Holiday Spirit

Image via jspad on Flickr
Image via jspad on Flickr

It was the end of December, and something was missing.

I wasn’t the only one who’d felt the absence. Several friends had mentioned the lack of that special December-y something in the air. I’d initially chalked it up to the lousy economy, but even the people I knew who still had money noticed it. The jaunty sleigh-bell tunes were tinny, the sonorous hymns flat, the winter wonderlands dismal and grey. Clearly something was wrong.

Not having anything else on my schedule, I decided to go looking for the elusive holiday spirit. How hard could it be to find it? I mean, like the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. How do you camouflage that?

I found traces of it here and there. Even though the donations were smaller, people were still giving to help the needy. Every now and then I’d come across a new piece of holiday music that wasn’t just cashing in on the season. A waitress at a regular joint threw in a free piece of pie with a wink and a “Merry Christmas.” But still it was nothing on the scale I’d usually see.

So I wrote off 2010 and gave up, heading to a blues joint for a glass of holiday cheer of my own.

That’s where I found him. I can’t tell you how I recognized him. I’m a storyteller. You just get a feeling for these things. But there he was, slouched at the bar. He was drunk.

I sat down on the barstool next to him, in a miasma of peppermint fumes. “Shouldn’t you be out there spreading cheer or good will to men something? What are you doing?”

He turned toward me. He was younger than I would have guessed, late thirties or early forties, close-cropped black hair, sallow complexion, sharp nose and chin, wiry build, in a red leather trench coat and green t-shirt — the kind of guy that finishes fights someone else starts, and with that coat in this kind of bar, he’s used to the fights. He glared at me through eyes like polished coal.

“I would tell you where to shove your goodwill but you might like it.” His accent was vaguely British, clipped, with a lot of travel mixed in. “Why do you care, anyway?” He reached across the battlefield of empty shot glasses for his beer.

I shrugged and ordered a drink of my own. “This year sucked. I was hoping for a little cheer to taken the edge off all the disappointment. You know. It’s traditional.”

He glared at me over his glass. “Traditional, is it? What do you know about tradition, anyway?”

“I know enough to recognize you.”

At that he paused, staring into space for a moment, then shrugged. “Fair enough. What do you want to know?”

“Why are you in here getting drunk on peppermint schnapps and beer—”

“Cider, thank you very much!”

“—cider, when you are supposed to be easing the burden of a weary world?”

“Easing the— Do you really talk like that? Hell, do you believe that!?” He leaned over to me and dramatically sniffed. “Sure you aren’t the one who’s blotto?”

I tried not to roll my eyes, and I may have succeeded.

“Do you have any idea what a pain in the ass this job can be? This isn’t one of the cushy, straightforward gigs, like the one the fat man scored.” He tossed back another shot of schnapps. “What a joy that would be, having a clear mandate. Fly around the world in a night bringing toys to kids, everybody loves you. Even when they don’t get what they want they don’t stay pissed for long because hey, everyone’s relieved they weren’t on the ‘other list.’

“Or the old man with the hourglass. Yeah, that’s rough, huh, ooh, yeah? No one pays any attention to you until the last couple of days, then the champagne corks fly and there are fireworks and people kiss and you get turned back into a baby! I mean what the hell? That’s a job?”

“Well, there are the resolutions…”

“Oh, that’s a load of crap. No one takes them seriously. The days of sober reflection of the year gone by are over. Now it’s all top ten pop culture lists and dropping some talentless pseudo-celebrity off a tower. The old geezer in the top hat doesn’t even notice.”

“I can see your point.” I wasn’t sure I did, really, but I didn’t want to rile him up more than he already was. “But what about… you know. Him.”

He stared at me for several seconds. “Let’s not go there, okay? He’s a nice enough guy, and has good intentions, but his followers think they own the season. They’re a big part of the problem. Hey!” He threw back another shot and slammed the glass down on the bar, then turned toward the bartender. “I’m running low over here.”

The apparently unflappable barman was at the end of the bar chatting with another customer, a set of ridiculous felt reindeer antlers perched on his head. He cleared away the legion of glassware with a wry smile, wiped down the sticky residue, and began setting up a new rank of soldiers.

“What do you mean, they’re the problem?”

“A bunch of the big guy’s followers are getting their knickers in a twist over people saying ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ It’s pretty stupid, really, but that crowd thinks they run the world, anyway. I’m going around spreading holiday cheer, and some uptight, insecure little douche bag says that somehow people are using me to declare war on their faith. There are wankers all over the world killing each other over religion, but somehow someone saying ‘Happy Holidays!’ is the bleeding problem?”

Two freshly emptied glasses hit the wood counter in quick succession, followed by a relatively discreet belch.

“So if you don’t handle Christmas or New Years, what exactly is your part in the season?”

He paused while the barman filled the glasses, then poured another cider. When the antlers pointed in my direction I waved them off.

“Look, around here the fat man gets most of the attention, followed by the carpenter. Mammon’s numbers are way up there, too.”

“Mammon?”

“God of money. America’s number one religion with a bullet, as you say. But those three are just the big guns. There are plenty of other people people celebrating different holidays in different ways. You got your Yulies, your neo-pagans, traditional pagans, and modern druids, but they tend to be fat middle-aged men in brown polyester robes trying to score with hippie chicks. (It’s an English thing, I guess.) And to make it all worse, when the lunar calendar ends up in the right place you can end up with Chanukah and Eid al-Adha in there, too. Jews, Christians, Muslims, crystal-waving solstice types — all tossing around greetings and stepping on each others’ toes. It’s my job to do what I can to let the year close out on a high note, by finding a common ground.”

I sipped my rum as he rambled. He was getting more animated as he started to veer toward a full-blown rant, but fortunately, the jukebox started playing Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” and the mellow backbeat seemed to calm him down.

“I just get so bloody tired, you know?” He slid down a bit further on his elbows. If it isn’t the Holier-Than-Thous badmouthing me for self-serving political purposes it’s the merchants and money-lenders exhorting people to spend beyond their means in the name of a tradition that didn’t even exist a century ago. And that leaves desperate charities using the season to beg for more money for their causes, when the people most likely to give are those who can afford it least. It’s enough to drive a guy to drink.”

He lifted the last shot. “Speaking of drink, cheers!” He knocked it back, only spilling a little, and only wobbling a bit more.

I took another sip of my drink and decided to make my move. “So you’re quitting, then? You’re done with the whole Holiday Spirit business? You’re going to leave us on our own?”

He paused, glass halfway to his mouth, and looked sideways at me. “I didn’t say that now, did I?”

“Well, I think you should. Frankly, as nasty as people can be, I still think we deserve more than a half-assed self-pitying excuse for a spirit.” He snorted and threw back another.

“No, pay attention to me. I think you owe me that much. Have you looked around lately? You know how bad things are these days, particularly in America. There’s damned little hope in the world, and everywhere we look it’s all violence and hatred.”

“It’s been that way forever. What’s your point?”

“My point is that it hasn’t been this bad forever. It’s a unique situation right now that’s emphasizing our differences and hiding our common bonds. This season — religious or secular — has traditionally brought us together, given us a reason to hold out hope that maybe next year will be better. This year, though, the spirit’s deserted us. You have deserted us, and why? Because some shallow, mean-spirited, materialistic people have made your job harder than usual? Because some self-righteous religious types have tried to co-opt an ancient tradition? Because of politics?! Really, that’s it? Well, boo hoo, boo hoo.”

“Hey, c’mon, don’t be a jerk about it, be nice!” He was starting to whine. “You don’t have any idea what it’s like…”

“I’m sorry, that’s crap. I know very well what it’s like to have people deliberately misrepresent you, who hate you, who wish you were dead. I know what it’s like to have a price-sticker put on the value of your life, and have people think you deserve to die if you can’t pay it. And you know, I don’t have that advantage of being immortal, either, unlike some people I could name.”

He stared at the bottom of his glass for a moment, a hangdog look on his face. I softened my approach.

“Look, I know something about how these things work. You wouldn’t have this job if you couldn’t do it. No, it isn’t as flashy as some, and no, you don’t get the recognition you deserve. But there are a lot of us out here, a lot of people who depend on your efforts to get us through December. More than usual, this year.”

“Besides, you don’t impress me as the kind of guy who gives up without a fight.”

He perked up a bit at that, and a wry grin curled his lips.

“You aren’t wrong, my friend, you are not wrong. Hey, Jose?” The bartender came over.

The man in the red trench coat stood up without a hint of unsteadiness and patted down his pockets. After a minute’s searching he took out a large silver coin and a sprig of holly, complete with red berries. He slid the coin across the counter.

I couldn’t see what kind of coin it was, but when Jose picked it up he took off the antlers and said with real sincerity,” Hey, thanks, buddy, I appreciate that!”

He then turned to me and shook out his long arms, then cracked his neck audibly. “Ah, well, I’m feeling a bit better now. There are still a couple of days left to try and spread a little joy, too. Let’s see what we can accomplish.”

I tensed up. “What do you mean, ‘we’?”

He reached over and pinned the holly to my lapel, smiling wickedly. “What, you think I do this by myself? It’s a team effort, chum. I may start things rolling, but it’s up to you people to share it. Consider yourself a Deputy Holiday Spirit.”

“Me? Wait, what am I supposed to do? I hardly ever leave the house these days!”

He rolled his eyes, but with humor. “What do you think? It’s the twenty-first century: use the Internet. Tell the sodding story!”

He opened the door into the cool evening air and took a deep breath. “And also, you know? Thanks for making the effort to hunt me down. I appreciate it.”

I fingered the points on the holly leaves. Beats a tin star, I suppose.

I called out to him, raising my glass. “Hey, happy holidays!”

He shook his head and laughed as he walked into the night.

And happy holidays to you, too.

[Note: This story originally appeared on Hidden City on December 24, 2010. We hope you enjoyed this “encore presentation,” as they say.]

Love, or something like it

Valentine from Christa, 1969
Valentine, 1969

Ah, Saint Valentine’s Day! Do you suppose that Hallmark sends a card to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, where the skull of this venerable Catholic matryr rests in a golden television set? Well, one of the several Saints Valentine, anyway, as it seems it was a common name when years only had three digits.

Of course there’s no evidence at all that any of the Valentines had anything in particular to do with love. One of them was a priest, one allegedly beheaded for secretly marrying Christian couples during the persecution of Claudius Gothicus, but love and marriage had little connection in the first centuries of the Common Era. (Arguably they have little to do with each other today, but that an entirely other discussion.) Oddly enough the linking of Saint Valentine with romance seems to be an invention of Geoffrey Chaucer — yes, Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales — although there is no record of his having illuminated a trite mash note with a depiction of a human heart.

And although it’s a popular theory in some circles, there’s no smoking gun connecting the establishment of Saint Valentine’s Day in mid-February with the pre-existing celebration of Lupercalia, the festival honoring the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. I do, however, know a few people who would prefer trading in boxes of chocolates and bouquets of roses for drunkenly running about clad in nothing but a goatskin. On reflection, though, the part about striking women they meet to ensure pregnancy might not survive the initial negotiations.

Now, of course, there’s no longer a headless saint involved, nor even a symbolic man-wolf. In these more civilized days we pray at the same altar as we do all other holidays: Mammon. Two hundred million valentines will change hands this year in the US, and almost as many roses will be delivered, never mind the nearly sixty million pounds of chocolate. And of course nothing says “I love you” like a relatively common crystal with artificially managed scarcity, so Americans will be spending an estimated $3.5 billion dollars on jewelry to try to get that special someone to do that special something you’ve always wanted to try but whenever you ask they get this horrified look and you wonder if you still have the receipt for the goatskin so you…

I’m sorry. Where was I?

Anyway, if this is a holiday you celebrate, I hope you enjoy it. Should it be a holiday you loathe and despise, may it pass uneventfully, and quickly become that sacred celebration, “Half-Price Candy Day.”


Valentine from Christa, 1969 (reverse)
Valentine from Christa, 1969 (reverse)

Should you be so inclined, an entire neighborhood of Hidden City is devoted to True Romance. If you are new here I recommend starting with these three:

  • Christa: “She was clearly smarter than me. It was love at first report card.”
  • Prom Night: “Formal wear, white linen tablecloths, the Beautiful People — these are not things for which my Kentucky upbringing had prepared me.”
  • All Good Things: “I guess the detail which surprised me the most was the genuine compassion in the judge’s voice.”

Holiday Spirit

It was the end of December, and something was missing.

I wasn’t the only one who’d felt the absence. Several friends had mentioned the lack of that special December-y something in the air. I’d initially chalked it up to the lousy economy, but even the people I knew who still had money noticed it. The jaunty sleigh-bell tunes were tinny, the sonorous hymns flat, the winter wonderlands dismal and grey. Clearly something was wrong.

Not having anything else on my schedule, I decided to go looking for the elusive holiday spirit. How hard could it be to find it? I mean, like the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. How do you camouflage that?

I found traces of it here and there. Even though the donations were smaller, people were still giving to help the needy. Every now and then I’d come across a new piece of holiday music that wasn’t just cashing in on the season. A waitress at a regular joint threw in a free piece of pie with a wink and a “Merry Christmas.” But still it was nothing on the scale I’d usually see.

So I wrote off 2010 and gave up, heading to a blues joint for a glass of holiday cheer of my own.

That’s where I found him. I can’t tell you how I recognized him. I’m a storyteller. You just get a feeling for these things. But there he was, slouched at the bar. He was drunk.

I sat down on the barstool next to him, in a miasma of peppermint fumes. “Shouldn’t you be out there spreading cheer or good will to men something? What are you doing?”

He turned toward me. He was younger than I would have guessed, late thirties or early forties, close-cropped black hair, sallow complexion, sharp nose and chin, wiry build, in a red leather trench coat and green t-shirt — the kind of guy that finishes fights someone else starts, and with that coat in this kind of bar, he’s used to the fights. He glared at me through eyes like polished coal.

“I would tell you where to shove your goodwill but you might like it.” His accent was vaguely British, clipped, with a lot of travel mixed in. “Why do you care, anyway?” He reached across the battlefield of empty shot glasses for his beer.

I shrugged and ordered a drink of my own. “This year sucked. I was hoping for a little cheer to taken the edge off all the disappointment. You know. It’s traditional.”

He glared at me over his glass. “Traditional, is it? What do you know about tradition, anyway?”

“I know enough to recognize you.”

At that he paused, staring into space for a moment, then shrugged. “Fair enough. What do you want to know?”

“Why are you in here getting drunk on peppermint schnapps and beer—”

“Cider, thank you very much!”

“—cider, when you are supposed to be easing the burden of a weary world?”

“Easing the— Do you really talk like that? Hell, do you believe that!?” He leaned over to me and dramatically sniffed. “Sure you aren’t the one who’s blotto?”

I tried not to roll my eyes, and I may have succeeded.

“Do you have any idea what a pain in the ass this job can be? This isn’t one of the cushy, straightforward gigs, like the one the fat man scored.” He tossed back another shot of schnapps. “What a joy that would be, having a clear mandate. Fly around the world in a night bringing toys to kids, everybody loves you. Even when they don’t get what they want they don’t stay pissed for long because hey, everyone’s relieved they weren’t on the ‘other list.’

“Or the old man with the hourglass. Yeah, that’s rough, huh, ooh, yeah? No one pays any attention to you until the last couple of days, then the champagne corks fly and there are fireworks and people kiss and you get turned back into a baby! I mean what the hell? That’s a job?”

“Well, there are the resolutions…”

“Oh, that’s a load of crap. No one takes them seriously. The days of sober reflection of the year gone by are over. Now it’s all top ten pop culture lists and dropping some talentless pseudo-celebrity off a tower. The old geezer in the top hat doesn’t even notice.”

“I can see your point.” I wasn’t sure I did, really, but I didn’t want to rile him up more than he already was. “But what about… you know. Him.”

He stared at me for several seconds. “Let’s not go there, okay? He’s a nice enough guy, and has good intentions, but his followers think they own the season. They’re a big part of the problem. Hey!” He threw back another shot and slammed the glass down on the bar, then turned toward the bartender. “I’m running low over here.”

The apparently unflappable barman was at the end of the bar chatting with another customer, a set of ridiculous felt reindeer antlers perched on his head. He cleared away the legion of glassware with a wry smile, wiped down the sticky residue, and began setting up a new rank of soldiers.

“What do you mean, they’re the problem?”

“A bunch of the big guy’s followers are getting their knickers in a twist over people saying ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ It’s pretty stupid, really, but that crowd thinks they run the world, anyway. I’m going around spreading holiday cheer, and some uptight, insecure little douche bag says that somehow people are using me to declare war on their faith. There are wankers all over the world killing each other over religion, but somehow someone saying ‘Happy Holidays!’ is the bleeding problem?”

Two freshly emptied glasses hit the wood counter in quick succession, followed by a relatively discreet belch.

“So if you don’t handle Christmas or New Years, what exactly is your part in the season?”

He paused while the barman filled the glasses, then poured another cider. When the antlers pointed in my direction I waved them off.

“Look, around here the fat man gets most of the attention, followed by the carpenter. Mammon’s numbers are way up there, too.”

“Mammon?”

“God of money. America’s number one religion with a bullet, as you say. But those three are just the big guns. There are plenty of other people people celebrating different holidays in different ways. You got your Yulies, your neo-pagans, traditional pagans, and modern druids, but they tend to be fat middle-aged men in brown polyester robes trying to score with hippie chicks. (It’s an English thing, I guess.) And to make it all worse, when the lunar calendar ends up in the right place you can end up with Chanukah and Eid al-Adha in there, too. Jews, Christians, Muslims, crystal-waving solstice types — all tossing around greetings and stepping on each others’ toes. It’s my job to do what I can to let the year close out on a high note, by finding a common ground.”

I sipped my rum as he rambled. He was getting more animated as he started to veer toward a full-blown rant, but fortunately, the jukebox started playing Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” and the mellow backbeat seemed to calm him down.

“I just get so bloody tired, you know?” He slid down a bit further on his elbows. If it isn’t the Holier-Than-Thous badmouthing me for self-serving political purposes it’s the merchants and money-lenders exhorting people to spend beyond their means in the name of a tradition that didn’t even exist a century ago. And that leaves desperate charities using the season to beg for more money for their causes, when the people most likely to give are those who can afford it least. It’s enough to drive a guy to drink.”

He lifted the last shot. “Speaking of drink, cheers!” He knocked it back, only spilling a little, and only wobbling a bit more.

I took another sip of my drink and decided to make my move. “So you’re quitting, then? You’re done with the whole Holiday Spirit business? You’re going to leave us on our own?”

He paused, glass halfway to his mouth, and looked sideways at me. “I didn’t say that now, did I?”

“Well, I think you should. Frankly, as nasty as people can be, I still think we deserve more than a half-assed self-pitying excuse for a spirit.” He snorted and threw back another.

“No, pay attention to me. I think you owe me that much. Have you looked around lately? You know how bad things are these days, particularly in America. There’s damned little hope in the world, and everywhere we look it’s all violence and hatred.”

“It’s been that way forever. What’s your point?”

“My point is that it hasn’t been this bad forever. It’s a unique situation right now that’s emphasizing our differences and hiding our common bonds. This season — religious or secular — has traditionally brought us together, given us a reason to hold out hope that maybe next year will be better. This year, though, the spirit’s deserted us. You have deserted us, and why? Because some shallow, mean-spirited, materialistic people have made your job harder than usual? Because some self-righteous religious types have tried to co-opt an ancient tradition? Because of politics?! Really, that’s it? Well, boo hoo, boo hoo.”

“Hey, c’mon, don’t be a jerk about it, be nice!” He was starting to whine. “You don’t have any idea what it’s like…”

“I’m sorry, that’s crap. I know very well what it’s like to have people deliberately misrepresent you, who hate you, who wish you were dead. I know what it’s like to have a price-sticker put on the value of your life, and have people think you deserve to die if you can’t pay it. And you know, I don’t have that advantage of being immortal, either, unlike some people I could name.”

He stared at the bottom of his glass for a moment, a hangdog look on his face. I softened my approach.

“Look, I know something about how these things work. You wouldn’t have this job if you couldn’t do it. No, it isn’t as flashy as some, and no, you don’t get the recognition you deserve. But there are a lot of us out here, a lot of people who depend on your efforts to get us through December. More than usual, this year.”

“Besides, you don’t impress me as the kind of guy who gives up without a fight.”

He perked up a bit at that, and a wry grin curled his lips.

“You aren’t wrong, my friend, you are not wrong. Hey, Jose?” The bartender came over.

The man in the red trench coat stood up without a hint of unsteadiness and patted down his pockets. After a minute’s searching he took out a large silver coin and a sprig of holly, complete with red berries. He slid the coin across the counter.

I couldn’t see what kind of coin it was, but when Jose picked it up he took off the antlers and said with real sincerity,” Hey, thanks, buddy, I appreciate that!”

He then turned to me and shook out his long arms, then cracked his neck audibly. “Ah, well, I’m feeling a bit better now. There are still a couple of days left to try and spread a little joy, too. Let’s see what we can accomplish.”

I tensed up. “What do you mean, ‘we’?”

He reached over and pinned the holly to my lapel, smiling wickedly. “What, you think I do this by myself? It’s a team effort, chum. I may start things rolling, but it’s up to you people to share it. Consider yourself a Deputy Holiday Spirit.”

“Me? Wait, what am I supposed to do? I hardly ever leave the house these days!”

He rolled his eyes, but with humor. “What do you think? It’s the twenty-first century: use the Internet. Tell the sodding story!”

He opened the door into the cool evening air and took a deep breath. “And also, you know? Thanks for making the effort to hunt me down. I appreciate it.”

I fingered the points on the holly leaves. Beats a tin star, I suppose.

I called out to him, raising my glass. “Hey, happy holidays!”

He shook his head and laughed as he walked into the night.

And happy holidays to you, too.

Gifts

[This story originally appeared on December 25, 2009. Consider it a Hidden City Holiday Classic, if you will.]

I was up late again, sitting at the computer trying to get some writing done until long after midnight. I was having a little trouble with my focus. The ideas just weren’t coming to me, probably because of the day. Even though I’m well into middle age and not at all religious, I was working on Christmas Eve — how Dickensian! I leaned back in my chair and took a sip of my rum, snickering at the image of my bulk crouching on a high wooden stool, scribbling in an enormous ledger while my breath fogged the air. But then I remembered I was playing the roles of both Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. I’d no one to blame but myself.

I had stretched and started to get up when I heard the wood floor creak behind me. How weird, I knew none of the cats were in the room with me, or thought I knew. I started to turn to look.

“Please don’t turn around. It would really be a very bad idea.”

The deep voice was stern and commanding, the voice of someone used to being obeyed. My mind racing, I considered the possibilities. The office door was in front of me. The two windows into the room both had their storm shutters down. How the hell did a burglar get in here?!

Stay calm, I told myself, just do what he says. “Okay, I’m not turning around. You are in charge. What do you want? I don’t own much other than this computer.” I hoped the tremors in my own voice weren’t too obvious.

The floor creaked again, a step closer. Oh no, I thought, he’s going to knock me out. Well, if I’m out at least I won’t have a heart attack, I guess. I closed my eyes and tensed for the blow.

“Relax, I won’t hurt you. I can’t let you see me. There is a protocol, a tradition that must be observed. Just don’t turn around. Please.”

He had an odd but subtle accent, like someone who had moved to the Midwest a long time ago, but with traces of their original language remaining. It was pleasant, really, a rather soothing sound. Against my will I found myself relaxing.

I took a deep breath. “Okay, I promise not to turn around. Just tell me what to do.”

“Do? I don’t need you to do anything, Marc. I just want to talk with you a bit. You don’t mind, do you? It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and I could use a rest.” There was a rustling of heavy cloth, the sound of one of the many boxes sliding across the floor, and a deep sigh as he sat down.

He knew my name. Great. “Sure, um, we can talk. I like to talk. What do you want to talk about?”

Cellophane crinkled behind me, then a muffled crunch. A familiar, spicy smell filled the air. Peppermint. Now I’m not the brightest guy in the world, but by now I was starting to get a sneaking suspicion about this. “Wait, no, c’mon, seriously? You’ve got to be kidding, you’ve got to be fu—”

“Come now, Marc. Do you think I like that kind of language? I look the other way as much as I can, but it’s more difficult when people use those words right in front of me. It makes me sad, too.”

Yeah, that cinched it. I didn’t need to see the suit.

“I was checking the records the other day, and I noticed that you haven’t sent me a list for years and years and years. Why is that, Marc? You don’t want any presents? Do you really have everything you want?”

“Well, no, but I’m a grown-up now. Well, adult, anyway. If there are things I need I buy them, and if I can’t afford them then I don’t really need them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?”

“Oh yes, yes, that’s how many people choose to do things, yes. But that isn’t part of the rules, you know. You are always allowed to ask for gifts.”

“Maybe I can ask, but who will buy them? My dad? I’m fifty years old, for— for crying out loud. Do you expect me to make out a list and address it to the North Pole?”

“You could, you know. Plenty of people do. But the letter isn’t the important part. Believing is. Isn’t there anything you want, something you know you can’t get on your own?”

“I think you have the wrong Peanuts special. The Great Pumpkin is the one about belief.”

“Still a smart-aleck, aren’t you?” he chuckled. (I don’t need to tell you what his laughter sounded like.) “No, this is about dreams and wishes and hope.” He paused, then chuckled again. “What do you want for Christmas, Marc? If you want we can skip the part where you sit on my lap.”

“Thank heavens for that!” I laughed, in spite of myself.

I could feel him looking at me, into me. “Seriously. It’s important. Tell me what you want.”

I thought of some of the material things I would like to have, the trips I would like to take, but ruled them out. I thought about the things I knew my friends needed but couldn’t afford, and the gifts that might make them smile. Then I got to the big stuff: all of the jobless people, the troops fighting overseas, my friends fighting disease.

“I guess world peace, an end to hunger, and a cure for cancer would be asking for too much, huh? Not to mention it would be an unbearable cliché.”

“So? A fat guy in a red suit isn’t a cliché? Marc, when you were a little boy, did you ever ask for a gift and not get it?”

“Don’t you know?” Silence. “Yeah, okay, of course. It happened all the time.”

“And what did you do when all the gifts were opened but there was no chemistry set under the tree?”

“It depended on the gift. If I really wanted it I’d whine to get it for my birthday, or save up my money for it. Most of the time, though, I would forget about it.”

“You were disappointed, though. Of course you were. But since it didn’t cost you anything to ask, what made you stop asking?”

Because the holiday became all about the presents, and the presents were a matter of money. But I didn’t want to say that to him, so I kept quiet.

For a few minutes we listened to the wind picking up outside the window, moving through the palm fronds.

“Why did you stop at my house? I don’t have any cookies, or milk, either. What made you decide to stop here and scare the heck out of me? I don’t get it.”

There came a deep sigh; peppermint filled the air.

“Well, you have conversations with cats, so you are obviously—”

“Crazy?”

“Let’s say receptive. And you squeaked onto the nice list this year, too. Barely.” He paused. “Besides, I thought you could use the company.”

I thought the empty house around me, sighed, and took another drink. “Yeah, okay, you have a point.”

From behind me I heard the sounds of weight shifting, and a faint jingling of bells as he stood up.

“Most people only ask for toys of one kind or another. When someone does put together a less materialistic wishlist others treat it as a joke. But tell me, what’s so terrible about asking for a happier world at Christmas?”

“Because world peace doesn’t fit in your magic pack, obviously, or someone would have gotten it by now.”

There was a jingling again. I suspect he was shaking his head. “Sometimes you don’t get a chemistry set the first time you ask for it. But if you really want it, you’ll find a way to get one. If not this year, then next year, or the year after that. You just have to want it enough to ask for it, to tell people that’s what you want.”

Weight shifted, and the floor creaked again. “If enough people ask for the same thing, it’s a lot more likely that they’ll get it.” He laughed aloud. “Except for those new dolls. There are never enough of them. I can’t figure it out.”

A heavy, gloved hand settled gently on my shoulder. He spoke quietly. “Keep wishing for things that make you happy: big or small, simple or complicated, personal or for everyone. Everyone deserves presents, Marc. And I’ve given you something I know you need right now.”

As the scent of peppermint faded from the room I turned to look, but there was no package, no stocking, nothing at all to indicate that he had even been here. It didn’t hit me until I stood up to refill my glass. “Well, of course. What else?” I said to the empty room. I may not have asked for it, but he gave me something I really need right now.

He gave me hope, enough to share.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, friends. May you get everything you ask for, and more.

Why Hallowe'en?

Hallowe’en is my most important holiday. I am not a pagan, born-again or otherwise, although I have nothing against members of those ancient and venerable (or new-age and invented) orders. However, my sentiment has nothing to do with any religion, organized or not, so we can safely leave those discussions out of this particular story. No, my love of All Hallows Eve is a little more personal.

When I was a child, Christmas was fun. Not having been raised in a very religious atmosphere, it was primarily a season of visiting relatives, eating cookies and candy, playing in snow, and getting presents. We followed many of the same rituals as other families of our class and background: enormous Christmas trees, house lights, waking bleary-eyed parents at 6:00am to see what Santa had left (even though we would always peek in the doorway while Daddy struggled with his 8mm movie camera), and all the rest. But, it was, in a way, too ritualized. We knew all the moves ahead of time; only the specific details changed from year to year.

The Fourth of July offered its own type of excitement, too, with firecrackers, bottle rockets, and bar-be-ques. The thrill was spiked a bit whenever we would visit my grandparents, because Grandpa Palmer had a small cannon he would load with black powder and shredded newspaper to show up all the other kids. That was always pretty neat, though in retrospect, I’m not sure why. It just made a tremendously loud BANG, and that was it. Just a little confetti drifting down afterwards.

But Hallowe’en was always different. For one, I had influence on it. You see, my mother was a frustrated artist, who lived for the opportunity to use her skills. Holidays were always been the best time for this. At Christmas, we had a tree-full of hand-made ornaments; there were intricately decorated cookies to eat; on our lawn painted plywood Peanuts characters acted out the end of that perennial TV favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Easter brought heaping baskets of candy, and tons of elaborately decorated eggs. But Hallowe’en brought costumes! And, I got to choose what type.

Vintage Hallowe'en postcard

Every year we would begin a ritual. My mother would ask me what kind of a costume I wanted, and I would go crazy trying to decide. As do most young boys, I had an intense monster fetish. Wolfman, Frankenstein (it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that Franky was the doctor, not the monster), Dracula, various ghosts, witch doctors, alien creatures, and other mind-numbing horrors were considered each year, but only one could be chosen. Ah, the exquisite agony of decision!

Eventually, often with Mama’s prompting, I would decide. Then my mother would begin the arduous process of getting a boy with little concept of how these things work to sit still for several fittings, and assist in the choice of colors for the mask which I would wear to complete the disguise. This was not a simple process at all, for Mama’s artistic ingenuity knew no bounds. As an example, one year, I was to be a Witch Doctor. A tight-fitting chocolate brown costume was made, along with a grass skirt and an over-sized paper maché mask. But, for the finishing touch, she put some chicken bones in vinegar for weeks, to make them soft and rubbery, then strung them together into a necklace. It was perfect. (Politically correct, it was not, and I admit to a certain horror at the memory now. But those were less enlightened times.)

Then the fun would begin. Back in those simpler days, before the rules of fun were written by toy manufacturers, there were always costume parties in school. I don’t think that I won any, because there were always richer kids who could have professional costumes made. But the other kids always thought my costumes were the coolest, making it one of the few times that I was accepted by my peers. A Sav-mart Spider-man costume with a flimsy plastic mask just didn’t cut it next to my silver and blue alien jumpsuit and helmet, or a glow-in-the-dark Green Ghost costume.

And then, the ultimate event, the High Mass of All Hallow’s Eve: Trick-Or-Treating. We would begin the preparations shortly after dark, with my father putting a bowl of candy inside by the front door, for those other “lost souls” who might come by. My brother and I had, by this time, been forced to eat dinner. Our diet for the next few days would consist largely of Three Musketeers, Butterfingers, and Atomic Fireballs, so I suppose it was a last meal, of sorts. Afterwards we would whine and beg and be generally irritating until we would be allowed to get into costume for the evening’s performance. After a final checking over of all scare-systems, we would be off.

We would travel in packs, with several other neighborhood kids. The fathers would travel discreetly behind, even then, often carrying empty highball glasses for their own “treats” at discerning homes. We would run wild, carrying on like the madmen and ghouls we represented, but still finding time to stop at every house for a hearty cry of “TRICK OR TREAT!” It was rare that we would ever even consider a trick, because everyone knew the rules: if you give the kids candy, then they have a good time; if you don’t, they’ll be confused at the break from tradition, and call you stupid names. After a few hours, though, we would have gone as far as our fathers’ legs could carry them, and they would herd us toward home, where two final rituals awaited.

The first was the checking of the count. Why it was first begun, I’m not sure, probably idle curiosity, but my mother counted every single trick-or-treater who came to the door, and dutifully reported to my father as to their number. (In later years, this became a sad barometer of how effectively the true monsters were killing this holiday, as the numbers dwindled down from hundreds, to tens, to less than ten). The second arcane rite was the dividing of the spoils, my brother and I each pouring the contents of our brightly smiling plastic jack o’lanterns into carefully distinct piles on the floor. With a fervor which would make a futures trader proud, we would bid and barter to get the candy we wanted, and stick the other with the undesirable black licorice bits and stale popcorn balls. My mother went through the heaps first, though, as the concept of razor blades in apples, though quaint by today’s standards, was the real menace then. Funny how no-one thought that the holiday needed to be banned then; parents just protected their children by going through the bag before the kids ate anything.

Then, sugar-stuffed and bone-tired, we would complain and head off to bed. I would usually try to stay awake for a while, thinking of ghoulish and ghastly things. But, inevitably, sleep would come, bringing with it the threat of another ordinary day tomorrow — a threat that was always carried out.

Vintage Hallowe'en postcard

But all these childhood memories are just part of the reason. Besides the personal considerations, to my mind Hallowe’en fills a very real need in the world: it is the only holiday glorifying the imagination. Ghoulies and ghosties scare us because we can imagine them; we can cut two holes in a sheet and become a lost soul, or don a set of plastic fangs and become the lord of the undead; we can tell and re-tell dark tales and revel in the crawling of gooseflesh. No other holiday even pays lip service to the wonders of the creative spirit. Other holidays may have their charms, but their primary purpose is the celebration of tradition, containing little room for anything more than habit.

The very soul of All Hallow’s Eve is mystery. Christmas is still, at heart, Christmas. The Fourth of July is part of the past, relived once a year. The Easter story has been told, and is fixed and unchanging, likewise with most holidays. But, Hallowe’en is new and frightening every time. There are always new stories to tell on Hallowe’en, tales which have never been told before.

And, it encompasses so very much. Christians, spiritualists, and atheists alike can share this occasion. Anyone must still see the need for the ability to see what is not there, or what might yet come to be. How else can great inventions be conceived, or great books written? All that separates man from other life on the planet is his imagination. Isn’t that worthy of celebration?

I suppose that in the end, Hallowe’en is religious for me. I have my rituals: carved pumpkins, candy, scary stories told in the dark. I have my traditions and gospels as well, when I sit in the dark and tell the story of the Haunted Elevator, or remember the costumes my mother used to make for me. On Hallowe’en I celebrate all the wonders of the limitless human imagination.

[First published in Ambergris From Leviathan Hallowe’en Special, October 1989]