It was Christmas Eve at our house in Glendale, Queens. My younger brother, Aly, and I were scrubbed and shampooed; we had to be super clean, both for the party that night and for Christmas Mass the next morning. Mom fed us a light supper of grilled cheese sandwiches and hash brown potatoes (we never ate meat on Christmas Eve, just like we never ate meat on Fridays).
“C’mon, you two. Time to get ready.” Mom helped us dress in our nicest clothes. I wore a new red and green velvet jumper and a white cotton blouse. Mom had curled my strawberry-blond hair. Aly wore his new white shirt and short, light brown pants from Robert Hall’s. We waited impatiently while Mom put on a fancy blue dress and some jewelry, then followed her downstairs to my cousins’ part of our two-family house.
“The Kirchners are here!” my aunt announced to her children. Aunt Vera was our mother’s sister. She and my cousins were also dressed up for the occasion. The Gallaghers’ living room was where we always exchanged gifts and sang Christmas songs. Soon we were singing along with the phonograph: “Jingle Bells,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and we were clowning around with each other. Not all of us knew the words to the songs. Our mothers sang with us; then the two of them sang “O Holy Night.” This was so beautiful that I felt chills; we all sat like good little soldiers, as our Grandma Campbell said afterward.
We drank hot chocolate and ate homemade Christmas cookies and cupcakes, making sure not to get any stains on our holiday clothing, while we waited for our annual visit from Santa Claus. A photo taken that night by the Christmas tree shows my cousins Jimmy and Buddy, ages 9 and 8, in the background with my cousin Maureen, age 5, and me, age 6, flanking them. In front are the “little guys,” my cousin Johnny, and my brother, Aly, both 3 years old, and my cousin Jo Ann, 2 years old.
Earlier in the day, I helped my mother decorate the Christmas tree. Aly was too little to help, falling once into the tree, but we let him hand us ornaments. Two days earlier, our dad had placed the fresh tree in its stand and strung the sets of large, multicolored lights on it, along with the candle-bubble lights, and our shiny Christmas star on top. The past Saturday we had driven to a lot on Central Avenue, not far from our house, where Dad let me help pick out a tree. “That one!” I pointed to one that wasn’t too tall but very bushy. “Well, you have very good taste, little lady,” Dad said, but chose another one. He paid $4 for the eight-foot tree that he tied to the roof of the car and that now filled one corner of our living room.
My cousin Buddy had come up to help decorate. He was upstairs a lot since, as the adults put it, we were “inseparable.” His household was more crowded than ours, with kids and with our mothers’ mother, Grandma Campbell, living there, too, so this was kind of a hideout.
“For you, Eileen,” he said, smiling, as he handed me my special gift. This was to be opened tomorrow, when we were alone. I placed the big box under the tree and ran to my room to get his smaller present, a pen and pencil set.
“Don’t peek,” I told him, and he promised he wouldn’t.
“See you later,” he said to us after a while, then ran downstairs to have dinner.
My brother and I had already hung our stockings alongside Mom’s and Daddy’s on the fireplace mantel. Mom read “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to us, even though I could read the words all by myself now. I figured that when we were grown up, teenagers, or even older and married, she would still read that story to us. It made her happy, so it was okay with me.
To this day, I don’t know who Santa Claus was — except that he was a really tall, fat man with a raspy voice, a very red face, and a beard that wouldn’t stay still. We did know he wasn’t the “real” Santa, just like the one in Macy’s and other stores weren’t real. The real one was off on his sleigh with his reindeer, doing his Christmas job. His presents, our “big” presents, would be under our Christmas trees the next morning.
At about 8 o’clock he arrived, the not-real Santa, or “Santa’s helper,” as our mothers put it, saying, “Ho-ho-ho,” and calling out in a deep Santa voice, “Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas, children.”
“Merry Christmas, Santa.” My aunt offered him a tall glass of beer, which he happily accepted. He chugged it down, smacked his lips, and said, “Thank you, good ladies.” He assured them that “Santa won’t forget this.” Then he started the annual ritual of having us close our eyes and pick a gift out of his large white sack.
“Were you good little children this year?” Santa asked, patting us on the head, or in the case of my cousins Jimmy and Buddy, giving them little jabs on their arms. We received small, practical gifts — sets of pencils or crayons, small, blank notebooks, chalk and erasers, coloring books.
“Thank you, Santa,” each of us said in turn, like our mothers had coached us.
“What do you want for Christmas?” Santa asked. And we told him, one by one, what we had put on our lists. We were always polite, even shy, around this jolly Santa. Our fathers were not yet home, having stopped off at the local bar after work for drinks to celebrate Christmas, “their usual holiday cheer,” as our mothers said. So Santa’s helper was the only adult male in the house just then. After about 45 minutes, our Santa got up to leave, having downed still another glass of beer. “Well, if you insist,” he said with his loud, scratchy laugh, reaching for the glass that my aunt offered. “This will keep me warm on my journey.”
Then, shaking all of our hands, he ho-ho-ho-ed his way out the door, saying he had many more children to visit, and telling us that his reindeer were waiting for him outside.
“Can we see?” my little brother and cousin begged. “We want to see!”
“No, no. That wouldn’t do,” Santa said, close to their faces, with his beer breath. “You’ll frighten them. They have a lot of work to do tonight.”
The small boys nodded and moved away from the door. The older boys, Jimmy and Buddy, didn’t say anything — they knew there were no reindeer outside. They also didn’t believe in Santa Claus. I still believed. The following December, Buddy would take me up to our attic and show me where “Santa” hid the presents. I still remember feeling crushed, betrayed even. Santa went the way of the Easter Bunny in a flash.
After Santa left, and while we were opening our gifts, our fathers appeared — tired-looking, merry, and glassy-eyed.
“Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home!” the smaller kids shouted.
Grandma Campbell, who let them in the door, said with a scowl, “I can see you’ve both had a snoutful.”
“Now, Mom, don’t be criticizing us,” my father said, giving her a hug. He bent down to kiss me, and I smelled the “snoutful” close up.
“Hi, Daddy.” I turned my nose away and let him kiss my cheek.
“It’s Christmas,” Uncle Henry said, putting down the growler, letting my aunt take his coat and hat. “We celebrate in the adult way.”
My father had stopped at Stefan’s Bar and Grill after working all day at his printing job in New York City. Stefan’s wasn’t far from his bus stop, and it was located only two blocks from our house. Uncle Henry, who worked as a mechanic at a local factory, was already there, we learned. They played a little shuffleboard and drank some beers and shots to celebrate with the people in the bar. The weather was cold but clear, so they arrived home safely.
Uncle Henry poured a glass of beer from the growler for my father and for himself. “Ladies? Some Christmas brew?”
The ladies declined. “It’s time to open the presents, everyone,” my aunt said, and she handed gifts to me, to Aly, and to my parents. A pretty blue sweater for me; a gray wool hat for Aly; his and her pajamas for Mom and Dad. Then Grandma passed around her gifts, followed by my mom and, before long, the carpet was covered with Christmas wrapping paper and ribbons that the younger kids started skidding through. They ripped at the paper and threw it into the air like confetti, and we all joined in, as our mothers worked around us, trying to clean everything up.
Soon the men started singing along with the radio and began dancing around the living room with our mothers. “We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.”
We laughed and clapped, and Buddy and I got up to dance along with them. Then Jimmy and Maureen joined in, and there was hardly any room left to move. I felt all hot and flushed but so very happy.
This year there were Flexible Flyers for Jimmy and Buddy, a dollhouse with lots of little pieces of furniture for me, a small kitchen set for Maureen, new tricycles for Johnny and Aly, and a new baby doll and tiny high chair for Jo Ann. When I said my bedtime prayers, I asked God not to let Mom and Daddy get into a fight like they did last Christmas Eve. “And don’t let Auntie and Uncle Henry fight either,” I prayed.
While we dreamed of Christmas morning, we couldn’t know that our parents were working harder than the “real” Santa Claus, just trying to get all the toys into our stockings and under our trees, and then assembling some of the toys. Our fathers just wanted to go sleep it off, but our mothers kept making them work, trying to keep their voices low so we children wouldn’t wake up.
In the morning, the train sets needed adjusting before they worked right, and some pieces of my new dollhouse furniture had to be retrieved from the garbage. But Aly and I were out of bed by 6 a.m. to see what Santa brought us.
I led him by the hand to the living room, even before we woke our parents, whose bedroom was at the far end of our apartment. It was strange but as we walked, I could hear my aunt, in her clear soprano, and Mom, in her alto voice, singing again, and I felt the same chills:
“Fall on your knees! O, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night, O night divine!”
Eileen Obser is a frequent contributor to The Star. “Santa and His Beer” is part of her “Cousin Buddy” series of essays, centered on holidays. She has been teaching creative writing for over 18 years and lives in East Hampton.