When I was four, I formed two distinct memories of events that happened at Christmastime.
The first was when my mom, newly single, took my older brother and me to see Santa Claus. We didn’t believe in him, but we knew going to see him meant getting a free toy and a candy cane. It was worth sitting on some weirdo’s lap for that.
As my brother sat there, Santa asked him if he’d rather have a watch or a race car. My brother said, “A watch!” And he was handed one. I was getting excited for my turn.
I sat on Santa’s lap and rattled off the things I wanted. I ended by saying, “That’s about it. Can I have a watch, too?” He said, “Oh, no, we gave that boy before you the last one. Here’s a car, though.”
As we walked to my mom’s car, a Ford Pinto that I was hoping would explode on the way home, I started bawling. My mom tried to calm me down and then said, “You’re being a big baby!” My brother, in one of the few times he’d ever been nice to me, said, “I think the car is cool. Look...”
He started moving it up and down the seats, making engine sounds with his mouth. I tried to say through my sobs, “If you like it so much, let’s trade.”
A few days later, as we were sitting around the fireplace drinking hot chocolate, our doorbell rang.
My mom opened the door and we saw Christmas carolers. I had no clue what was going on and not necessarily because we were a Jewish family. My mom had a Christmas tree just so we wouldn’t feel “different” from the other kids.
As I peered around my mom’s knees, I saw people singing. They weren’t selling anything or preaching religion. Just singing Christmas songs.
After two songs, they left.
I hadn’t seen or thought about carolers since.
And then someone called and invited me to a caroling party in the P.B./La Jolla area the week before Christmas.
I felt at home when I walked into Teresa’s house and she had a Christmas tree, decorations, and a menorah. As I soaked in the festive atmosphere, two big dogs made their way toward me. The Australian shepherds were roaming the party waiting for people to drop food.
Most of the people were dressed in holiday attire. I saw a woman wearing mistletoe on her Santa hat. A few guys glanced at her, and I wondered if anyone would drink enough to go up and plant one on her.
I heard a woman tell her son that she’d found the dessert table. “You have to eat real food first, though,” she told him.
Ah, the joys of being an adult, I thought as I scarfed down two chocolate chip cookies.
I talked briefly to Teresa, who told me about her two dogs, one of which she’d rescued four weeks earlier. She told me that she’s “part Jewish” and about all the countries that she’s traveled to. She left to greet other arrivals and get the songbooks ready.
A guy named Dave said, “Her nickname is ‘Nonstop.’” He added that it’s better than the woman they nicknamed “Bedpost.” I asked him what his nickname was. “Dorkasaurus Rex,” he admitted. “But they call me ‘Dork’ for short. And, even that’s better than ‘Bedpost.’”
I wasn’t so sure.
I met an older lady, a neighbor of Teresa’s, who had interesting stories to share. She told me that her daughter ran the La Jolla Playhouse. She told me about a time she went to a party at Jane Russell’s house. I asked her about the bra that Howard Hughes designed for Russell. “Oh, I don’t think that she really wore that thing! It was all for publicity.” She also told me about how religious Russell had become.
Teresa told everyone to get ready to head out. Nobody seemed to want to leave. They had drinks in their hands and were having a great time.
A box of songbooks was put on the kitchen floor, and another box had reindeer antlers.
Outside, the group practiced a few songs on the driveway. Aside from a slight blunder during “Here Comes Santa Claus,” it sounded great.
As we approached the first house, a few kids ran up to ring the doorbell. As the door opened, someone in the crowd yelled, “Please don’t call the cops!”
The song went off without a hitch. As we finished, I heard someone say, “Thank you for not shutting the door on us.”
At a few houses, the doors never opened. We occasionally noticed eyes peering out through closed curtains. I leaned over to the person next to me and said, “I think they’re Jews. We should move on.” Someone heard this and said, “Hey, we should have a Jewish song, just in case we need it.”
I noticed one guy had gloves. I said, “This is San Diego, not Chicago.” He said they helped him hold the songbook. He then asked why I wasn’t singing, and I told him I can’t. Another woman said, “I can’t sing either. Hell, I even hum off-key.”
A few people were walking dogs with the group. When Teresa said we’d be doing song number two in the book, a woman said, “I think the dog is taking a number two on that lawn.”
By the fifth house, a few in the group were getting mad that the singing would start before everyone in the group was there. I glanced around and noticed that there were at least 40 people.
As the door opened, the homeowner’s dog started barking at one of the dogs in our group. They quieted down once the singing started.
A few people really seemed to enjoy watching the carolers, and some even took pictures. Others stood there looking uncomfortable, such as when they sing “Happy Birthday” to you at Applebee’s.
During a walk around the corner of one street to another, the song picked out was “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” One guy objected, saying that it always gets messed up. I asked him what the deal was, and he said, “I just know from years past that it never sounds good. People forgot how to sing it, even with the words in front of them.”
He was right. It wasn’t one of the better numbers.
One family stood smiling at their door. And when the song was finished, one of their kids said, “I wanna go with them!” and ran out toward the group.
I met a woman who had the last name “Claus.” I asked her if when she was a kid she told people she was related to Santa. “No, but I didn’t like the name. If kids didn’t get the presents they wanted from Santa, they’d beat me up.”
When it got too cold for me, I headed back to my car, thinking what a great idea that was for a party. It put everyone in the Christmas spirit, even neighbors who wouldn’t normally speak to each other.