When I was a very young child, I was baffled, bewildered, mesmerized and amazed by the whole “holiday” experience. From the moment Santa waved in my direction at the end of the Macy’s parade to the knuckle-gnawing night spent blearily searching the skies for the hint of a UFO, I was one exceptionally well-behaved, cooperative, cheerfully confused, oft-dumbstruck little kid.
Despite being a very spiritually ambiguous and socially diverse household, the Gareys of yore certainly knew how to celebrate a multi-cultural, non-traditional festival: Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyeaux Noel, Feliz Navidad, Frihliche Weihnachten, Buon Natale drenched family conversations as thoroughly as the perspiration that soaked the velvet, lace and ribbon bedecked costumes my parents, brother, cats and I wore for our annual studio portraits. Golden menorahs and dreidels made of clay. Advent calendars, greeting cards from who-knew-who, blue candles and lantern-lit windows. Daddy atop a ladder, staple gun in one hand, gargantuan tangle of red, green and white lights slung over the other, very naughty, un-Christmasy words muttered under his breath as he transformed our home into a gingerbread house. Candy canes, gefilte fish, egg nog, potato latkes, roasted chestnuts, bagels, hot chocolate, strudel, cider, surreptitious sips of peppermint schnappes. Bing Crosby, Rudolph and Frosty, rustling wrapping paper, curls of ribbon, tall, lush evergreens covered in priceless porcelain baubles, bubbling lights and “silver sauerkraut” topped by the star Daddy had made from precious tin foil, cardboard and painted with nail polish during the frugal years of World War II. Warnings that the slightest infraction of family rules ensured a stocking filled with coal; veiled hints that proper behavior would bring me the Betsy-Wetsy doll I craved. It was a month-long season of sensory overload that oft-times stunned me speechless and scared the hell out of me. I loved it… I think.
Did the cats love it? Who knew? As I recall, they appeared to enjoy stalking the tinsel, attacking errant strands of ribbon or lights and couldn’t resist investigating crumples of paper or empty boxes. They tolerated it – temporarily – when I daily adorned their heads with stick-on bows. The holiday snacks seemed to entice them and, if memory serves, happily wrestled with their colorful new schmousies. Best of all, they listened solemnly, attentively, as I mulled over what marvels each day had brought or might bring, and never objected when all I could do was hug them in mute delight. But did it really matter that to them that it was called “Christmas?”