Six to Eight Black Men (excerpt)
by David Sedaris

(from Bill Stebbins’s Christmas Jokes Page)

“When do you open your Christmas presents?” is another good
conversation starter as it explains a lot about national character.
People who traditionally open gifts on Christmas Eve seem a bit
more pious and family oriented than those who wait until Christmas
morning. They go to mass, open presents, eat a late meal, return
to church the following morning, and devote the rest of the day to
eating another big meal.  Gifts are generally reserved for
children, and the parents tend not to go overboard. It’s nothing
I’d want for myself, but I suppose it’s fine for those who prefer
food and family to things of real value.

In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while
in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in
celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until
I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the
details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully
thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall
hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is
a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in
Turkey.

One doesn’t want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this
seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn’t use to
do anything.  He’s not retired, and, more important, he has
nothing to do with Turkey. The climate’s all wrong, and people
wouldn’t appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the
North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint
Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not
true. While he could probably live wherever he wanted, Santa chose
the North Pole specifically because it is harsh and isolated. No
one can spy on him, and he doesn’t have to worry about people
coming to the door. Anyone can come to the door in Spain, and in
that outfit, he’d most certainly be recognized. On top of that,
aside from a few pleasantries, Santa doesn’t speak Spanish. He
knows enough to get by, but he’s not fluent, and he certainly
doesn’t eat tapas.

I thought of this one last night while we were decorating the tree. In Cheryl’s family, the kids each got an ornament a year, which was labeled and then kept in a box with their name on it, and each year, they were allowed to put all their ornaments on the tree. Sally was over for dinner and they evidently do the same thing, only their parents got them each an ornament, and so did their grandmother, plus the occasional extra ornament you’d make in kindergarten art class. Evidently, by the time they were in their late teens and early twenties, the tree was essentially a mound of painted wood, smiling Santas, and glued-together cotton balls, with some foliage poking out through, grasping for an errant shaft of sunlight.

In contrast, our tree looks “positively naked,” Sally joked.

Our tree-trimming tradition was throwing icicles at it. My mom had a good hundred or more of these little plastic icicles:

Plastic icicles picture here!

So when we hung ornaments on the tree, we would carefully place these on the branches, and the light from the tree lights would shine through them, and they were beautiful; sparkling plastic never looked so good. As you can probably see from the picture, though, molded plastic hooks aren’t the most form-fitting or grippy-looking things you’ve ever seen. They don’t cling to branches all that well, and inevitably, ten or twenty would fall to the ground as people walked around, or as other ornaments were placed on the tree. We would usually round of putting ornaments on the tree with some hot chocolate, and then my mom would go take a nap while we ostensibly watched some cartoons or played Nintendo.

Once she was gone, though, we would collect all the fallen icicles and–well, it must have started as trying to get them on the higher branches, or out of laziness. My recollection is that we would stand about five feet away, and throw them at the tree. The stated goal was to get them all to stay on the tree. What happened in reality is that an icicle would dart in through the needles, hit a branch or curve into an arc, then slide most of the way down the tree, often releasing several other icicles to slide down to the floor. The misses and chain reactions meant that this was a game that could last twenty to forty minutes, taking turns throwing these at the tree.

At the beginning of every Christmas season, it always started very surreptitiously, but as rusty skills returned and as the game became more fun and the distance required to challenge us yawned ever wider, we would eventually end up throwing icicles twenty feet from the dining room into the living room, all while my mom stood next to us asking if we would please stop throwing mini-javelins at the tree and come sit down and have some dinner.

It’s not quite as heartwarming as trimming the tree with our own beloved and handmade ornaments, and the experience was much more ephemeral, but it captures something particular and unique about the kid-crafted world I grew up in (not to mention the ubiquity of oculopathic projectiles in and around our house–walking out the front door didn’t guarantee you’d be met by a hail of home-made arrows, but there was always an outside chance).

As for gift-opening, I think Sedaris is right–we had three present-opening extravaganzas. The first and most formal (mostly because of the austere furniture and wood floors) was at my maternal grandparents’ house. The second was Christmas morning at our house, and then we would pile into the car, inundated with toys (which, in retrospect, probably explains both the loss of every little utility belt and functioning laser cannon from every posable action figure I ever got, as well as the sedimentary layer of plastic crap that covers much of New Jersey), and head to Long Island for a third and final Christmas at my Dad’s boyhood home. This is how I learned how to remove and install a Nintendo at such a young age, and interestingly, the Nintendo didn’t get to go to the Christmas Eve one, just to Long Island.

The point being: Everybody else’s family is just weird.

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