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Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Christmas of the Rattling Door

Christmas in Manhattan, when I was growing up, was a time when winter weather seemed to soften the city; pavements were not as hard, traffic grew kinder and the buzz of grown-up activity -- that hum that never stops in New York City -- somehow shaped itself around the dreams of children.  After all, this was also a time when many of us waited impatiently for a small, round man to fly through the sky.
But first, there was the tree.  Our family lived in a long, thin apartment, and the tree was an event.  We bought it each year on a street corner.  Then my dad, mom and the three of us children carried it home, coaxing it through the back entrance of our building and trying not to break branches in the twisty basement corridor or on the old elevator gate, the kind that crashed open and closed.
Once inside the apartment, the tree filled our tiny kitchen.  After some dark muttering and much scientific maneuvering, my dad rushed it down the narrow hall that stretched the length of the apartment, scattering needles and sending the cats skittering.  Light from the street poured in the southwest corner of the living room at all times of day, and that is where the tree came to rest.
Next the old boxes of homemade ornaments appeared from deep in my mother’s closet.  We added more decorations each year, making them from paper, clay, toothpicks, pipe cleaners and hard cookie dough.  Christmas in our apartment included a happy explosion of runaway metallic sprinkles, crumbs and half-eaten chocolates; the sugar content ramped up to a fabulous level.
We made chains of popcorn, cranberries and painted macaroni for the tree.  There were dozens of candy canes, which we couldn’t eat until Christmas day.  One year we had many German candies wrapped in shiny paper and hung like ornaments, a gift from friends.
I think my parents tried to de-emphasize the commercial side of the holiday, but we always had new books that surprised, socks and mittens, something to play with, and the thrill of our stockings, in which every little thing was wrapped.  The stockings crinkled and jingled; they bulged with things to be discovered.  And, as Santa couldn’t hang them from the fireplace, he left them at the ends of our beds, to be found on Christmas morning.  Our parents always seemed just as surprised as we kids were; it was proof of magic.
And then one year the idea of Santa coming into the bedroom my sister and I shared, tiptoeing in when we were not awake, began to frighten me.  Badly.  Perhaps we’d seen a movie that had a grouchy or drunken Santa – I can’t remember where the fear started, but worries about this nighttime visit created such panic that I couldn’t get to sleep on Christmas Eve.  Should Santa leave the stockings on the sofa this year?  No!  My sister and I worried that he might not leave them at all if we made a request.  My father finally pushed a dresser up against the door that connected our bedroom to the living room, so that Santa could only get in to our room through our parents’ bedroom, which somehow made it okay.  My sister and I went to sleep.
I awoke to the sound of rattling and the thud-thud of the door handle against the back of the dresser.  I screamed at the top of my lungs, “SANTA!!  HE’S HERE! HE’S TRYING TO GET IN!!” 
Then I heard my dad laughing and saying, “Oops!” while he and my mom hurried in the other door to hug and reassure, and a dreadful but slowly comforting thought began to flicker in my brain.
Santa.  My parents.  Those cookies and the glass of milk we always left for him on the mantel, and the year when he forgot to eat or even take one sip, but still filled the stockings.  The fact that we lived on the sixth floor of a fourteen-story building, and somehow Santa zoomed up and down that endless chimney and squeezed out the old grate into our living room, complete with giant pack.  Hmmm. 
Sometimes release from no-questions, 100% magic is a relief.  Christmas wasn’t any less twinkly and deliciously cozy, it just became, well, a little less unknown, and for a kid like me, that was just fine.  That is, until the year my sister and I heard sleigh bells outside our window one Christmas Eve and peeked out to see a huge, dark shape just whisking around the corner of a nearby building.  I’m still thinking about that one.
Perhaps that’s why I write mysteries.  It’s the rattle and then the unexplained sight in the dead of night… it’s the potent combination of ‘Oh, no!’ and ‘What if it’s all true?’.   It’s the hunt for proof of magic.  It’s Christmas all over again.
(I wrote this for the current edition of the School Library Journal, and had a wonderful time remembering details, sounds and tastes.  It's amazing how much floats to the surface if you think back in a quiet moment. -BB See "Holiday Memories 2010" at