One Christmas was so much fun like the other in that snow-filled suburb. I reach into the snow bank of memory and pull out a gingerbread man. We carved their shapes on a flour-dusted table. After they were baked, we slathered them with frosting and sprinkles. We hung them with string from the tree. Edible ornaments we could grab any time for a snack.
In that gingerbread world, we decorated the fresh-cut spruce. The strings of lights were tangled into a Gordian knot and if just one bulb was out, the whole string didn’t work. After we found enough lights that worked, we wound them around the tree. Then we hung tinsel and delicate glass ornaments. The glorious tree was ready for presents.
There were the practical presents: the blankets, hats and mittens. Scratchy wool sweaters we had to wear for Christmas pictures. There were also a few impractical presents: board games, electric football and jigsaw puzzles. My mother feared the puzzles, because my dad would get so obsessed he’d stop going to work.
When he did go to the office, he brought large quantities of booze to give out to lawyers, insurance adjusters and the other clients who made presents possible. We prayed for money to come in, but not many payments were processed during that season of office parties.
Our family always had its own Christmas party. Because there were so many of us, we were never invited anywhere.
Cleaning and decorating the house for Christmas was exciting in those flax soap days. Polishing the silver candlesticks and cleaning the glass of our hurricane lamps. Setting out the red-patterned china that we used for every holiday. The best part was the aroma from two ovens, as we baked a turkey in each one.
Not that we were inside much to enjoy it. Playing outside was mandatory. Snow would fill our boots and soak our mittens. When we couldn’t stand it anymore, we shivered our way into the house.
Feeling the warmth return to our fingers and toes almost made the suffering worth it. To warm our insides, there was marshmallow-melting cocoa. As we thawed, we not only thought of the presents we’d get but also of the presents we had made in school. Homely creations of paper, sparkles and glue. We prayed our parents would be pleased.
At the Christmas dinner, there were no aunts, uncles or grandparents. They had their own parties. We gorged on turkey, mountains of mashed potatoes and rolls hot from the oven.
On Christmas morning, there was a frenzy, as we ripped open packages. We didn’t take turns, or even acknowledge the gift-giver. We just ripped. The younger ones were convinced that all of these gifts were from Santa, and no blasphemer could shake their faith. After the frenzy subsided, we painfully posed for pictures in our scratchy sweaters. Then we had the Christmas bonfire, burning the packaging and wrapping in the backyard.
We slept deeply that night, knowing we had new toys to play with in the morning. We’d wake up early to find my father, unshaven — his hair sticking up, fitting another piece into the puzzle. It was a letdown, after the excitement of Christmas.
But the tree stayed up for a few days, and the decorations hadn’t yet returned to their attic prison. Among these, were a set of figures. Crowned men on camels, a rough wooden stable with a cow, a young couple watching over their tiny baby.
They were fun to play with and must have had something to do with Christmas.
John Rice grew up on Maple Avenue with eight siblings. He lived next door to the Fisher family, who owned the local drugstore. He briefly attended S.E. Gross School before being kicked out of kindergarten. He briefly attended first grade at St. Barbara School, where he led the school in demerits. He moved from Maple Avenue when he was 6 years old to attend Ascension School in Oak Park, where he got into more trouble.