The Day After
What a letdown. After all the hoopla of the past month, in my family the day after Christmas has always been an anticlimax. When I was a kid, I counted down the days from Thanksgiving until Santa arrived. I had been dropping hints since Halloween from a list I had been building from Saturday morning commercials since the summer. I can recall hearing the “you better watch out” lecture many times as my hinting turned into nagging. I’m sure it was irritating, especially when the economy was bad. I know now that my parents struggled to make ends meet some years, but they always found a way to get me at least one thing on my list.
We decorated the tree sometime in the week after Thanksgiving, placing ornaments collected over the years. Old hung next to new as we added one or two ornaments each year (I still have some on my own tree that were given to me as a baby). I kept a daily tally as presents were added, mentally logging which gifts were for whom in preparation for my job as Santa’s Helper on Christmas morning.
I don’t know how my mom managed hosting Christmas for our large family while she was teaching full time. She taught at a low-income elementary school where she planned most of the Christmas events. She always presented a big Christmas pageant or play, and every kid in fifth grade had a role of some kind. She took the kids caroling, spending class time over several weeks teaching them the words to the carols. A group of teachers and volunteers took the kids house to house in the neighborhood one evening, avoiding the scary apartment complexes across the way where some of the students lived. The night concluded back at the school with hot chocolate and homemade cookies all around. In the good old days teachers could provide these experiences for kids with just a permission slip; there was no worry about state standards, political correctness or liability. Coats and hats had to be provided for some kids, but that was okay. Those kids felt included, and that was important. I understood that when I outgrew my winter coat, Mom would take it to school, and I always felt proud when I saw someone wearing it. Most of these kids had never had the Christmas traditions I took for granted.
Gramma and Uncle Doug and his family came down from Denver on Christmas Eve, and Gramma slept in my room. She said she didn’t mind, but one time we had to share the bed, and she said she’d never do that again because I wiggled around so much all night. I couldn’t help it! It was Christmas Eve, so who could blame me? It’s why my dad used to call me “Worm.” Christmas morning couldn’t come soon enough as I waited impatiently for the telltale toilet flush and pan rattling that was Mom’s not-so-subtle way of signaling that it was time to get up.
Throwing back the covers, I’d race to see if Santa had eaten the cookies we’d left. Most people left a carrot for Rudolph, but not us. We left a piece of cheese for Santa Mouse, and it was always gone, a vacant spot among the cookie crumbs the only evidence that it had been there. I’d find some new presents from Santa, usually those too big to wrap. My dad reflects that he used to stay up well into the night on Christmas Eve assembling some pretty complex toys. I never knew that Santa’s elves didn’t make them at the North Pole, though. After the adults got their coffee, we settled into place around the tree and I’d begin my job as Santa’s Helper by handing a gift to the person on my right. All eyes were on the receiver as each gift was opened one at a time around the circle.
We always skipped breakfast in preparation for a giant traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, homemade bread, and Gramma’s pumpkin, mincemeat, and pecan pies. After dinner we played games like “Pit,” during which my brother and cousin discussed the different ways one could cheat, flashing hand signals to each other, and other card games which got pretty wild sometimes. We ended things in the early evening so those traveling back to Denver could get started before dark.
The day after Christmas was spent cleaning up the aftermath. Leftover turkey-and-stuffing sandwiches were required as we made our way through the mountain of leftovers in the fridge. The afternoon was spent trying out one another’s toys, as we had exhausted interest in our own gifts the day before. Unless it was something big, like a bike, our interest waned pretty quickly compared to the weeks we’d spent begging for said toy. Most of the time it wasn’t all it had been advertised to be, and I felt gypped when my favorite toy wasn’t as great as I had seen in commercials.
Nowadays my parents winter in Arizona, so they’re not here for Christmas at all. We exchange gifts at Thanksgiving and video chat with them on Christmas Day. It’s not the same, but the anticipation for Christmas isn’t as urgent, either. I still miss the craziness of Christmas morning, but listening to carols sung by Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis on Christmas Eve helps me sleep all the way through the night.