Hear Us Howl

When the kids were young, Christmas was a big Broadway show. There was a live orchestra … dancers. I was the screamy narrator. Posh was the director. Every child actor thought they were the main star.

If there were critics, they would have hated it. One would call it, “A gothic caricature, derivative of every Christmas cliché you can think of: the demanding kids, the stressed-out parents, with a Biblical vibe that is long past its prime.”

I’d sure hope so.

From movies and TV, we are conditioned to think there is one ideal Christmas, a big Broadway show. Really, there are 100 ways to celebrate the day — bold or quiet, happy or a little hurt.

Christmas hurts sometimes, when you are alone, or missing loved ones who are gone or are far away. Or maybe you feel forgotten and left out. Certainly, this Covid Christmas only aggravates that.

But Christmas survives everything: Wars, Covid, even skeptics.

As I write this, it is raining. It’s almost noon, but so dark that I have the outside lights on. There’s a fire in the fireplace.

There is gumbo in the fridge, and my son Smartacus is home and healthy. The other day, I offered to make him an omelet — a Christmas omelet. It came in weighing 24 pounds. He ate it like Santa. Couldn’t have taken more than 30 seconds.

Did I prefer a house full of screamy squirrels wearing PJs, counting down the hours till Santa? To be honest, yes.

Yet, this is so good too. And I appreciate it way more.

At our fathers’ feast the other night, where many of my best buddies snuggled up to the steaks and martinis we love, there came a point when all the guys were yammering at once, an incessant holiday chatter.

No one was listening, and no one cared whether anyone was listening. It was like we were howling with happiness.

Here’s to that happy buzzy moment when — Christmas in our cheeks — no one will shut up.

The kids are grown, we’re grown, and somehow we’re still celebrating the season with loud, howling dinners.

“To friends who are family and family who are friends. Salud!” goes my favorite toast.

I once wrote that “Christmas is so resonant, Tchaikovsky set it to music.”

Yet, a bigger Christmas isn’t necessarily a better Christmas, nor more resonant. Christmas is really where you find it. Its greatest value may be the way it allows us to honor family and friends, in small restorative ways.

Below is an old chestnut from the early days, when the kids were squirrels. Hope you enjoy it.

For now and forever: Merry Christmas, from our crazy home to yours.

OUR NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

From Dec. 24, 1996 (the lovely and patient older daughter was 13, the boy 10, and Rapunzel 5. Smartacus had yet to come along)

The boy is standing over my bed like a drunk at the buffet table, tired and teetering, ready to fall face first at any moment.

“Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad?”

His voice is way up in his throat, even higher than usual. Apparently, he just had a nightmare.

“Go back to bed,” I say.

“But Daaaaad…”

I know I shouldn’t do it. If you let one kid in bed with you for one night, you’ve got him there all year. But it’s cold. And it’s Christmastime, the season for taking in stragglers.

“Thanks Dad.”

He settles in next to me, all elbows and knees, bones like broom handles.

“You OK?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

I go back to where I was when he arrived, in that place in my head that worries about money. It’s almost Christmas, too late to worry about money. But I worry anyway.

“Dad?”

This voice doesn’t belong to the boy. It’s much lower. It’s either his baby sister. Or Frank Sinatra.

“Dad?”

“What’s the story, morning glory?” I ask.

“I can’t sleep.”

Five minutes later, the older sister arrives. So at 1:15 in the morning, there are 3 kids in the bed.

That’s right, we are sleeping with the enemy.

The kids are wedged between my wife and me, with their hands to their sides, staring at the ceiling and breathing through their mouths. Slowly, the mirror on my wife’s dresser begins to fog.

In December, all kids breathe through their mouths. That’s because in December, all kids have Christmas colds.

The angel who started it all: The lovely and patient older daughter.

So, as my 3 mouth-breathers drift off to sleep, I go back to that place in my head that worries about money. There is still no money there, but I go back anyway.

“What’s that?” the younger one asks.

“What?”

“I heard something,” she whispers.

There’s that pause you get whenever a bunch of people stop to listen for something. As usual, no one hears a thing.

“Go to sleep,” her brother growls.

“Dad, I really heard something,” the 5-year-old says. “It sounded like (emitting a hiss of excitement)…Santa!”

“What?”

“I think he’s checking on us,” she says.

“To see if we’ve been naughty or nice,” teases her older sister.

“Yup,” the 5-year-old says.

Her 10-year-old brother reacts with a scoff in the back of the throat that sounds roughly like someone gagging on a piece of Beef Wellington.

“I hear it too,” I say.

“See?” the 5-year-old says.

“Dad?” the 13-year-old says.

“Huh?”

“Grow up.”

Tough crowd. I believe in Santa. They don’t. Who are they to judge?

In the old days, I could read them “The Night Before Christmas” and that was all they needed to know.

A couple of years later, I read them, “Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.”

“Santa exists as surely as hope and reason and MTV,” I told them.

The boy: Gone but hardly forgotten.

Now the older kids are panting a little, for they think they have me trapped in a lie.

“Ever hear of Einstein?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“Ever hear of his Theory of Relativity?” I ask.

“No.”

“Then lie back and let me tell you about Santa Claus,” I say.

“Oh for the love of gawd,” says Posh.

With that, the 13-year-old attempts to bolt. But she is trapped under the covers.  Too bad.

“So, according to Einstein, here’s how Santa does it,” I begin.

“Einstein knew that, under the right conditions, time can dilate and space contract.”

“Huh?” says the boy.

“LET ME OUT!!!” cries the older daughter.

“On Dec. 24, “ I continue, “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is fulfilled at the North Pole, the center of Earth’s rotation and the point of convergence of its powerful electromagnetic field.

“When that happens, a rip develops in the fabric of time, allowing Santa to slip through. Until he comes back through that rip, time stands still. This allows him enough time to deliver packages all around the world.”

I pause a moment to let all that science sink in.

“Any questions?” I ask.

Complete silence. I’m beginning to think I’ve won them over. Or at least confused them – the very essence of persuasion.

“Dad, they’re asleep,” the older daughter says.

We lie there a little longer, me and the know-it-all teenager, the one who once believed everything I said, and now believes absolutely nothing I say.

I mean, I love skeptics. I just wish they wouldn’t grow up quite so fast.

“Dad?” she says, finally breaking the silence.

“What, honey.”

“I think I heard something,” she says.

“Santa?”

“Yeah.”

I hit her with a pillow. She hits me back.

“Thanks, honey.”

“’Night, Dad.”

This column is from the book “Surviving Suburbia,” a collection of my early columns. You can still find a few used copies here, on Amazon. Most of the last remaining copies are in a box in my basement. If you’re interested, please email me at Letters@ChrisErskineLA.com. If there’s enough interest, I’ll send them out ($20 each, which would include shipping and an optional note/signature).

Meanwhile, thanks to Magee Finn (my son-in-law’s clever sister), for the Covid Test Tree (photo at top). We make the best of things, right?

Also, thanks to NBC’s Conan Nolan, host of “News Conference.” Conan is one of our best local journalists, with 40 years in the LA market. I’ll be on his show Saturday, Dec. 25 at 5 pm, on Channel 4 (most cable services) and again Sunday at 9 am. We’ll talk about a Covid Christmas, LA and its newest landmark, SoFi Stadium. Cheers.

14 thoughts on “Hear Us Howl

  1. Chris, you have some actual angels on your tree, just as you did in your bed that long-ago Christmas Eve. This is far from a “chestnut.” It is a shining treasure. Love that you gave us TWO presents: Christmas Past and Christmas Present. Only God knows what Christmas Future holds. Many blessings to you and your wonderful brood. Merry Christmas and may Santa be very good to you!

  2. 1976 spent thanksgiving , Christmas and New Year under the water on a Nuclear Submarine , it’s sucked but looking back we made it fun

  3. Thanks for sharing your wit, wisdom, musings and reflections (past and present) with us. Love the time travel back to 1996 Christmas Eve. What a treasure. Merry Christmas Chris!

  4. The hits kept coming for Joe the Carpenter. He no sooner got engaged to the village beauty, when she got knocked up by God knows who. He was kind enough to forego his right to have her stoned to death, when an Angel in a dream told him, “yeah, we’re going to need you to care for Mary and that kid for the rest of their lives. And, no monkeying around with Mary, either.” The kid comes, and he’s so beautiful, a son, and Mary’s so beautiful, Joseph’s thinking, I could do worse. “Hold up, Joe, one more thing: off you go to Egypt. Say goodbye to everything and everyone you’ve ever known.” “Take the ass, Mary shouldn’t walk.” Well, you know the rest. He pays the bills. He stands guard at night. He teaches that little bastard how to sand and buff. Here’s to all the Joes. Here’s to all the dads at Christmas. L’chaim.

  5. Yes, guys all yammering at once. Not a lovelier sound except for a baby’s soft breath while sleeping! Merry Christmas, Chris, to you and yours.

  6. You had me at: To our boy..gone but not forgotten. Photos on the tree and stockings still hung by the chimney with care. Bad club, but I cherish you and the others who share the holiday void!! Thanks for the walk on the beach! Merry Christmas!! Your MB buddy.

  7. Holidays with family are lovely. For anyone completely alone (Hi!) do something nice for someone else. This year I will be serving Christmas lunch/dinner to the homeless in Palm Springs. The best gift is what comes back to you.

  8. Lovely, sir. Thank you for sharing the musings of Christmas present and past. We have angels hanging on our tree to remember loved ones. Like you, I hang them with great love and care. I’m stealing your toast and I’ll give you credit if anyone is listening. Merry Christmas to you and your beautiful family.

  9. Here’s to you Chris Erskine – toasting with your very own G&T tumblers (any excuse for any early drink). I love you.
    Your pal,
    Judy

  10. Thank you these memories, and you’re right they help when it hurts. Bless you all and to all a good night.

  11. Did you write a book about the summer vacation with your family via RV? If yes, I’d like to reread it.

  12. Beautiful Chris. Taking the time to savor every moment is the essence of living life fully. You clearly know how to do it. Covid is forcing us to look back at those golden moments and re-embrace them. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Glad you’re enjoying the moments. Here’s to a much better 2022!

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