Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Loneliest Liberal’s Christmas magic

By James Knudsen

Nowhere on my resume has the title “journalist” ever been found. There have been half-hearted attempts, but this morning I finally put all arguments to rest. I am not a journalist, reporter, news anchor, or any other member of the Fourth Estate. Why? Because a responsible reporter would have at least made an attempt to confirm that Fox News is continuing its absurd, asinine, annual assault on the aural orifices known as the “War on Christmas.” There’s no war, but there is a disease that kills Christmas.
    Christmas in the Knudsen home of my youth was the most important holiday of the year. The Catholic Church insists that Easter is the most important holiday – my mother held different beliefs. Ernestine’s beliefs were in sharp contrast to Morris’s. My father’s family Christmases were the type that involved a letter from home informing you that “You are now the proud owner of 50 shares of General Electric.” I’d like to see Frank Kapra make a wonderful movie out of that.
    I suspect that my mother’s parents and their peers, recent immigrants from the Azores, and determined to assimilate into this New World, embraced the winter holiday enthusiastically. To be honest, “embraced” is the strongest word I could think of, and it really doesn’t do justice to the lengths my forebears went to make Christmas magical.

The entire family has converged on the Visalia, California home of my great-grandparents, Manuel and Julianna Cota (later Cotta).* As midnight nears, all the children gather in the living room and soon, the sound of sleigh bells. Santa is approaching and in a few moments he appears! In the doorway stands Uncle Manuel Flores – he couldn’t fit down the chimney. He’s covered with snow from the North Po— portion of the ice box, which the women have chipped and sprinkled on his red suit. And true to form, he has a big sack slung over his shoulder with a gift for each child. In the dim Christmas Eve light, Santa calls out the names as he pulls the presents from his sack.
    “Santa Claus is real – I saw him!” That’s what these children – some well into junior high – will tell their classmates when school resumes.
    I don’t recall a visit from Santa incarnate, but my elder sister Claire does. And on each year’s Christmas morning the evidence of his visit could be found everywhere. The cookies were nibbled with care. The stockings were filled and placed with other gifts on chairs with the same attention to detail that a Macy’s store front window receives. More complex gifts – the “flagship” gifts for that year – have been assembled and are ready to be enjoyed by the lucky recipients - a Hot Wheels racetrack, an electric football game, a miniature dollhouse (that wasn’t for me), or a gas pump for a pedal-car. And in the entry way, baby Jesus, who looks to be about five, has been returned to his straw-filled manger, his broken arm repaired with yellowing cellophane tape. How could a small child not be in awe of all the things accomplished by a morbidly obese senior citizen with bad eyesight, in one night?

But something happens and we begin to seek a peek behind the curtain. Presents you caught a glimpse of days before Christmas wind up in your stocking. Questions creep into your mind. How do elves make an electric football game out of pine? And then, all too soon, you join the big-kids table and help fill stockings. You see, the great threat to Christmas has never been secularism or consumerism or Silent Night performed by the rock group Prizm. The real threat to Christmas has always been growing older and losing your belief in magic and the power of a handful of pixie dust.
    The great-grandchildren of Manuel and Julianna have made great efforts to keep the magic of Christmas alive for the great-great-grandchildren of that plucky couple from Terceira. Claire went so far as to rent a Santa Claus suit for her brother James (yes, this James) to wear – twice. The second time I was pimped...hired out to two other families, with varying success.
    My niece, Luiza, married last summer and, having been raised in a home where fairies left notes sprinkled with sparkly magic dust and Santa Claus really did appear, I can only imagine what lengths this young lady will go to in the years to come. Should those efforts ever go to the extreme, I wear size-11 boots and I can still put my hand to a handful of magic dust.
    Merry Christmas.
From left to right: Kelly, Claire, Morissa, James
* Adapted from my mother’s history of her father’s family, which focuses on her grandfather, Manuel Domingues Cota, who left the Azores as a young man and eventually settled in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley:

The members of the family gathered on Christmas Eve. The Christmas tree in the corner of the front entry room (not in the parlor) touched the ceiling. The excitement mounted as the children awaited Santa Claus’s arrival. He would always come after midnight mass, which some of the adults would attend. Some of the women would busy themselves with Christmas dinner preparations, while others would be in the sewing room sewing name tags on slips of paper and on the tops of long silk or cotton stockings that were being prepared for Santa to fill. Manuel Flores, Bell’s husband, played Santa for many years. The little children, who had been tucked into beds upstairs and downstairs, were often unable to sleep, and whispered and sometimes argued whether or not it was the jingle of Santa’s bells. Santa always came from the northwest corner of the house and jingled his way past the sewing room on the north side, coming through the front door. By the time he was coming through the door, the children, some sleepy-eyed, and others bug-eyed, were in the room next to the Christmas tree. If you were the right age – not too young, not too old – you couldn’t help being a little frightened of Santa, even though he seemed friendly and kind enough. The rooms were dimply lit by the Christmas tree lights. As Santa would call a child’s name to receive the gift, a little figure would take short, hesitant steps toward him. Sometimes the child was glad, sometimes sad, because there were many years when Santa had to tell the child he was sorry, but he had just run out of the item the child had requested. But the substitute gift was usually satisfactory. As soon as Santa left, everyone – young and old – would look to see what they had received from Santa in their stockings. Everyone gave and received gifts from one another and regardless of how small, all were appreciated. Manuel of course had his supply of dimes in his pocket. Ai que saudades daqueles tempos. Midnight mass was for the ladies and a few men, but Christmas day was for everyone, including the parish priest and anyone else who did not have a family or home. The Cotta family was, and is still, blessed with loyal family members who enjoy camaraderie to this day.
Copyright © 2015 by James Knudsen


  1. Thank you, James, for this loving description of your mother’s family's celebration of Christmas!

  2. To those new to Blogger: Blogger can seem daunting to new commenters. Many commenters just select "Comment as" Anonymous and "sign" their name in the body of their comment. Or select "Comment as" Name/URL" and give their name in the "Name" field (leaving the "URL" field blank). In any case, ALWAYS copy the text of your comment to the pasteboard prior to clicking "Preview" or "Publish," in case the comment goes into "Google Land," and you need to re-enter it. (I always do this myself.)

  3. Thanks, James. My mother never stopped believing that Christmas was magical, and made it be so. Even though the theology never quite took, and I asked curiously why there was a "Tonka" label on the truck Santa just gave me....
    I miss those Christmases so! Alas, the tribe is so widely scattered that the gathering of the clan has never happened since my mother died.

    1. Chuck, your comment made me ask what seems to have been the driver of Christmas observance in my family. My sense (though it could be wrong) is that my family's observance had nothing to do with magic, though perhaps a bit with religious belief. No, it strikes me that it was essentially a manifestation of the ubiquitous fealty to tradition, or to doing again "what we've always done," or doing what everyone else is doing. Peggy Payne, in her Christmas Eve post on her Sex & Spirituality blog, wrote that she and her husband don't much like being told when or how to celebrate. Well, possibly as a reaction to my family's empty-seeming, repetitive Christmases, I don't like being told to celebrate at all.

    2. As I said yesterday, "I could be wrong," and I have to wonder whether this little boy that I was could perceive the banality of Christmas trees, reindeer, elves, and Santa Clauses. But how other than banal could they possibly seem – then or now?

    3. I have some evidence (perhaps) that as a child I could perceive banality. My daughter was able to perceive "as a kid," as she told me, that there is no God.

  4. Yes, I was snottily aware of the banality of it all, too, starting far too young. The magic I was aware of was the family gatherings, large and small. They were mostly warm, loving, and fun.

  5. Gosh, I sure hope that this little boy here experienced some of that family warmth, love, and fun, and that I now imagine not only because of the mostly negative associations I have with Christmas as an old adult. I remember being frightened by Uncle Vernon's (or Uncle Leo's) rambunctious Santa Claus, but back out of impish costume he would have resumed his human benevolence.

    1. Maybe my truly negative memories are the ones in church at midnight on Christmas Eve trying to experience something said to be real that really wasn't. What a downer.