I drove my son to school last Wednesday morning, and for the first time in a long while for me, I realized that I’m looking forward to Christmas.
Despite being the only introvert besides my father and grandparents (my dad’s parents…who passed away when I was a kid my son’s age) at a family gathering of 50+ people every year, I loved Christmas as a kid. It wasn’t because my birthday is close to Christmas (like our son’s is). It wasn’t because of the time off of school (I loved school…that’s where all my friends and structure were). It wasn’t because of the presents. I got presents as a kid, but not many and it wasn’t like I was getting a truckload of stuff (like our son does) or I had so much of everything I ever wanted that I had a hard time even answering the question, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ (like our son does). It wasn’t even because I got to see family I didn’t get to see the rest of the year or something. My extended family did (and still does) get together ALL THE TIME. I saw most of them nearly every Sunday of my life.
It was because of my Uncle B.
Christmas growing up was always at Uncle B’s house. His birthday was on Christmas day. And one would think (hell, our son gets told this…sometimes by people in our family who also have birthdays near Christmas), that would make him feel ‘cheated’ out of getting both birthday presents and Christmas presents…out of getting both birthday attention and Christmas attention…on two separate days. But he could not have been more contrary to that way of thinking and feeling and behaving.
Uncle B was 20 years older than my dad, so if we were alive today, he’d be 87 on Christmas Day. And he had 12 kids, the oldest of whom is 11 months younger than my dad. My dad became an uncle before he was a year old. (My family is super big and Catholic, if I’ve never mentioned that before).
And on Christmas (his birthday) every year, Uncle B invited our entire family– his parents (my grandparents when they were living), his brother (my dad) and his family (my mom and me and my brother when he came along), and his sisters and their families, along with (obviously) his own wife and kids and grandkids (my Uncle B had one grandchild older than me…and a whole bunch more grandkids younger than me) and for the ones old enough, THEIR dates and sometimes even their friends (my Uncle B and Aunt D…his wife…despite having 12 of their own kids and several grandchildren…kind of unofficially adopted one of their sons’ good friends who was having trouble with his own family at home…he gave them a graduation photo to put on the Wall of Graduation Photos they had in their kitchen). Every gathering was a minimum of 50 people. Their house was a downtown rowhouse with very little available parking, 2 small sitting rooms, a big eat-in kitchen, 5 bedrooms (2 of the bedrooms and 1 of the sitting rooms were add-ons…and 1 of the bedrooms was a converted section of unfinished basement/crawl space) and…ONE BATHROOM. It was crowded and tight and loud and even kind of…I mean…there was ONE BATHROOM for a minimum of 50 people to share. But I still loved Christmas every year. Because of Uncle B.
He was thrilled to have his whole family under his roof. He was thrilled to feed us all (everyone brought things to share…you have to with a gathering that huge…but still…Uncle B and Aunt D supplied and made a lot of it). He presided over handing out the mountain (not literary hyperbole here…it was a MOUNTAIN…everyone brought all their gifts for 50+ people to exchange…it was a lot) of presents under the tree in the back sitting room, decorated with homemade popsicle-stick sleds with every child and grandchild’s name written on them. He was cheerful and good-humored and kind and he wasn’t overweight and bearded and I can’t remember him ever wearing red, but I sort of always thought of him as real life Santa Claus, because of how gift exchange went at his house every year.
We’d all get there for a late dinner (about 7ish) on Christmas Eve, and eat, and open gifts after everyone arrived and ate something, and then we’d all watch It’s a Wonderful Life on television (some of the younger ones would fall asleep) and we’d stay up late, and put our coats on and walk to church (which was up the street) in the cold for Midnight Mass. And back in the day, when I was still A Believer, Santa came while I was up late singing Christmas carols in church and I went home to THAT joy on top of all the stuff at Uncle B’s house (my parents didn’t indulge me in a lot of childhood joy and magic, but they really did take Santa Claus seriously…another post on that to come later this week).
And Uncle B was sort of like the Ghost of Christmas Present in the Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol too.
“Come in, and know me better, man!”
I mean, really, my Uncle B was like that. He lived his life in a very selfless way, and his example actually inspired several pieces of the romantic heroes I’ve written. “You don’t have to have much, but you should always share what you have…especially if you have a lot.” And he always believed he had a lot. He was sort of an arguably irrational optimist like me. Haha!
Anyone I would talk to now in an unedited way about my Uncle B and Aunt D and their life situation would have surely considered them poor. They were, I guess, on paper. No one in my family has ever been rich, or even…comfortable. Not like J and I are now, for sure. Nowhere close. But boy, I sure felt like we were all living the high life at their house as a kid celebrating Christmas. Uncle B made us all feel rich.
Anyway, since he passed away in 2012, Christmas has felt a little less like Christmas for me every year. Some of that was maybe The Boy growing up and losing the belief in Santa Claus. Some of it was advancing social anxiety and discovered moral differences that make me uncomfortable talking to a fairly large swath of my extended family. Some of it is admitted disillusionment with humanity and the state of the world in general. But not this year.
This year, I went out to lunch with my godfather (Uncle B’s second oldest son…he’s my first cousin, but he’s 24 years older than me, so he’s more like an uncle, but I just call him by his first name…because he’s not my uncle). I helped him make a photo Christmas card to send out that included pictures of his parents (my Uncle B and Aunt D)…one at their wedding, one at their 25th anniversary, one at their 50th (they were married for 60 years before my Uncle B passed away). And I left a big tip for the waitress (a huge tip…like a 90% tip). And my godfather said, ‘Jen, I think you left some of your money on the table,’ and I said (surprisingly without crying), ‘I did that on purpose. Uncle B would be proud of me for sharing what I have because I have a lot.’
I’m not really sure why I’m feeling a little more ‘Christmas-y’ this year than I have in quite a while. But I do. And I’m not sure what is making me think so much about my Uncle B lately. But I am. And I’m sure those things are related. ❤