Somehow, I found a note about HCI Books looking for stories sharing the feeling of Christmas for a book they intended to publish. Well, I had one right in my pocket. So I emailed it to the publisher. Boom. Accepted for publication and today it sits between the covers of HCI's "The Ultimate Christmas." Boy, did I think getting published thereafter was going to be a breeze! Thanks, Santa!!!
The first (or so) draft of the story looked like this:
The Miracle of Christmas
By Joseph Hesch
I’ve been called all of the evil names connected to Christmas you can think of – Grinch, Scrooge, Poop (as in Party Pooper, I guess.) You name it. Hell, I remember some intellectual once threw a Herod the Great at me. People think I hate, or at least don’t like Christmas.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
I love everything Christmas is about, or is supposed to be about. But my history – and how I’ve reacted to it – doesn’t goose me into outbursts of Yule yippees.
When I was a little kid, and more so as a tween and teen, Christmas was always a tough time for my family. My Dad was an operating engineer, one of those bulldozer-driving dudes with the year-round farmer’s tan and no work from Hanukkah to spring.
I’m not going to tell you we suffered through bleak Christmases. We always had a decent tree and some presents, just not anything too extravagant or anything in excess. Classmates would come back to school after New Year’s crowing about the gifts they got. I would lay back and mention the one cool gift that Santa left me. Slippers, PJs, and stocking stuffers like oranges and Lifesavers didn’t count.
We were kind of lucky as young kids, because my Mom’s mom, Grandma Shortall, had only Mom, Aunt Betty, and Uncle Pat to gift at. Aunt Betty was wheelchair-bound with spina bifida and Pat was only ten years older than I. In other words, she had no grandkids to spoil but us. Again, though, the widow Shortall wasn’t rolling too many bills into a wad, herself. One gift, some home-knit mittens, chip and dip, and see ya!
On the way home from Christmas Eve at Grandma Shortall’s, Dad would drive a circuitous… no make that curlicue… route through the city. It gave those of us who had some awake left in us a ringside seat at the light show, one that starred all the houses in the soon-enough to be ghetto of Grandma’s west-of-West-Hill neighborhood, all around town and through the tony Pine Hills I would roam as a teen.
I would recline sideways across the backseat, my little brothers Jimmy and Billy propped in hooded-eyed doze against each other at my feet. So situated, I could see lights right, left, up and down, without moving my head. God, I loved that big old Chrysler!
Once home, the Old Man would start getting cranky about we little bastards getting our asses into bed. That’s pretty close to a verbatim quote, by the way.
It was at this time he would give me religion by repeating the story of his waking up in the middle of one Christmas Eve night and finding that the “right jolly old elf” didn’t want any underage sidewalk superintendents spying on his big night’s work. Dad said Santa eyeballed him, and maybe my Aunt Anita, and pulled out his reindeer whip and snapped it across their little Hesch butts.
I’d heard this story many times and it always gave me pause. At age seven I was academically advanced and reading Cooper, Twain and Melville, but I wasn’t so sophisticated that I would call the Old Man’s bluff and sneak a peak in the parlor after he and Mom turned off the tree. A pair of whip-heated buttocks for nightlights I did not need.
Hence, I slept – as I still tend to – with my head under the covers. It was warmer, it kept my bed-mate brother Jimmy from breathing onion dip on me, and, just in case, it kept me on the “Nice” list.
The following dawn we kids would be up before Mom and Dad, delighted to see that Santa had arrived and none of us had screwed up during the preceding year. Everybody had their own big gift and some cheap little stocking stuffers. I remember always getting these little cardboard and clear plastic maze puzzle thingies, where you had to maneuver a tiny BB from the outer ring to the center and vice versa. Combine the all-family gifts – some board games one year, a dartboard another, stuff we all could use – along with what Grandma Shortall gave us, and Grandma Hesch’s knitwear, and we were pretty happy little dudes. Honest.
After we went to Christmas morning mass with Mom – good little Catholic boy I was– we’d come back to our flat on Bradford Street and find Dad preparing a ham for baking with brown sugar and ginger ale glaze and pineapple slices and maybe some cherries. We also would see that he had opened his seasonal bottle of Manischewitz concord grape wine, sipping it from either an old piece of cut-glass stem wear or a Flintstone jelly jar. The Hedrick’s beer flowed from its brown quart bottles as the day’s celebration lengthened and loosened.
My across-the-street friends would soon surface with their noise, always looking to one-up our little Christmas.
Let’s say Little Joey got his Mattel Winchester repeating rifle, which fired real spring-loaded cartridges with plastic bullets and was the greatest toy ever. EVER! My cousins would be allowed to look at it (Joey would not share after December 24) and they would say “So! We got this real rawhide baseball. Toys are for babies.”
“Hey,” I would say one Christmas, “see these two books my Grandma Shortall gave me?”
“So!” they would whine, “We got to stay up and we knew there wasn’t really a Santa and my Dad brought the stuff down from the attic and you’re a baby if you still believe in Santa, Joey!”
I could have discovered a cure for cancer with my new microscope set one Christmas and they would have replied, “So! Our dad let us have beer last night.” Hold the Nobel, Sven. The Boys have tasted the future and hangovers always trump wiping out the scourge of mankind. You probably can see where my loser self image was forged, now, can’t you?
Nevertheless, Christmas was great for me as a kid, it’s just that I learned not to go overboard about it. We just couldn’t afford it. And I have always been OK with that. School would open again soon enough. Until then, I would read the five books I got from the library the Saturday before Christmas. The TV worked, even if Dad didn’t. We were OK.
In spring, the road jobs or the South Mall would open again and the Old Man would be back in the saddle of some fire-breathing, smoke-belching, yellow Caterpillar earth-raper. If he ran it, though, it was an earth-rapier, a precision blade with which to grade the earth. He was that damned good.
When I was welcomed into my future bride’s family, I learned and felt the absolute definition of the phrase “an embarrassment of riches.” Next to birthday’s, Christmas ruled at the Cummings’ house. I wasn’t used to carrying boxes of gifts just for me. So much stuff and so many boxes that I couldn’t see my feet, couldn’t see what was in front of me, and couldn’t see why anyone needed that much stuff. I’d hide about half of my Cummings gifts in the trunk of my car. I felt guilty about my little brothers seeing all that stuff.
They weren’t suffering or deprived. I had been conditioned to expect and accept less. Dad was making more money now and the union started giving him winter jobs running heaters to help cure concrete on building sites. He told me he’d sleep all night in the warm space between the concrete and the plastic that covered it. Considering the packs of unfiltered Camels he consumed since his teens, I figured a little carbon monoxide and the diesel exhaust in there wasn’t going to kill him. I was right.
Mom eventually got a job at Sears, which put them on relatively good financial footing. But the lean Christmases had been deeply imprinted on my psyche.
I still wince and shake my head at how my kids are spoiled at Christmas. Pat doesn’t think so. She’s a Cummings. The girls, visiting their affluent private school friends probably didn’t think so either. Aimee is the Christmas poster girl. She’d give gifts from Thanksgiving to Twelfth Night. Lauren wants the best, but has enough of me in her to keep her mouth shut. But the three of them never got to live through what I still think is the true miracle of Christmas.
No. It wasn’t anything like a virgin birth, word made flesh, Son of God, light in the East, “God bless us, every one” kind of miracle. But it was no less miraculous. It was more of a loaves and fishes kind of miracle.
How did an oft-unemployed heavy equipment jockey, paid probably for eight months or less (give or take the odd rollover, engine explosion-induced injury or downturn in the business) and his stay-at-home wife manage to pull off perfectly marvelous, want-for-nothing Christmases for their four, five and, ultimately, six kids? Answer: Save what you can, when you can, and learn to say “No” like you mean it for eight or nine months.
Dad would be collecting his unemployment check each week of the winter and Mom had saved a few bucks from each of his warm weather paychecks throughout the rest of the year. The Old Man would fix someone’s car for a few bucks plus a six-pack or a couple of quarts of Hedrick’s, Albany’s hometown King of Beers. We managed and didn’t feel deprived. What good would it do to stew over what we didn’t or couldn’t have? Why not celebrate what we did and could have?
No, I don’t get too excited about Christmas. Probably not like you and yours do. It makes me quiet and pensive, some think brooding. But I love Christmas because I’ve felt its spirit and I’ve seen its miracle. It really doesn’t take much.