Christmas, dazzling Christmas. Depending on who you are, it can be sacred or secular, peaceful or frenzied. For most, though, it's a time for nostalgia and reflection, a pause to savor the memories of holiday seasons long gone but never far from the heart.
But what are the memories we cherish most? Visions of sparkling meadows blanketed with snow? Fragrant Christmas trees, freshly cut from a nearby hillside? Carolers knocking at the front door?
No way, Jose'.
Face it. City snow is pretty much like toxic waste, while the average Christmas tree is on its last legs, spindly and shedding, after a two-month wait on some loading dock. Carolers? Forget it! A half-dozen people pounding the door in my old Brooklyn neighborhood would have been greeted by a squad car.
No. The best holiday memories are bittersweet. Holly wreaths and roasted chestnuts are OK. But the real treasures are reminiscences of all the silly, gauche, flawed, yet ultimately wonderful people and things that may have vexed then but bring only tears of joy decades later.
Take Rex, "The Fire-Eating Dog," as he came to be known after one legendary pre-Christmas 1957 incident. Rex was a beady-eyed mixture of schnauzer, beagle, terrier and Lord knows what else. He was probably the world's stupidest dog. But our next-door neighbors, the D'Angelos, were convinced he was another Rin-Tin-Tin.
"Look at Rex. What a great dog!," Mr. D'Angelo would bellow as he demonstrated "tricks" like getting the mutt to sit up and beg for a dog biscuit. The crowning achievement came when he trained Rex to fetch a thrown stick. Now most dogs instinctively know stick-fetching from puppyhood, but it took Mr. D'Angelo and his wife several months of pitching a sycamore branch off the front stoop before Rex began retrieving it on a more or less regular basis.
Eventually, Rex's pea-sized brain did absorb The Message: "Bring stick back. Drop it."
It was about a week before Christmas when the fat hit the fan.
My father was in the middle of the holiday painting project, an annual ritual. He was an oil paint and brush man -- no sissy rollers or latex paint -- so we all got sick from the fumes every year. Also a family tradition.
"This stuff costs three bucks a gallon, but there's nothing like it for radiators" the Old Man was saying. He was stirring a gallon can of Anchor-Excelsior aluminum paint, an obscure brand that he swore by.
Suddenly we heard the wail of fire sirens. It was about 10 degrees outside, but my mother had thrown open a kitchen window and was yelling, "Oh, my God, the D'Angelos's apartment is on fire."
What excitement! It took me about a micro-second to dash into the street.
Firemen were hosing down the place and the D'Angelos were arguing loudly, alternately with themselves, then with the firemen. Every so often, Mr. D'Angelo would shake a finger at Rex and scream, "Bad dog!" -- or something along that line.
Mr. D'Angelo, it turned out, had been putting up a Christmas tree. It was a hemlock, a scraggly evergreen that for some reason was wildly popular in Brooklyn in those days. It was a trifle too tall, so he cut off the top and handed it to his wife, who promptly tossed it into the fireplace. As the D'Angelos stood admiring their hemlock, Rex dutifully yanked the now-flaming treetop from the fireplace and deposited it on the new wall-to-wall carpeting.
The rest, as they say, is history.
No one was hurt, but the carpet was a goner. A stack of Christmas gifts also went up in flames. To make matters worse, Rex nipped one of the firemen on the leg. There was even a fine of some kind. The D'Angelos were not amused.
My parents were still at the window when I dashed in with the latest news. Ker-wunkk! I had kicked something over. Oh, no! The Anchor-Excelsior aluminum paint! A whole gallon of it. All over my shoes. All over the floor. What a mess. What a stink. It spread, quicksilver-like, covering the living room linoleum.
Six hours and a half-dozen old sheets later, the Old Man and I had gotten most of the gunk off the floor. My shoes -- black wing-tips -- were permanently stained a kind of purplish-silver.
The Old man plopped onto the couch, pried the cap off a bottle of Trommer's White Label and filled two jelly glasses. "Here, you can have some beer, too. Just don't tell your mother." He lit a cigarette and blew a smoke ring toward the ceiling, "It's been a real nut house here today, you know?"
I sipped at the beer, not really liking it, but feeling grown up and proud, "Yeah," I replied, trying to sound as world-weary as possible. "It was a real mess, but we took care of it."
I also knew a secret.
While pulling the sheets from the closet, I discovered my Christmas present -- a Cox model airplane with an .027 glow-plug engine, the kind that really flies. I knew it cost $15, and the Old Man said he couldn't afford it. But there it was -- the present I had dreamed of for the past three years.
I endured a week of taunts about the shoes. "Hey, moth (pronounced "mawt" -- a grave insult), where'd ya get the fruit boot?" hooted the notorious Ryan brother before pelting me with gravel-filled snowballs. But who cared? I was getting the best present in the world.
When the Big Day finally arrived, I feigned great surprise over the model plane, listened dutifully to the Old Man give a safety lecture, then took off like a shot.
I fired up the engine in the playground across the street and watched the red and yellow "Sky Dancer" streak into the frigid air. My hands were so numb that I never felt the control line slip from between my fingers. My eyes widened in horror as the precious gift headed straight up. Higher and higher it climbed, to where no model plane ever had been. Then it flipped over and plummeted straight down, hitting the concrete pavement. It smashed into 100 pieces.
There were tears in my eyes as I scooped up the pitiful wreckage.
"Well, you'll get another one someday," the Old Man said, trying to console me. "Sometimes things happen like that."
Yeah. Sometimes they do. I never did get another plane, though. The D'Angelos moved to Long Island in the spring, taking Rex with them. The Ryan brothers joined the Marines. And I painted my shoes with Anchor-Excelsior black fence paint. Worked great.
I've forgotten a lot about most Christmases -- fruitcakes, cheesy ties, plastic poinsettias and fake Currier-and-Ives prints. All that. But there are some things you remember ... forever.