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Every Christmas one of the uncles would dress up as Santa. Technically, Santa was my Auntie Camille’s gig. Auntie always got the presents, wrapped them and stuffed them into a big pillowcase. Auntie is the keeper of the red suit, and every year she would recruit one lucky uncle to wear it.

Every Christmas Eve our entire family would gather at Grandma and Grandpa’s house where the air was fragrant with the rich smells of garlic, gravy, frying things and cigar smoke. First my brother and I would check out the eels swimming around in the kitchen sink and then we would go downstairs and play with our cousins until it was time for the “vigilia.”

The giant pool table in Grandma and Grandpa’s basement would be covered with a ping-pong board and tablecloth. And as the cozy fireplace crackled we would feast on all manner of exotic seafood. There would be chilled lobster, shrimp and crabmeat cocktails, baccala, calamari and octopus salads tossed with lemon, garlic and olive oil, fried smelts and eel and a steaming pot of pasta with seafood gravy.

Santa would always come after the “vigilia,” ringing and jingling his Santa bells, a pillowcase filled with presents for all the children slung over his shoulder.

What always gave Santa away were his eyes. Each year Santa’s eyes strongly resembled those of one of my uncles. One year Santa looked just like my hero, Uncle John, who would build card houses with me and my cousins and carry us on his shoulders. Another year he looked like my gentle Uncle Johnny Eye, who would draw pictures with us and tell us stories. And the next year, he looked like Uncle Junior, who would play monster with us and laugh as hard as any of us kids at any form of bathroom humor.

One Christmas, Santa even had my father’s eyes, deep set, smiling and framed with stiff white curls of fake nylon Santa hair. Part of me wanted to pull off his hat and beard and blow his cover, but my higher three-year-old self played along. It was touchingly clear that the grown-ups put a lot of love and effort into Santa’s visit. I wouldn’t spoil their game.

Eventually the uncles relinquished Santa’s role to the older cousins and as time passed, the older cousins’ resources expanded. I’m proud to say that on more than one occasion, I’ve had the honor.

My most recent Santa experience stands out, likely because Auntie gave me pictures. In every picture my eyes were the dead giveaway. Santa does not have brown eyes, nor does Santa pluck his eyebrows. Even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t dye them brown. Everyone knows that Santa’s eyebrows are white.

And I took such care to remove my earrings lest they peek out from behind the wig and beard and give the impression that Santa had cross-dressing tendencies. I remember making a note to watch what I said in front of the children when my cousins were helping me into the heirloom red suit. When they stuffed a pillow into the back of my trousers, I remarked that I was built like a sista.

Plucked brown eyebrows aside, I remember the exact moment I slipped out of character. The real Santa would never belch and then laugh raucously at himself. Nor would Santa announce that he couldn’t stay long because Rudolph had diarrhea, even if it were true. When leaving the building, Santa would not jingle his bell and ask everyone if they liked his big, fat butt.

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