Maybe I never wanted to be a dentist, but it sure as hell felt as if I was shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys.
I was about seven before I fully realized that Santa Claus wasn’t the focal point of Christmas. I mean, sure, I’d heard about the manger, about the inn being full, and the pregnant Virgin sleeping in the straw, surrounded by donkeys. But Santa’s PR people did such a superior job of marketing their guy. They had Ol’ Jelly Belly placed on every street corner, in every mall, in theaters, and on most network TV shows.
It took — what else? — television to teach me what the “Christ” in “Christmas” stood for.
A Charlie Brown Christmas didn’t have a Santa. What it had was a terminally depressed bald boy named after the ugliest crayon in the box, an egotistical eight-year-old psychiatrist, a droopy little tree that toppled under the weight of a single ornament…and a stirring speech by an erudite thumbsucker named Linus. When he put down his security blanket and gave that solemn sermon about the inspirational life of one great man — not the one who plays with elves but the other guy — I was as moved as I can recall ever being, in front of or away from a television screen.
It wasn’t always Christmas-themed shows that left the most indelible impressions. When I was eight or so, they were showing War of the Worlds on Christmas Eve. Being a total book nerd, I loved the H.G. Wells novel, plus I had the Mercury Theater radio show on LP, but I’d never seen the movie. I was riveted to the screen as ambulatory alien eyeballs probed the debris of a ruined building, looking for more humans to fry. As I watched, spellbound, I was holding an apple in one hand and, for some reason, I’d been able to get my other hand on a large, well-sharpened knife, which I intended to use to peel off the skin.
This endeavor, however, requires one to pay attention to where the apple stops and the hand starts.
I was so busy staring at the TV that I didn’t notice how deeply I’d cut myself until after Gene Barry had safely circumvented all the mechanical tentacles. I’d had stitches before (several times), so I didn’t mind spending Christmas Eve in the ER, getting my palm sewed up. I was bitterly bummed about missing the end of the movie, though. This being years before video, it was quite a while before I finally saw the whole thing.
Aliens on tripods still remind me of candy canes and blood. I bet a shrink would find that delightful.
The Christmas I remember best is 1969, when I was nine. Mainly because it was my family’s most archived holiday ever. The old Brownie camera was constantly popping off flashbulbs. My grandmother and my uncle being there with us made it the closest thing we ever had to a big family holiday gathering.
The theme that year was definitely “The Space Age,” as documented, celebrated, and aggrandized on the family television almost every day. Americans had recently landed on the moon, and I’d been there too, thanks to TV. That’s where I first heard of the Kennedy Space Center, and there, under the tree, was a tin-toy version of the Center, spilling out of its brightly wrapped (and, later, quite valuable) packaging. Swinging gates, barracks, rocket launch pads that fired off plastic spaceships with a rubber-band switch — coolness!
One of my stocking stuffers was a really cheap fake beard and mustache. My Uncle Lyman said I looked like Groucho Marx, and this confused me to no end. Groucho had a painted-on mustache and big eyebrows, not a full furry beard. I thought I looked more like Burl Ives, and I ended up singing a version of “Silver and Gold” (learned from a holiday TV show, ’natch) that no doubt perplexed everyone. What kind of nine-year-old does Burl Ives impressions, anyway?
There were a few more memorable Christmases with my family, but then I was off to California, on my own, 3000 miles away, when the holidays rolled around each year. The magic I’d once felt ceased to feel very magical.
Over the ensuing years, only once did I recapture (a bit of) that elusive holiday head rush. In 1990, my longtime lover Heather and I had our 13-year-old goddaughter Christie staying with us. I’ve never had children. So, it was a thrill for me to enjoy the holidays alongside someone young.
I haven’t felt anything akin to that since. But I suppose there’s always next year. If magic’s gonna happen, it’s probably gonna happen at Christmas.
I wonder how Rudolph’s shiny red nose would look on a new big-screen, high-def TV...
— Jay Allen Sanford
SANTA LOOKS STONED
Carolyn Grace Matteo claims to live by the wisdom a dying uncle passed on to her long ago: “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” Based on the sketch for her first holiday window of the season, I’d say she’s heeding her uncle’s advice. The sketchbook, which sits open on the bench where she is standing to paint the upper regions of the window, reveals a penciled version of a comical holiday beach scene. A fat Santa with a bare-naked beer belly sits in a beach chair watching reindeer surf in the ocean. Nearby, elves sled on snow they’ve made with a snow-maker. A sign in front of Santa’s thatched-roof hut reads: Help Wanted. Gift Wrappers Needed. Elves on Vacation.
Matteo tells me, “I was thinking of maybe adding a table here with Jesus, Krishna, a Buddha, Mohammad, and all these different religious figures wrapping gifts together. I’m still not sure, though. It’s a work in progress.”
Matteo’s design will spread across all six panes (about two square feet each) of the Moonglow Design storefront window on La Jolla Boulevard. After six hours, she’s still working on the background, which includes the blue water, a pink and orange sky, a palm tree, a hill of white snow, and lots of yellowy sand.