeah, it’s like leave me alone already. Maybe next year I’ll pretend like I have a bad flu, and kill two birds with one stone. Get out of work and the holidays in one shot. Or maybe I’ll take the wife to Florida.”
Maybe it’s the cold, I thought, that drives everyone crazy. Would my mother be willing to staple gold garland to all the molding in her house if it were 85 degrees with 90 percent humidity? What would that be like? 85 degrees at Christmas.
“85 degrees is very hot,” said Popaloukanopoulos, the local diner owner. “Where I come from, Ithaca, is not so hot this time of the year. But still, is warm, much warmer than this.”
“So, what does everyone do for the holidays?”
“The same as you do here. We kiss each other on the face, we dance a little bit, we eat like pigs.”
“Do people do a lot of shopping?”
“Of course. To eat you got to shop.”
“I mean, do they buy a lot of things they don’t need?”
“Of course. The holidays you buy everything you don’t need. You buy extra cheese, extra salami, extra bread, and you buy American toys for the kids. Then, for the big dinner, you kill lambs.”
“Because of the Lamb of God?”
“What? Lamb of God? Maybe that also. But we kill lambs, because without them what Greek food will you have?”
“Do people in Greece decorate their houses?”
“No. With anything. With holiday decorations.”
Popaloukanopoulos scratched his neck and creased his forehead.
“Sometime somebody put up a cross on the lawn, but he don’t burn it like I see here on the news.”
“But not a lot of decorations.”
“No. No. I say no. Not much.”
“I think here people do it, because if they didn’t, everybody would forget about it and stick to business and just go through with another miserable year.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. In my country, though, we have a way to tell everybody is a happy time.”
“Like I say, we kiss more, we sing, we dance. But the night before Christmas, while the women cook, the men take the biggest guns they can find and shoot them in the sky.”
As I fingered the Angel-shaped pine-scented air freshener destined for Mom’s artificial tree, I began to think that’s just what we needed here in suburbia, a way to raise our voices to the heavens without the help of plastic, computer chips, or artificial flavors. A gun wasn’t exactly a voice, of course, but elemental enough to get the job done. To touch in our imaginations the
“But the answer lies not in the stars,” remarked Arnold, my friend and spiritual guru, when, on my holiday visit to his coffee shop, I proposed the gun idea. “The answer lies, again, in here,” he added, patting my chest with an open palm.
“Arnold, did you decorate for the holidays?”
“It’s funny, strange you should ask,” he went on, fingering the shark’s teeth on his broad-brimmed hat. “Usually, I just meditate more this time of year. I try to summon up a holiday loka, a little psychic atmosphere. But this year, I hung a set of prints from the Kamasutra. It dawned on me that this time of year people should spend time contemplating th procreative act. It’s especially important now to keep the joys of life in the front,” he said, massaging his frontal lobes, “of our minds. Besides that, it’s the cold season, the best time to get laid.”
My sister had probably been out getting laid right before I arrived at my mother’s. She walked in, hugged me, and removing her coat as she went, walked right into the den and settled down in front of her favorite daytime talk show. I followed her in and sat down on the couch next to her, from which vantage I watched her be gripped by the story of a young man who had hacked off part of his own foot, to free himself from a fallen beam inside his burning house, to hop or crawl to his bedroom where he thought he would find fast asleep his unconscious wife who instead had actually set the fire herself, to get rid of her husband, collect insurance, and run off with a clerk from the local WalMart with whom the husband eventually found her having sex in a car parked, kinkily enough, in front of the burning house.
When I could no longer stand to watch the wretch reliving his fiasco, I asked, “So, Delores, how’s Mom doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how is she?”
Delores raised the volume of the television by remote control and said peevishly, “She’s fine. Don’t you have to go inside and read a book?”
“Well, what’s she up to? Is she keeping herself busy?”
Delores laughed at an especially egregious detail of the footless man’s misfortune, then said without missing a beat, “You know Mom. She’s always busy.”
She laughed again.
“So nothing’s new?”
Delores stared at the screen for a few seconds, and then, as if roused from a deep sleep, turned to me suddenly, slapped my knee and said, “Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you. Mom’s going into business.”
To that point, my mother had been receiving a hefty alimony, which she supplemented by working for the local school district.
“Wow. Really? Good for Mom,” I said. “What’s she gonna do?”
“She’s gonna shop. She’s gonna shop for other people. Like a service. She takes an ad in the paper, signs a contract with a customer, they tell her who they’re buying for, give her cash, and then she goes and gets what she thinks is right. Most people like what Mommy gets them.
You and me are the only ones who don’t.”
Genius, I thought.
“That’s sick,” I said. “Did you encourage her?”
“Hells, yeah. I thought it was a great idea. A lot of people hate Christmas shopping. People like you, probably. Mom loves it, so she gets to do all this extra shopping without spending any extra money. She’s even gonna make money. It’s something.”
“Delores, did you ever think that Mom’s a little compulsive about shopping?”
“Maybe, but lots of people like to shop.”
“But it’s like a hobby for Mom, and that’s no good.”
“Look at it this way,” Delores reasoned, taking a long drag. “If she shops for other people, she has less time to shop for herself and spend her own money.”
“Delores, believe me, the more she has, the more she’ll spend. She needs something else in her life, especially around the holidays. She doesn’t need any more talking reindeer to hang
from the ceiling.”
“No, you’re right,” my sister conceded. “She needs a man. But think about it. She’s not gonna go out dancing. The men around here are morons. So maybe she’ll meet a nice guy at the Price Club or on line. And maybe next year there’ll be somebody around to eat all her calamari.”
George Guida is the author of eight books, including The Pope Stories and Other Tales of Troubled Times (Bordighera Press, 2012) and five collections of poems including the forthcoming Zen of Pop (Long Sky Media, 2020) and the revised edition of New York and Other Lovers (Encircle Publications, 2020). His writing appears in Aethlon, Alimentum, Barrow Street, Harpur Palate, Inkwell, J Journal, Literature and Gender, the Maine Review, Mudfish, Poetry Daily, the Tishman Review, Verse Daily and other journals and anthologies. He teaches literature and writing at New York City College of Technology, and co-edits 2 Bridges Review. “Yuletide” is adapted from his forthcoming novel, Posts from Suburbia.