Dressed in their finest dresses, sweaters and clip-on bow ties, a dozen cousins–the byproducts of the four brothers and their wives encircling them in dining room chairs–played and screamed and tousled together on the parlor room floor, well-energized after the completion of a complete Italian-American holiday meal: ham, chicken cutlets, meatballs, baked ziti, and a salad if any room on the plate remained.
Dessert was coming, the adults told us. “Just preparing it in the other room.”
Suddenly one of our fathers interrupted the revelry and, in over-the-top fashion because Servideos have no subtlety, proclaimed loudly for all to hear: “I just heard from Santa–”
“Santa? Coming here?”
“Turns out,” the uncle continued, “he might be able to stop by tonight before he gets to work, as long as his elves stay ahead of schedule.”
The girls giggled with delight. I squealed.
“Nick!” my brother shook our cousin. “Did you hear what Uncle Jimmy just said?”
Rolling their eyes, only Uncle Frankie’s two oldest boys abstained from the gossip. Ten of us were close in age–separated only by a few years between the senior and junior in the bunch–and Lucas and Karl were on the cusp of teenage angst and attitude while the rest of us were still dedicated believers.
Moments later, bells jingled on the front lawn. We rushed to the windows that looked out over the snow-topped hedges in the garden. We pressed our faces against glass distorted by the fog from our own breaths and fought to catch a glimpse.
“Is that him?”
“By Uncle Frankie’s van.”
“There, I see him!”
“I don’t. Move over, Zach. Let me look.”
The door flew open and a flurry of white powder floated inside. Then, to our utter disbelief even though it had occurred the year before and again the Christmas before that, the jolliest creature mankind has ever conjured crossed the threshold with a massive sack slung over his shoulder filled with all the hopes of our tantalized imaginations.
All my life, I’ve spent Christmas Eve with my father’s side of the family. Those first years I can remember–somewhere in the haze of three years-old to third grade–Grammy and Papa hosted at their house in Chelsea. It was the years before divorces began to erase aunts and tear cousins in new directions, before the oldest and rotten among us spoiled the truth about Santa for the youngest, before Papa’s stroke opened up a wound that never fully healed.
It’s unlikely there was snow on the ground every year on the 24th of December, but when I mine my memories of this period that’s what I see: an entire world painted white, the powder covering the roof of my grandparents’ house and their neighbors, high frozen banks buffering the road as our car came to a stop at the end of the driveway.
Mom and Dad unloaded their cargo, miraculously finding a way to carry my baby sister and the food and the presents with only four hands, all the while keeping my older brother and I from slipping on the black ice since we had to be trusted to walk alone.
The door opened, and as far as my memories are concerned Grammy greeted us, red curls bouncing atop her head, a massive smile immediately warming me up as she drew us in from the December night. In the background, Papa waved hello while continuing to goof around with his grandchildren gathered at his feet, boisterously telling a joke with a punchline that made the children laugh and an aunt half-heartedly bemoan its inappropriateness.
The party was underway already because most of the family lived much closer than the forty minute drive from our house. My brother and I immediately rushed to our throng of cousins to join whatever fun began without us. Male and female cliques formed. Braids were pulled and suspenders were snapped. The evening sped by, as life’s most joyous moments do.
Once Santa arrived to steal the show and the attention of the children, we all took turns on his knee. Coincidentally, he had a sense of humor that meshed perfectly with the crudeness of the family, and he seemed to enjoy inside jokes with Dad and his brothers. We posed for pictures–as much as children in the throes of ecstasy on their happiest night of the year can be controlled–and jockeyed for position to be as close to our hero as possible.
Gifts were distributed in a pre-ordained order: someone from Uncle Jimmy’s family, then our family, and so on. The adults, experts on our meltdowns, were careful to balance the distribution, but it didn’t stop temper tantrums at most or jealous glances at least as we judged our gifts against those of our peers, like the year J.P. received an electronic handheld football game and I was inconsolable after inexplicably receiving tennis.
Eventually, Dad or an uncle would loudly interrupt the proceedings, “Now Santa, don’t you have a busy night ahead of you?”
“No!” we cried in unison.
“One more song!” someone proposed.
After a chorus of “Jingle Bells,” the goodbyes began. Santa calmed our growing disappointment with a promise that we all had more coming our way if we could only muster the patience until morning.
The party wrapped up quickly after the star of the show departed. It would have been hard to peel the cousins away from each other at the start of the evening, but now we had every reason to rush home and fall asleep in our own beds, knowing what awaited us under the trees in our living rooms the next morning. None of the cousins liked parting with each other, but there were enough of us that a birthday party was inevitably right around the corner.
The long drive home put me to sleep, either because I had expended too much energy on my tantrum or because a peaceful jaunt through the night with a pilot as trusted as my father left me no choice. Once home, Dad scooped me delicately from the backseat and carried me from the cold dark driveway to the gentle reception of my bed in the lower bunk, leaving my dreams undisturbed and uninterrupted until daylight broke through the slits of my window shades to signal the day I’d imagined throughout the night.
I can’t say how many years of actual events conspired to create these memories, this amalgamation of several holidays that floods my mind every Christmas season with something nostalgic and obscured, but overwhelmingly fuzzy and warm. I know things changed, both the setting and the people and the general feeling children eventually release about Christmas.
I know good holidays would follow in subsequent years, albeit in new forms, like the good run in my late teens and early twenties at my old house in Methuen when our branch of the family hosted, where we shoved beer bottles into the snow piled on the lawn beside the front porch instead of using a cooler, where I had my turn as a tall skinny Santa to give the young children of an uncle’s second marriage a brief taste of what we had those early years when our family was at its zenith.
All family’s traditions evolve over time and ours is no different. I’m not the only one who’s married and has a new family with which I must balance my time. I’m not the only one who’s moved away and requires a cross-country flight to visit his loved ones. The Servideo cousins that played in the parlor of Grammy and Papa’s Chelsea house have begun to add members to the next generation of our clan, but we still matter to each other, our shared history connecting us just as much as our blood.
Our new traditions will eventually take shape, but in the meantime these reflections of my family’s golden past are enough. It was half a lifetime ago when I shook off the magic and wonder incumbent on any dedicated believer of all things Christmas–that the big man was real, that those presents filling the entirety of our dining room floor were transported in a red sack on the back of a sleigh that circumvented the globe in one night–but once those distracting myths were pushed aside it became easier to look back and recognize the real magic that was there all along; the ingredient to the season that everyone has in their special family recipe and is worth preserving for the next batch of children clamoring for a moment of Santa’s time.