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.
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