Christmas for us began in July. No sooner had the rockets' great glare of the 4th folded into the midnight skies than we were swept away with anticipation of the magic born upon cold and snowy wintry days to come. Halloween was merely tolerated as an inconvenient lapse of priorities, for our minds were commandeered by thoughts of the holiday season, despite the persistent heat that sweltered from concrete sidewalks of intolerably hot and muggy Chicago summers that wobbled into fall. As falling temperatures outside heightened the warmth in the house, exuberant forbearance was ushered in, reinforced and sustained by the lilt of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians' Meaning of Christmas that blasted from the hi-fi Magnavox in my brother's room:
The angel Gabriel from God|
Was sent to Galilee
Unto a virgin fair and sweet
Whose name was called Mary
What a glorious sound! Heavenly voices in perfect harmony, whistles and bells, the exhilarating intertwine of melody and word. The Meaning of Christmas! The three Younger children were enraptured by images conjured of that crispy winter night--the first noel--when the star of Bethlehem shone brightly on the Baby Jesus sent from above to absolve us of all our sins. With such a promise of vindication we were transformed for the six months between July and January from the twirling dervishes that we were during the first half of the year, into an all American tableau fit for a Wheaties cereal box. Manipulative? To be sure; but it was a forgivable manipulation of innocence that only children possess. We were simply swept away by the music. It civilized us; made us better than we were. How we cherished Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. How we loved that Christmas music!
With a sense of purpose, fueled by a choir of voices that, to my mind, has never been equaled, the Younger children would scramble to prepare our annual offering to the Son of Man, to the spirit of the season and to our parents: a staged interpretation of the Nativity scene, starring Charles, the oldest, Ann, the middle child, with a cameo appearance by me, the baby. The play was not only an acknowledgement that we knew what pure good was, it was a verbal and visual contract for the coming year that we would attempt to emulate that goodness. But, invariably, when the tree went down in January and the spirit of Christmas hibernated for the next six months, we reverted back to dervish.
Geographic location of the music box notwithstanding (my big brother's room), he had total control of all aspects of the production and wielded his power like a Chicago Ward Boss. During those months of preparation, he had me and my sister in the palm of his hand. I would be Flunky 1st Mate, taking over most of his household chores, handing him things when he was too lazy to get up, taking out the garbage, deferring to his every whim. My sister was second in command, his straw boss. Any show of resistance from me to either would be met by the sucking of her teeth and the narrowing of his eyes in the silent threat that I was expendable and could be written out of the play, or demoted to the role of a lowing cow. I didn't even know what a lowing cow was, but I wanted no part of it.
Yes. He was the boss, the director, the producer and script writer. He would crank up the record player and, like a clarion call, the thunder of Waring and his celestial minstrels would tilt the household equilibrium, sucking out oxygen and replacing it by some helium-like gas that made us lighthearted, giddy and much more pleasant to be around. For the next seven months, we would live in a bubble of joy and goodwill. But,
the Fred Waring LP had been played so many times and for so many years that deep scratches had developed on the surface. We didn't mind, really. The scratches were even and, in our minds, the jerky sound had become so familiar that the bumps and scrapes had been regimented into tradition.
One particular year, however, the scratches had etched their way into deeper motes, the depth of which began to make the record skip even more:
The angel Gabriel from God|
Not to be thwarted and always resourceful, my brother would help the Pennsylvanians along with a slight push of the index finger. The song continued, for a while:
Was sent to Galilee|
Unto a Virgin fair and sweet
...and sweet (push)
Whose name was called Mary
I took the skipping record as a sign. Times were changing. Somehow this realization emboldened me. One day, I went storming into my brother's room.
Being the youngest and smallest I, of course, played the Christ child; every year, the same old thing. Sheets were ripped from the bed and wrapped around me tightly as swaddling clothes. Pillow cases were yanked from their crumbled slumber and fashioned into Mary's veil. Sister Ann was Mary. My brother, Joseph, would borrow a blanket from the linen closet for his humble--yet, to my mind, too flashy--garb.
I was getting too old and too self-possessed for this. Year after year, I had to lie there motionless--no movement, no crying--just lie there and look holy while my brother and sister recited the lines that were delivered like the method actors they had become and I would never be:
"Joseph," my sister would whisper angelically,
"I am with child. An angel came unto me..."
"Be not afraid, Mary," Joseph would urge,
"The angel visited me as well."
He would take a long, dramatic pause, and then:
"We must go to Bethlehem."
I had just about had enough and complained bitterly to my brother, the director.
"Lucille," he seemed really shocked, more like over-the-top shock, "you have the most important part. You're the star, for Christ's sake. You're the Baby Jesus!"
"But, I want a speaking part," I stamped my feet and pouted. "I want to say something, too."
He could see that I was not backing down and shook his head in dismay. He thought for a moment. Then, ever the smooth talker and diplomat, offered, "Well, maybe next year we'll move on to the crucifixion."
Great! From a non-speaking role, to a dead man. Well, at least that was progress--I guessed. But, I didn't trust him. He was too smooth; politician smooth. So, I began plotting. After an afternoon of contemplating sabotage, I finally came up with a brilliant idea. No sabotage, I rationalized, just improvement.
My parents had assembled in the living room. The spotlights were on. The play began. The same old play we had put on each year. Some things were different, however. Mary had begun to develop breasts and Joseph's voice was noticeably deeper. All-in-all, our little Christmas play was beginning to show its 2000 years.
I lay in excruciating silence while my sister and brother emoted and, frankly, overacted. But, you would not have known that by my parents' reaction. The both of them were sickeningly attentive, applauding and cooing as if witnessing a Tupperware demonstration for the first time. I would fix them, though. Fix them all real good.
The play ended every year as the three kings--played by whatever pets were available at the time--left gifts and departed.
Fade to black. Silence on the stage.
Determined to have a speaking part, a lone, high-pitched voice shattered the silence.
"God bless us, everyone," spake the baby Jesus.
Audible gasp from the audience.