In our family, Christmas Eve belonged to Grandma. Any absence from Christmas Eve dinner would have been grounds for expulsion from the family. Fortunately, that never happened. Grandma would start cooking the roast about Dec. 20th. The potatoes and green beans were going by the 22nd, and the salad was wilting by the 23rd. We suffered through dinner, because Grandma's specialty was Bohemian pastries: coffeecakes, hoska, strudel, and tiny little kolachy like no one else ever made. A whole one fit easily into your mouth, and nobody ever knew how many you ate.
After dinner the adults would relax and the kids would run around like maniacs. And then there would be a knock on the door. "Who could that be?" the adults would all chime. "Could it be?!" They'd open the door, and YES, it was Santa!
"Ho ho ho!! Merry Christmas, everybody!! Merry Christmas, Grandma and Grandpa! Merry Christmas, Bob! Merry Christmas, Erma! Where's Uncle Frank?"
"Uncle Frank went to get cigarettes, Santa. He's going to be so sorry he missed you. Again."
The whole act was so lame. I knew that Santa was Uncle Frank by the time I was four years old. He looked like Uncle Frank, sounded like Uncle Frank, and smelled like Uncle Frank. And Uncle Frank always left to get cigarettes right before Santa came. But the adults all believed it was Santa; and they all got so excited, I didn't want to spoil it for them. Santa would pass out the gifts and pop a few kolachy into his mouth. Then we would all sing "Jingle Bells" for Santa (that was his theme song or something), and Santa would say goodbye. A few minutes later, Uncle Frank would slip in the back door, without any cigarettes.
"You missed Santa, Uncle Frank," someone would say.
"Damn!" said Uncle Frank. "Same as last year!"
As I got older, my dad took over the Santa chores for my younger cousins. Then as we reached our older teens, my brothers and I got into the act. My oldest brother, Lee, was a good Santa. He was good at everything. My turn came when I was sixteen. I don't know why anyone thought I could play Santa. I was about 5'2", weighed about 100 lbs., and my voice had barely dropped to an alto.
I slipped upstairs with my mom, who helped me get into the suit and stuff it with pillows. I don't remember what we used for a cover story. Neither of us smoked cigarettes. When Mom thought I looked presentable, she slipped back down to Grandma's apartment. And a few minutes later I came down and knocked on the door.
"Oh! Who's at the door? Could it be Santa? Open the door! It is!! It's Santa!!"
"Ho ho ho," I squeaked. "Merry Christmas! Well, let's see what we have here!" I took a package out of my bag and looked for a label. "Let's see here...." I held it at arm's length, then I tried close up to my face. I couldn't even find the label, much less read the name on it. You see, I wore thick glasses, but I had never seen Santa with glasses before, and I thought they would give me away. It never occurred to me that a BLIND Santa would raise suspicions. I got through the gig by passing gifts to my mom and aunt, who read the names on the packages. Then they all sang "Jingle Bells" and pointed me towards the door. I didn't even try to look for the kolachy.
My brother Curt's portrayal of Santa was even more remarkable. When he was a skinny little Santa of about sixteen, he came down and knocked timidly at the door. The kids were all running around screaming, and nobody heard him. He knocked again, and again nobody heard him, or so he thought. He tried pounding on the door just as my Auntie Erma opened it. And Santa fell face first into Grandma's living room.
When I was twenty, and all of 120 lbs., I found myself in a Santa suit again. The temp agency had outdone themselves selling Santas everywhere. I was a skinny, lumpy Santa with coke bottle glasses, sitting on a folding chair in the toy section of a department store. There was no fake snow, no elves, no photographer. I was just hanging out in the toy department. People would bump into me as they rounded the corner; and as often as not, the little tykes would scream in terror.
"Oh, it's Santa!"
"See, Timmy, it's just Santa! Don't you want to see Santa?"
"C'mon, Timmy!! Don't you want to sit in Santa's lap?! C'mon!! I'm going to sit in Santa's lap!! It's fun!! Oh, Santa!! You have a bony knee!! I HOPE that's your knee!! Ha ha ha!!"
While Timmy was still screaming, and his mommy still waving goodbye, around the corner would come some precious little munchkin, who would jump into my lap and smother me with sticky kisses. Just the job for a budding schizophrenic.
Then there were the little philosophers.
"You're not real, are you?"
"Ho ho ho! Of course I am! You're real, aren't you?"
"But you're not the real Santa, are you?"
"Well, no. I'm one of Santa's helpers."
"How can you help if you aren't real?"
One day, around the corner came a lovely little dark-eyed girl, who stood shyly next to me. She didn't have a wish list. She just asked me about the reindeer, and Mrs. Claus, and life at the North Pole. I have her the spiel and a candy cane, and she seemed satisfied. Before she left, she looked up at me and said, "Thank you, Santa. You know, I've never talked to you before."
"Well, I'm glad you finally did! Ho ho ho!!"
"You see, Santa," she continued. "I've never been to see you before because I'm Jewish."
"Ho ho ho! That's OK! Santa is for everyone! I'm so glad you came to visit!"
And as she began to walk away, I had one of those rare moments of true inspiration.
"Hey, c'mere kid!" I called to her. She came back and I whispered in her ear. "I'm Jewish, too!"
Those big brown eyes got bigger still. "Really!?" she asked.
"Of course," I said. "Who else would work on Christmas?"
She ran off, yelling, "Mommy!! Mommy!! Guess what Santa told me!!"
I'll bet that mother still tells this story every Hanukkah.