This essay, written by Jasper Ellis, age 12, and the oldest of our four grandchildren, was his gift to us this Christmas.
One Christmas was so much like another in those years in the New Jersey suburban town that I could never remember if it snowed at all or if it was a cold gray Christmas (the latter being the most common due to the fact that we were in New Jersey).
In my mind, all the Christmases are rolled together like the cinnamon rolls we once ate on Christmas Eve, one big, delicious, fond memory. It was that same Christmas Eve (or maybe it wasn’t I can’t quite remember) that the house nearly burned down.
It was a typical New Jersey winter afternoon, mid 50’s, and I was playing with my cousins in the living room, exhausted but still running on that Christmas Eve adrenalin every child gets from the first time they recieve presents to the last time, and maybe forever after that too. Parker, who was the youngest of the cousins at that time, was about to make his lego-man blast off into the black skies of whatever he imagined space looked like then when my aunt cursed.
I paid no attention to it, because this was her fifth time to to speak a foul word today (and I don’t blame her either, because the amount of people we were hosting at her house this evening was more than I could count, even at 9). I believe about a third of my curse vocabulary has been learned at those family Christmases. But then my aunt spoke the two words that turned my blood, and certainly the other cousins as well, to ice.
“THE TURKEY!” she shrieked.
Every child in every household who’s ever had a Christmas turkey knows that it is the most delicious and most important item on the Christmas menu. All chaos broke loose.
We were given the scoop when my father and uncle came home, both looking the way that kids sometimes look when they’re in trouble. The sheepish grin. Apparently my uncle had locked the door to the house we were using to cook the turkey (for some reason we needed an extra oven) and now we could break open a window and get inside or, the better of the two from my opinion, watch this awesome mansion burn down to the ground (in my defense I had imagined it looking really cool). Over the next hour or so everyone was stressed out about the turkey except for the kids, because we at some point had lost interest and went to play outside.
I think Parker and I were playing baseball and the girls something along the lines of house, when we heard a loud cheer from inside. We all went inside to investigate.
When I asked my father what was the cause of all this, he yelled joyfully, “The turkey has been saved!” and that was that.
Christmas dinner was always my favorite meal relating to Christmas. My plate would look a bit like this: On one side a gigantic mass of red cranberry sauce, and on the other, there was a mountain of mashed potatoes that had been drowned mercilessly in a river of gravy. In between the two monster helpings of food there would be a small slice of turkey.
I didn’t really eat much meat on Christmas Eve, because of that nervous apprehension that falls over children when christmas nears, but I did eat a lot of other foods.
After the Christmas dinner was finished, we had our annual reading of A Child’s Christmas in Wales before going to bed. Then came the undebated favorite part of every child’s Christmas. The presents. I always woke up early. There has never been a time where I haven’t woken up too early on Christmas. Our family had a rule that no one was allowed out of our rooms until seven. That rule was complete torture. I would like to think that they were trying to teach us a lesson of patience, but the waiting only made us more impatient. Before I learned how to read there was nothing I could do. I would just sit up in bed and stare at the far wall, that nervous excitement welling up inside me like a tidal wave. Once it was seven o’clock we would have to wait a couple more minutes for everyone to wake up, and then our ceremony would begin.
We would walk slowly down the stairs, and then turn into the living room to see a room filled with presents, and then was when the nervous excitement broke, and it was all joy. Of course, no one dared speed up the pace, we would copy exactly what the adults were doing, as if we were afraid that the presents would disappear if we did anything out of line. We would whisper amongst ourselves as we creeped agonizingly slow towards the true glory of Christmas.
Once within five feet of the gifts, we could no longer resist. We would rush to the pile of presents that were ours and sit down. We would wait for the parents to open them. By the time we were sitting down the parents were still near the bottom of the stairs (it’s a wonder that people with such long legs have such a slow pace). Once they sat down they would call for Parker to open his presents first. That was the tradition in the family.
Being the oldest in the family I would have to wait the longest. When my turn finally came to open my presents, I was nearly bursting with excitement. Toys were being played with all around me, and I was ready to see what mine were. As usual, I would be filled with joy upon seeing anything that was mine and new, especially when it was on my list. I will always remember the savage joy that I got when tearing the ripping paper off a present.
The toys (it never mattered what they really were) were always, in my opinion, the best part about Christmas. It was something about the magic and puzzlement of receiving presents from someone unknown to you. It could make you believe that you could have an abnormal life, and that there was something truly special in this world after all.
Christmas night was sometimes even more celebrated than Christmas Eve. There was lots of music, most of it boring, but some of it danceable, and the children would put away their toys and try in vain to socialize with the many vague relatives in the gathering. The adults would drink eggnog spiked with rum, and milk around trying to cover up the disappointments of the party’s turnout. After the party (and sometimes during) the children, including me, would be put to bed. I would lay on the pull out sofa (it was always a pullout sofa) and thank the magic, or whatever it was, for another satisfying Christmas. Then, slowly, my child’s mind would drift off to other topics and I would gradually fall asleep.