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“What does he do, this man you seek?…He covets…And how do we begin to covet, Clarice?…We begin by coveting what we see every day.”

— Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs

Ol’ Doc Fava Beans had it right, I’m afraid. At least twice a week, I drive by Dieter Fischer’s Star Car Service, Inc. (formerly Dieter Fischer’s Mercedes Service, Inc., but then I suppose one can’t afford to specialize in a down economy), which is situated at the corner of Glen Street and La Mesa Boulevard in lovely La Mesa, the Jewel of the Hills. Granted, there are more direct routes to the highway from my home in the renovated bomb shelter behind Mt. Helix’s famed Grindle House, but I prefer the scenic route. (Don’t bother trying to find it with Google maps or any such thing. It’s not that kind of famous. I can tell you this much: It was built in 1964 for its original and current owner, Mavis Grindle, who believes firmly that living on a street with a name other than your own and a number on your house “as if it were part of some God-awful queue” is a sign of surrender to the forces of social degradation. Grindle, of course, fled to her East County mountain aerie from La Jolla Heights after they started allowing Jews to buy houses there. “They’ll never venture east of the 125, dear, of that I’m certain,” the grand old bird has said to me on more than one occasion. “Forty years of wandering in the desert has taught them to stay close to the water.” But that’s another story.)

Getting back to my drive, which, I suppose you must be told, is conducted in a 1997 Cypress Green Pearl Honda Civic LX. The car was a gift from a grateful paparazzo whom I was kind enough not to expose for hiding out in the closet of a certain local booster’s Mission Valley pied-à-terre during a most boisterous assignation over the 1998 Super Bowl weekend, an event involving several members of one team’s cheerleading squad. (He didn’t really need the Honda anyway; the photos he anonymously sold to the booster after the fact bought him a brand-new BMW.)

Anyway, the drive. I wouldn’t have passed that way at all, except that as I turned off of Lemon onto Jackson on that fateful day in June, it suddenly occurred to me that the effects of last night’s explorations into the mysteries of Mrs. Grindle’s Scotch collection (the poor old thing never touches a drop; it’s all sherry and Chartreuse for her these days, and I’m not about to see Macallan 28-year get pinched in a grubby estate sale five years hence) might be mitigated or even erased by the happy combination of a beer and a burger at Johnny B’s. And it was in this hungry, thirsty, and generally shopworn but optimistic condition that I spotted the silver-blue 1982 Mercedes 380SL roadster with the For Sale sign on the windshield in the northwest corner of Dieter Fischer’s service lot. In an instant it became, and remains, what I want for Christmas this year. I had to have it.

A word of explanation: the ’80s were, of course, a brutal decade. Few aesthetic endeavors, from film to music to automotive design, emerged unscathed. Mercedes, alas, was no exception. That august company’s sedans and coupes of today are not quite so hideous as the rectangular-headlight yawners they were producing in, say, 1988, but they are still nothing compared to the distinctive swell and curve of their late-’70s/early-’80s heyday. Here was a car that would mark me as not simply on Mount Helix, but of it — a car that would have been one of Dorothy Rodgers’s favorite things if she had ever stepped outside. And when you make your living reporting on the news you won’t hear anywhere else, that’s the kind of marker that matters. Let me put it another way: it’s one thing to know about the floating-island poker party and skeet shoot off of Coronado that serves as the fortnightly planning session between San Diego’s city and military officials. It’s another thing to be allowed onto the pier from which the island launches. And if I’ve learned anything in my days on this beat, it’s that a little old-school glamour goes a long way toward convincing some of these old-money boys that you’re one of them. It’s the handshake before the handshake, if you will.

Of course, there are a few things that need to happen before I can ease myself behind the oversized wheel and run my fingers over the burled walnut dash in a gesture indicating both pride of ownership and raw visceral pleasure. First, China needs to stop messing around with its currency to keep it weak against the dollar, a practice that plays hell with our trade deficit and, in a series of steps that I’d rather not explain, actually makes it even harder to afford imported German car parts, which I will almost certainly need plenty of after purchasing a nearly 30-year-old vehicle.

Second, I’d feel a lot more comfortable buying the roadster — as opposed to the rather less exciting diesel sedan sitting next to it that could, if absolutely necessary, be made to burn biofuel made from domestically grown corn — if Israel hadn’t up and decided to give the already unstable situation in the Middle East a big fat shove in the back with the plan to build over 2000 homes in contested areas. What’s that got to do with the price of oil, indeed.

And finally, I know it’s selfish to wish that India would ease up on its explosive economic growth and subsequent creation of a middle class, which in turn gives rise to a huge spike in the demand for middle-class amenities like newspapers, which in turn sends the price of newsprint through the roof, which in turn ups production costs on American newspapers like this one right here, which in turn leads to a sudden and prolonged freeze on Christmas bonuses, the kind that might allow one to drop $12K on a vintage automobile without having to move out of Mrs. Grindle’s bomb shelter, but there it is. The heart wants what it wants; Santa’s got his work cut out for him. Merry Christmas!

— Walter Mencken


Dressed in khaki shorts, a black jacket, and a tan baseball hat, Tammy Batson stands at the edge of the Polar Rim. To Batson’s right, two arctic foxes, one white and the other light brown, scamper back and forth on an upended tree. To Batson’s left, a large raccoon slumbers in a bed of leaves. Thirty feet away, Kalluk (the Athlete), a 950-pound polar bear, is perched on a rock above the Polar Plunge, looking down in Batson’s direction.

As she blocks the sun from her eyes with one hand, Batson shakes a large ring of keys with the other.

She then calls out, “Boris.”

A noise comes from atop the rocky plateau. It sounds like a combination between a dying air horn and a quack from an arctic duck.

“Boris,” she yells before rattling the keys again.

Boris, a two-month-old reindeer, peeks down at Batson. He turns and starts to walk down the rocky mesa, toward the front of the Siberian Reindeer exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. On his way, his black hooves make a clopping sound on the rocky substrate.

Halfway down, he passes his estranged mother and three other adult females. The females are four feet tall at the shoulders — all have antlers that resemble dry twisted tree branches.

As she waits for Boris, Batson informs me that Siberian reindeer are the only species of deer of which both males and females grow antlers.

Boris continues toward Batson’s voice.

“Does he usually respond to you like that?” I ask.

“Yeah, he’s pretty vocal,” says Batson, one of the 11 lead-keepers on the Mesa Polar Team. “He’s basically calling us so he can be fed.”

Boris stops at the front of the exhibit and gnaws on dried grass. He stands two and a half feet tall at the shoulders. His coat is dark brown, except for some light brown spots and a dark gray mane underneath his long snout. His hooves are broad and black. Two four-inch-long nubs sprout from the top of his head, where his antlers will be in a year’s time.

On December 25, Christmas Day, Boris will be given a present. It is on that day that he will become independent; zookeepers will wean him from his bottle and start feeding him solid food.

Batson opens the gate and approaches Boris. She walks up to him and pets him on his neck. He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t shy away. He doesn’t look as if he needs or wants independence.

Boris’s presence at the San Diego Zoo came as a surprise to the zoo’s curators and keepers.

In May 2010, after some older reindeer had died and only one female remained in the exhibit, zoo curators acquired three more female reindeer from a reindeer farm in New York. But what the curators didn’t know was that one of the female reindeer was pregnant. They didn’t expect it because reindeer mate in late fall and winter and give birth in late May to early June.

“One of them came in pregnant,” said Batson, as Boris still chewed on dried grass. “I can’t think of the last time we had a baby reindeer.”

But Boris’s first two and a half months of life haven’t been easy.

Born on September 18, in front of a crowd of spectators, he was normal sized for a calf, about 15 pounds and two and a half feet tall. But Boris looked weak and cold. Normally it takes a calf less than an hour before it builds enough strength to stand and go to its mother for milk. But after an hour, Boris remained on the ground. The keepers watched as he lay next to his mother, shivering from the cold, unable to stand, and unable to nurse.

“There was no way he was going to get up to eat,” recalls Batson. “He was getting cold from not moving. So, a decision had to be made.”

That decision was to take Boris inside, wrap him in a blanket, and give him a bottle of goat milk. Once he was fed, warm, and could stand, the keepers sent him back out to be with his mother.

“At that point we realized that his mother did not have that attachment. She didn’t come close to him, and she didn’t want to feed him.”

Since that day, zookeepers have hand-raised Boris, giving him three bottles full of goat milk every day. The other reindeers, including his mother, treat him as part of the herd. And now comes the next step: giving Boris his independence, and it just so happens that this comes on Christmas Day.

“We don’t hand-raise our animals because of the cute factor,” says Batson. “We do it because we have to save them.”

On December 25, three months and seven days old, Boris’s Christmas dinner — a plate full of lichens, alfalfa hay, and fresh vegetables — will be his first meal.

— Dorian Hargrove


There’s not a lot about my childhood I remember. The few souls close enough to me to feign an interest in my past accuse me of being evasive about growing up.

Not that I had a traumatizing family life. I just sort of rushed through my youth and came out of it without having paid much attention nor taken many notes. We moved too often for me to have long-term friends, my one sibling was five years older and treated me like a communicable virus, my dad was usually away or asleep, and I — a lonely kid obsessed with books, comics, cartoons, movie theaters, and TV — endeavored to immerse myself in any world other than the one I’d been born into.

I do remember Christmas, though.

Most of my Christmas memories revolve around what was on television at the time. Holiday programming was about the only thing that ever pulled my family together into one room. I’m guessing I was about six when I first saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I think I related to Hermie the Elf, the weird little guy who dreams of being different from all the other elves.

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


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.

“If you use a roller it’s a little faster, but for me, it loses some of the realism, so I like using a brush,” she says. “And the bigger the brush, the faster it goes. But I like the quality and the texture you get with a smaller brush.”

The whole thing will take probably 20 hours, and she’s charging a flat $200 for the work. When I ask if that’s standard, she says there is no standard when it comes to holiday window-painting. Not for her, anyway. She’ll work with anyone’s budget, private or commercial, from a $25 candy cane with a fancy Happy Holidays greeting scripted across it, to more complex murals like the one she’s painting now.

“I don’t like to charge by the hour, because I like to take my time.” She dips her paintbrush into one of those clear-plastic cups used to serve wine at gallery openings and outdoor concerts.

The cup holds a mixture of Ivory and School Bus Yellow, which she’s using to paint the beach sand in the bottom-right pane. Her forearm is dotted with little red marks, where she has been pricked by the bush beneath the window. Every few minutes, she stands up and paints in a higher pane in order to stretch the kinks she’s gotten from squatting.

Occasionally, she says, clients request specific scenes or elements for their windows, but some, like Moonglow owner Michael Glancy, leave all the particulars up to her. Matteo’s belief in the Law of Attraction makes her hesitant to discuss any less than positive aspects of holiday window-painting, but she eventually confesses that while there’s no job she won’t do, she prefers the ones that give her creative license to paint whatever she wants.

“I like it better when I’m able to create because I have a really good imagination,” she says. “If it’s a job that I don’t find so aesthetically pleasing, I’ll do it, but I just won’t have as much fun.”
The only request Glancy had for this window was that she make it fun. He did, however, approach Matteo as she worked on the beachy background to ask, “When does the Christmas come in?”

“I had to explain that this is just the background. I showed him the [sketch], and he loved it,” she says.

A cardboard box filled with two-ounce bottles of acrylic paints sits on a wooden table. A weathered umbrella has been pulled up to the window to provide Matteo with shade. Several bottles stand scattered across the table, their lids askew, or the middles squeezed in. Matteo goes with the flow, choosing colors in the moment, as she sees fit.

“I’m not a big planner,” she says. “It just kind of creates itself.”

After she’s happy with the sand, she squeezes Island Blue and Bahama Blue into another plastic cup, mixes them, and climbs back up on the bench to give the water in her painting another layer of color.

“I could use tempera paints, but I like acrylic better. It’s more durable,” she says. “Tempera paint comes off with soap and water. This one, you’re gonna have to use a straight edge to get off.”

Some clients, she says, do the cleanup themselves. Others want her to come back and do it for them. She will, she says, but that service is not included in the initial fee.

When she finishes the water, she’ll move onto the sky, whose bottom layer is a blend of Apricot, Vivid Violet, Orange, and Valentine Pink. After that, she swears she’ll get started on the Christmasy details.

“There will be lights on the palm tree and reindeer in the water,” she promises. “It will be fun.”

One last peek at her sketchbook tells me exactly what she means. Some of the characters have speech bubbles over their heads. One elf’s bubble reads, “Santa looks stoned.”

“I was drawing, and I thought, ‘Hmm…’ My Santa wasn’t the greatest Santa. He looked stoned,” she says. “That was kind of a joke to myself.”

— Elizabeth Salaam


For 15 years, University Avenue has been the center of my world. I’ve lived in apartments on her, I’ve drank at her bars, and bled at her gyms. I’ve done work at her cafés, tapping out articles on my laptop. My friends all live within a mile of her. In the spring, I drive her down near Harbor and split off toward Ocean Beach to soak my back in the sun. In the fall, I take her out to La Mesa for the Oktoberfest street fair to meet up with friends and eat bratwurst sandwiches, knocked back by Karl Strauss brews. University, to me, is San Diego.

This Christmas I am without a job. It’s the second I’ve lost in as many years. Last time I was unemployed, it seemed as if so was the rest of the world. In those dreary months, until I found another job, University became something darker, something sinister. At the liquor store where I bought little provisions, the parking lot swelled with the homeless, jobless, or shiftless, with their palms up and a sad story. Or worse: a clenched fist and menace. For the first time, I felt sincere when I had to say, “I’ve got nothing. Sorry.”

This morning, on the job hunt, I’m on University, and I hope she has something besides beggars for me. I’m driving to meet a friend about an opportunity. I tap the gas gauge in the dashboard of my pickup and check the radio that doesn’t work. The clock does: 5:03 a.m., and there’s a quarter of a tank left. My headlights flare down the pockmarked street, and my eyes search for the green umbrellas of the only coffee shop open at this dead time of morning. My headlights glance off the cracked walls of empty shops, reflect off the windows of closed-down offices; what used to be a clothes store here, a forgotten department store there. Real estate signs advertise For Lease on almost every building. The yellow beam of my headlamps blares across the crumpled blankets covering huddled lost souls camped out in abandoned doorways. And they shine on something else: a storefront with a decal that reads, “WORK TODAY! PAY TODAY!” In front of the window, there are laborers in toughened boots and sturdy denim jackets. The men crowd around, hours before the agency opens, just to secure a good spot in line. I park and shut my pickup down. In the coffee shop I see my friend who may have a place for me in his home business. He runs a trucking company from his house and has gotten busy in the past few months. He tells me about the business, and I try to talk, I try to be charming and open and willing to work, but the sight of rough men across the street, flipping the collars up on their work jackets to ward off a chilly breeze, and the white letters “WORK TODAY!” again and again catch my eye. It terrifies me and dries my throat when I speak.

What I glean from the conversation on how big trucks run around the country, from place to place, looking for freight and money is: “Right after Christmas starts the slow season. I needed somebody for the past couple months, but I’ll barely keep the company going now.”

“For how long [will it slow]?” I ask, and the answer punches me in the stomach.

“Until March.”

I’m back in my pickup and driving east on University, and the sun casts a haze-gray light on everything. It’s that time of morning where nothing has a shadow but everything is shaded, just before the pinks and oranges of daybreak. At the liquor stores and mini-marts, the groups are already out; a few hookers left over from last night’s cavorting and a few early-morning beggars mill about in the parking lots, holding palms out to the cars of workers on their way to a new day.

In my apartment I turn on the radio. I sold the TV awhile back. A reporter on a news station talks with a woman who gave up on her chances of finding work. She pocketed her pride, wrote her shame on a sign, and now stands next to a road, probably one very similar to University Avenue, only it’s some boulevard in Las Vegas.

Wind pops the microphone of the reporter as she asks the woman, “Why are you out here?”

“Because she damn well has to be!” I shout at the radio. “What a stupid question.”

I spend the day typing out résumés and sending them off. When it’s too late to look for work, I sleep. I get up in the morning, and I need soap for my dishes and some milk.

Just up University is my grocery store, the cheapest in town, or, at least the one with the best coupon deals. Just inside the door is an inflated Santa and the smell of cinnamon brooms and pastries. Christmas music rains down from the speakers and dances along the bright clean tile and colorful packages of food on the shelves.

Looking for my brand of cheap soap, and scanning my coupons for expiration dates, I think of where I am, not just in life, this miserable nadir, but where I am in this city, the city I love, the city I emigrated to at 19, and I think that I’m close to University Avenue and hope that her grace falls upon me. I think of the men lined up for a day of work and a day of pay just down the road, a week before Christmas. I think of my work boots and denim jacket at home in my closet. Maybe tomorrow I will line up with them. And I think of the day. It’s haze-gray now, but there will be the pinks and oranges of daybreak soon.

— Ollie


Why doesn’t this Christmas feel like Christmas? I keep asking myself that question, but I haven’t been able to produce a single solid answer. What I mean is, there isn’t one answer. There are a bunch. How solid they are I’ll let you decide.

Let’s start with weather. It was cloudy and cool most of the summer, and it’s been warmer than usual most of the fall. Last year, we started burning fires in the fireplace in October, and we had fires most November nights. This year, we lit a fire one mid-November night when my barefoot, shorts-wearing kids complained of being cold. Before I had a chance to add another log to the blaze, the room had emptied. “Too hot,” these same kids complained. In late November, I was still waking up in the middle of the night to kick off blankets. There’s nothing Christmas-y about kicking off blankets, not in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway.

Then there’s the economy. Notice that we don’t even have to say “this terrible economy” or “the bad economy” anymore. It’s been so dismal for so long that the simple two-word phrase “the economy” has taken on a negative connotation. A morbid topic, I know, but that’s part of my point. The economy — allow me the redundancy — is crap. The money we invested in stocks and real estate throughout the 2000s would have been better off deposited in a shoebox hidden in the attic. If we’re not in foreclosure on our homes, our loan-to-values are upside-down. At best, we’re living in houses worth 60 percent what they were worth at Christmas of 2005. Pretty grim. On top of that, so many of us are out of work that the 88 percent of us who still have jobs labor every day with something akin to survivor’s guilt, and we’re doing more work for the same or less money. So what do we all talk about during our ever-decreasing free time? We talk about how crappy the economy is, how many of our friends are jobless, how guilty we feel about that, and how overworked we are. I’m talking about it now, for the love of Lucy. Tough to go from that to carols and Christmas cheer. Even tougher to go from that to Christmas shopping.

Speaking of which, where are all the Christmas shoppers? I was in Fashion Valley the other day and it looked like a gilded ghost town. I was one of only seven people milling about in Restoration Hardware. Four of them were sales people. We’re talking about a sunny afternoon in (what used to be) High Christmas Shopping Season. It was eerie, and it put me in a funk. Funny thing is, I was always the guy who crabbed about the emphasis on shopping at this time of year. Now, the lack of it has chipped another chunk off of my Christmas spirit. But maybe that proves my old crabbing point. If an anti-materialist like me can get depressed about the lack of holiday shopping, doesn’t that show how pervasive Christmas commercialism is (was)? Even while fighting it, I was infected by its evil spirit to the point of addiction, and now I’m in withdrawal. Or maybe it proves that my original point was self-righteous nonsense. Maybe it shows that Christmas shopping is a sign that people are thinking of others for a month or two out of the year, which can only be a good thing. Therefore my Fashion Valley funk was really a grieving over the loss, or diminution, of a good. All I know is my Christmas spirit took a hit, and I was left feeling sad and tired.

Yes, I’m tired. That’s a big one. Having kids means that when you’re done with your full-time money-making job, you go home to another job, only this one costs a lot of money, and it’s truly full time. You might get and yours, but they’re going to wake you up at least twice in the middle of the night and wake you up again 45 minutes before your alarm clock gets a chance. On the other hand, what better way to be woken up than by a precocious curly-blonde-haired 19-month-old saying, “Dada, where da baba? Where da baba?” She’s going to be ecstatic when she sees her red (thrift shop) tricycle Christmas morning. Her big brother is going to beam when he sees his new (used) snowboard. The rest of the kids will be happy to open their presents too. Yes, procuring those presents will require a significant expenditure of time and money. But the thought of their Christmas morning happiness is making me happy. Their joy is in receiving. Mine is in giving.

And isn’t giving what Christmas has always been about? God so loved the world, the story goes, that he gave us his only son. I think I’ve found my Christmas spirit.

— Ernie Grimm


This year will be my 16th Christmas as a mother. I love Christmas, the whole whirlwind season, but I must confess: it has taken me all these years to wrap my head around the fact that I’m the mom now, not the starry-eyed child watching magic happen all around her. It turns out the magic doesn’t just happen. Behind every warm holiday custom is a busy, alert force whose planning and effort have kept the flame of that custom burning brightly.

Oh, I’ve done my bit, these 15 years past. I saw to the purchase of the tree, the digging-out of the stand, the untangling of last year’s lights. I did the shopping, bent my brain to thinking about menus and stocking stuffers. I made sure my husband and I were well stocked with tape for our annual last-minute, late-night wrapping sessions. I managed to locate the Advent wreath within reasonable proximity to the first Sunday of Advent each year, and most years I’ve remembered the candles as well. For two years running, I have even remembered to have all the children check for clean tights and socks sooner than ten minutes before Christmas Day Mass.

Nothing about this foresighted preparation business has come easily to me. Each year, I’ve had to suppress the impulse to grumble my way through the considerable work of holiday planning. It’s not a quality I’m proud of. I’m generally a cheerful and energetic mother, the kind who will happily pile everyone into the car on the spur of the moment for some grand adventure. Why, then, does this inner Grinch rear its ugly head at this most holy, tradition-steeped time of year?

Last year it hit me. It’s my parents’ fault. They worked hard to make Christmas “merry and bright” for my sisters and me — I know now that it was hard work. The traditions I cherished — our Christmas Eve drive to look at the lights, our middle-of-the-night present-opening, our gorgeous Christmas morning feast — must have taken considerable effort behind the scenes. Only now do I realize how much thought my mother put into shopping and prepping for that meal. Only now do I grasp how many logistical complications must have attended our annual Christmas Eve drives. Kids bathed, dressed in new pajamas, coats, slippers, bundled into the car, and driven through icy streets to ooh and ahh to our hearts’ content — Mom and Dad had to deal with the bathing and bundling, the slush and the snow. Did my dad go out early to scrape off the car and dig out from Denver snowdrifts? He must have. I never noticed.

How many times did one of us kids fall asleep in the back seat and wake up when Dad carried us into the house? Now that I have six children of my own, I know what a wrench a late-evening snooze can throw into the bedtime routine — and that’s without Santa-anticipation to charge a freshly napped child with adrenaline. How many years must we have been up, bouncing in our beds, long after Christmas Eve became Christmas Morn?

However late we kids were up, I know my parents were up considerably later. I know now how far away one’s bed can feel when there’s a closetful of presents to pile under the tree, and the dollhouse that still needs assembling….

This was before the days of all-night superstores, where a desperate parent might procure overlooked batteries at the 11th hour. If my parents needed batteries, they had to plan ahead.

They made Christmas seamless for us: all magic, no Grinching. It took me 15 years of motherhood to grasp that, while spontaneity and whimsy are delightful qualities in a parent, practicality and brass tacks are what magic is made of. I had to stop expecting “warm family tradition” to be something I could unwrap like a present. My husband and I are now the ones who must make the magic happen.

Last December my family stumbled upon a bit of holiday magic quite by chance. My mother was visiting a week or two before Christmas, and on the last afternoon of her visit, a bright, breezy Sunday, we were all in the mood for an outing. I poked around online and discovered that the Christmas-carol community singalong at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park — an annual event I’d never heard about before — would be happening one hour later. In my best spontaneous-mom fashion, I whisked everyone into the minivan within minutes. We were sporting the red-and-white caps my sister had knitted for the eight of us, from my husband all the way down to our one-year-old baby.

That was a glorious afternoon. Perfect weather, a high-spirited crowd, and festive music. A couple of my older kids and I eagerly accepted the blanket invitation to troop onstage for the caroling. We were outgrinning each other, so joyful was the mood of the crowd. When, at the concert’s end, our hundreds of voices rang out Handel’s Messiah, I got choked up. I had goose bumps. It was, yes, magical.

“We should do that every year!” gushed the children on the way home. And I understood, all in a rush, that turning happenstance into tradition is one of my most important responsibilities as a mother. It’s certainly a good quality to be spontaneous, to be up for zooming off on an adventure at a moment’s notice. But that adventure will be a fleeting, one-time event if I, the keeper of the schedule, the chief planner-ahead, don’t carry it to the next step. I’ve got this year’s singalong date marked on the calendar. This time, it’s not a whim — it’s a plan. I even think I remember where I stored those red-and-white hats.

— Melissa Wiley

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