Christmas tales

The Baltimore Sun

Gift-giving that bears fruit

Christmas is truly a child's holiday. It is a day filled with wonder and joy, of love and reunion. Why should citrus play any role at all?

At least that's a question that occurred to me most every Dec. 25 through the 1960s as I slid down the stairs (yes, slid on the back of my footed pajamas as it was less likely to wake sleeping parents in the pre-dawn hours) to discover that Santa had slipped tangerines and oranges into my stocking - again.

What's the deal with all the fruit, fat man? I can recall thinking at the time. A navel orange may be something rare over there in the frozen tundra of the North Pole, but here in the U.S., we have the A&P; produce section and Dollar Day specials.

To me, an orange or tangerine was the Styrofoam peanut of the day. Santa always seemed to put one or two items of genuine interest in the Christmas stocking (maybe a Hot Wheels car, a Slinky or Silly Putty) and padded the rest with fruit and nuts. Hadn't he noticed my parents had the same stuff lying around in the kitchen? This is thin gruel for a boy raised on Hasbro, Mattel and Wham-O, thin gruel indeed.

Sure, back in the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a piece of fruit in the winter must have seemed like a gift from the gods, at least the ones residing in South Florida. My parents, both children of the Great Depression, probably thought a tangerine was not something to be taken lightly either. I, selfish middle-class baby boomer child that I was, could never muster such appreciation for any of it. When I became older - and wiser in the logistics of Christmas - I resolved to make sure my own progeny wouldn't be haunted by anything round and orange unless it was a Nerf ball.

This seemed to work out fine until two weeks ago. Visiting their grandparents in Chicago, the children baked cookies and heard stories of Christmases long, long ago. They learned about family traditions, about friends and relations no longer with us, about the good and sometimes not-so-good times.

Dad, my youngest later confided to me, Grandma says she used to get oranges and tangerines in her stocking. Wouldn't that be neat?

And so it came to pass that a lesson was learned. And without any assistance from the ghosts of grocers past, present or future. Today the children will have their Christmas presents, and you can be sure that at least some of them will be a-peeling.

- Peter Jensen

Cold snap, warm welcome

A stranger arrives in town.

That's said to be the essential plot in half the world's stories. It's a basic element of the Christmas narrative, and it's something just about everyone has experienced.

In December 1989, the stranger was me, and the town was New Orleans. I knew nothing about the city and little about the people I was meeting there - even though they were already almost family. My fiancee and I had gotten engaged a couple of months before, and I was finally meeting her parents.

It would have been understandable for my future in-laws to be a bit wary. The last guy their daughter brought home had apparently been something of a disaster. They knew as little about me as I did about them - and yet here I was, determined to marry their only daughter. Their 20-year-old daughter, who was still a college student.

Moreover, what they did know about me might not have inspired confidence. A year after graduation, I was not exactly the picture of ambition - unless working at a hippie retreat center for $300 a month and living in an unheated cabin in the woods of southern Michigan is your idea of a fast track to career success. Plus, I needed a haircut.

Such were my thoughts as I entered the house. Five minutes later, I found myself draping strands of real lead tinsel (did they still make that stuff?) and placing real, lighted candles on what was, apart from Rockefeller Center, probably the largest Christmas tree I had ever seen, with electric trains and a full Christmas village taking up half the living room floor.

The next few days were overwhelming - and exhilarating. I didn't celebrate Christmas growing up, so nothing in my experience prepared me for the parties, the church services, the parcels piled so high, they would not have been out of place at a Kwakiutl Indian potlatch. It was very strange, very foreign - and somehow, all perfectly normal. I should have felt wildly out of place. Instead, I felt totally included. When a freakish ice storm struck, bursting the water pipes, I laughed along with everyone else about eating Christmas dinner on paper plates. Welcome to the family, they said without saying it. You belong here.

I left after a week, a stranger no more.

- Michael Cross-Barnet

Ghosts of Christmas with the pack

When I think about Christmas, I remember our dogs.

First was Booboo, a foxy Keeshond-Shepherd mix, who loved to chew open the holiday cards as they slid through the mail slot in our front door. Then Baby, Booboo's only child, who would wrestle in a tangle of flashing tree lights ready to be strung. Later, checking for treats in her stocking, was Jessie, a gentle Doberman-Lab and a permanent temporary house guest - a gift from my brother after a move. On Christmas holidays, our three-dog pack loved to run through the snowy woods near our home, sniffing for deer and squirrels and barking greetings to canine friends encountered on the trail.

Booboo was the leader, dashing off and hiding behind a tree or bush in a game of hide-and-seek. Baby and Jessie would follow. The trio loved to go for rides in the Jeep, which became a handy tool for rounding them up after a long walk. I'd open the door and the three would bound in, Booboo to the driver's seat, Baby at shotgun and Jessie sprawled out on the back seat. It didn't matter that their wheels were going nowhere. The pack would be happy for an hour or more on their imaginary rides. When we did hit the road, traveling for the holidays, the girls took turns at the rear windows, rolled down a few inches to provide exotic air for sniffing.

If the destination was our place in Maine, the pack would sense it 20 miles away and "Are we there yet?" anticipation would build in the back. Maine was fun because there was Lilly Pond, a tiny frozen glacial lake to slide on, fresh smells and a rich variety of debris along ocean beaches, and snow drifts to run through on the long sloping meadow behind our house.

The late December days are short on that northern island. The silent nights are bright with stars. And the vitality of the dogs was a gift best treasured far from the distractions of the city.

The dogs are gone now. Even after months and years it's hard to believe. I still listen for them to stir when turning the key in our back door or wake up, imagining I hear a muffled bark. Booboo went first, then Baby two years ago and last Christmas an elderly Jessie was already seriously ill when we visited our daughter in New York. She still roused herself for walks around the Brooklyn block and nibbled at treats from her Christmas stocking.

We're just too busy now, my wife and I agree, when we talk about finding new companions. But, truth be told, we're not yet ready to give up the ghosts of our beloved pack scampering past the Christmas tree, loving life.

- Larry Williams

Hanukkah lights

Does Santa know I'm Jewish?

Nothing I learned from the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary prepared me for that question. And the 6-year-old in the back seat of the car was waiting for an answer.

Oh yes, he knows. God told him.

Santa talks to God?

Oh, yes, I said confidently and (I hoped) convincingly, God lets Santa know which houses celebrate Hanukkah.

The boy was thinking it over, his question born out of personal need. He was trying to find his footing at a time of the year when every radio jingle, store window and television announcer reminds him of what he is not. He wanted to know his place. At 6 years old, some things are very clear and others not. My answer seemed to satisfy him, reassure him, I thought.

Never more so than now have I realized how this season can make the roughly one out of 20 Americans who don't worship Jesus feel like outsiders. From the Christmas carols in the mall to the inflatable snow globes on front lawns to the Santa riding in the local fire truck to those babies in the mangers, the trappings are tough to ignore and harder yet to dismiss. Especially for a 6-year-old.

I've been navigating two faiths for 20 years now. My husband and I don't worship in the same place, though we both strongly identify with our respective faiths. We long ago negotiated the holidays. I host Passover dinner most every year, but spend Easter morning in church, often at a West Baltimore Catholic parish with a close friend. Christmas with my family in New York avoided the problem of a tree in our Baltimore rowhouse; it never seemed quite fair to expect my Jewish husband to take on that ritual. They were called Hanukkah bushes where I grew up.

In my house, a collection of menorahs lines the fireplace mantle, gifts to my husband over the years. (He did return the one shaped like a motorcycle.) And often, we light several of them. While stationed in the Middle East some years ago, I accepted with sincere gratitude a free Christmas tree from the Jerusalem municipality, which gave them out at an entrance to the walled Old City, the heart of the Jewish capital. The trees were the pruned remains of Israel's national forests, among the thousands planted with donations from Jews worldwide. That remains one of my fondest memories of celebrating this bi-religious life.

Now there is a third person in our family, and our accommodations are not his. He knows he's Jewish and his mother isn't, but that doesn't answer all the questions. Menorahs made with his small hands have found a place on the mantle. This year, he brought home the newest one for the collection, oddly shaped and painted blue and green. A Starship menorah, he announced, and of course it was. Small gifts are exchanged, though he has tried to convince us that the gift-giving increases with each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. He's a kid, all right.

Klezmer music prompts some dancing after the candles are lit, and then we say good night.

As before, we will travel to New York, and this year, our 6-year-old will bring along his Starship menorah and a box of candles because as he says proudly, Thursday is the fifth night of Hanukkah.

- Ann LoLordo

Give yourself a present

This has been a tough year, so there really was no question of indulging in extravagant holiday gift-giving.

I ended up buying CDs, DVDs and the usual tchotchkes for family and loved ones.

People are still shopping despite the parlous state of the economy. It's Americans' remarkable resilience.

We keep thinking things are going to get better, even though they often get a lot worse before they do. Shopping is outpatient therapy while we're waiting.

During all the buying and gift-wrapping, I hardly gave a thought to what I might get, though. You finally do realize that it's better to give than to receive, and also you're more aware of how blessed we Americans already are. There are so many tragedies in the world - cholera in Zimbabwe, starvation in Congo, anarchy in Somalia - that put our own difficulties, however painful, in perspective.

The other night a guy on the radio said we shouldn't take the holidays too seriously, not run around like lunatics trampling store clerks to death just to get a flat-screen TV at half-price. Plus the older one gets, the harder it becomes to imagine anything that someone might give you that actually would make you feel that much better anyway, except maybe love.

Which set me thinking: Maybe people should give themselves a present, some small token of self-affirmation and regard for having pulled through another year more or less intact.

Nothing, mind you, that's only going to cause problems later. Not some family's foreclosed home or a new SUV. Ditto martinis for people who have been on the wagon, or that last cigarette when you're trying to quit. Things you know are bad for you can't be gifts of love.

Some people gift themselves with lists of New Year's resolutions. But what does that say if you end up breaking most of them? Love doesn't mean much if you don't follow through.

How about just giving yourself some time to reflect and peace of mind, both of which are always in short supply? That surely would be unexpected.

- Glenn McNatt

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