The Steinbergs’ First Christmas
T’was the sixth night of Hanukka, and Christmas Eve to boot. The Steinberg family’s traditional holiday get-together was well underway. Boxes of gifts wrapped in shiny paper sat patiently on the floor off to one side of the room, with a table of New York-style Sloppy Joes and potato pancakes on the other. Richard Steinberg lived snugly (some would say smugly) in Westchester, New York, with his wife Linda and their two children, Andy and Marcy. Richard enjoyed the idea of establishing a family tradition of inviting his brother Ken and his wife Barbara (whom Ken usually brought along just to fill out the foursome).
The family gathered around their menorah to light the candles and chant the holiday prayers. The brightly lit menorah reminded Andy and Marcy that there were only two more nights of this toy-cluttered frenzy to go. As they took turns lighting the candles, they glanced back and forth to each other and to the pile of goodies beside them, awaiting their zealous ravaging. The adults chanted the holiday prayers with a reverence intended to outshine their off-key performance.
Suddenly, just as the family was reaching a full-throated crescendo, an odd sound emanated from the bowels of the dormant fireplace. It was a scraping, rustling sound that got progressively louder, and decidedly menacing, with each passing second. The family members abruptly halted their singing and focused on the muffled commotion from inside the fireplace. Perhaps it was a wild animal, like a raccoon, making its way down. The idea was quickly dispelled when the noises culminated in something that sounded remarkably like “Ho, ho, ho.”
The Steinbergs stood aghast as a pair of black boots and red flannel trousers clumsily lowered themselves into view, to the accompaniment of still more ho-ho-hos. The owner of the stubby legs had apparently eased his way down the chimney backwards, and displayed some difficulty crouching down and backing his ample posterior out of the fireplace and into the room. He grunted and coughed, pulling with him a large, soot-covered sack, filled with unidentified contents. The sound of broken glass and loose bits of metal suggested that few items in the sack had survived the descent undamaged. All family members stood watching as the rotund man with a bushy, white, soot-speckled beard struggled to maintain his footing. He turned around, offering a hearty:
“Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas, everybody!”
His greeting met with stunned silence. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. It remained so for several torturous seconds, as the family remained slack-jawed at the sight. Finally, Marcy’s wonderment broke the silence.
“It’s Santa Clause!” she squealed.
“No it isn’t,” corrected Linda, pulling Marcy against her. “Richard, call the police.”
“It is Santa Clause!” confirmed Andy.
“No, there is no Santa Clause,” admonished Richard. “And even if there is, it’s not this guy.”
Santa cleared his throat and forged ahead with his prepared text. “It’s great to see you all on this wonderful night! I must be a bit early. I like to leave my gifts when everyone is already asleep. But such adorable little children! If you’ve been good this year, I have some toys for you!”
Richard’s primal instincts had him bounding in front of the kids and spreading his arms outward in a protective, if overly dramatic, gesture. Ken, known to have a fuse shorter than that of a trick birthday candle, was having none of this.
“Listen, pal,” he snarled, clenching his fists, “I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you get your butt out of here before we do it for you.”
Linda took a decidedly more diplomatic tact.
“Will you two calm down? Listen, Santa, we appreciate the sentiment, but our name is Steinberg. We’re Jewish, and we’re celebrating Hanukka tonight. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Santa stood glass-eyed and flummoxed. He struggled to recapture a cheery expression despite his befuddlement. His reputation, after all, demanded that he maintain an unflappable jollity at all times, without exception. He had to think fast. Unfortunately, thinking fast was not one of his more finely-honed attributes.
“Well, uh, we all can celebrate Christmas in our own way!” he cackled. “Ho, ho, ho!”
“Well actually, no, we can’t, Santa,” Linda said, almost apologetically, “No offense intended. We just don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Evidently, Santa was not very well-versed in adopting the proper protocol when inadvertently dropping in on Jewish households. He fumbled for a crumpled piece of paper in his pocket and reviewed its contents, but didn’t find anything of help for this current faux pas.
Richard again felt a need to gently–but firmly–set Santa straight on a few things.
“Well Santa, ya see, Christmas is historically the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, even though he wasn’t really born at this time of year anyway. But in any case, we’re Jewish, and therefore we don’t celebrate that event. I don’t deny that it’s a nice holiday, but going strictly by the numbers, most of the world’s population doesn’t celebrate it, either. Not just us, but your Muslims, your Hindus… I’m surprised you haven’t run into this situation before.”
Santa could only shrug his shoulders. He didn’t want to admit as much, but he had no idea Christmas was a religious holiday.
“And as for delivering toys for my kids,” Richard continued, “I like to think I’m a good provider on that score, thank you, so you can save whatever you have for them and give them to children perhaps a bit more needy. I know for a fact that Ted Thornton down the block took a bad hit on Wall Street this year…”
Linda felt a need to come to Santa’s aid. “I think Santa is attempting to represent the more secular aspect of Christmas good will. Isn’t that right. Santa?”
Richard shared his brother’s skepticism, although with considerably less aggression. “Well, that’s all well and good, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for him to–”
“Aw, let him stay, Daddy,” pleaded Marcy. “I want more toys.”
“What did I tell you about asking for toys? Always with the toys.”
Linda was not about to be deemed a poor host, regardless of the circumstances. “At least offer him a drink. Richard. Santa, would you like something to drink? We have hot, cold, and maybe a Sloppy Joe? We have brisket, turkey…”
Santa wasn’t sure how to respond. Being somewhat slow-witted by nature, he resorted to his increasingly tiresome ho-ho-hos in an effort to stall. Linda pressed on.
“Come on, you look like you could use a snack.”
“Are you kidding?” cackled Ken, “Another snack and he’ll pop like a tick.”
The obese Yuletide icon felt some relief by Linda’s unexpected glimmer of hospitality.
“Yes, a drink will be fine, thank you. And perhaps a Messy Joe.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Linda gave Richard a firm don’t-forget-your-manners nudge. He picked up on it and attempted a friendlier disposition. He turned with a weak smile to the red-clad, soot-covered, chimney-spelunking intruder.
“Might as well have a seat, Santa. It’s probably not healthy for a guy like you to eat standing up.”
“Thank you, don’t mind if I do.”
Santa eased himself into an easy chair—Richard’s easy chair—and let out a sigh of exhaustion.
Ken wanted some answers.
“Now let me get a few things straight, pal,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to know. Just what is your name, anyway? Is it St. Nick? Santa Clause? Father Christmas? And do you really visit every house in the world on this one night? How do you pull that off, anyway?”
The chubby sleigh jockey wasn’t accustomed to such an interrogation, but at least nobody was phoning the police just yet, so he managed to blurt out his safely evasive reply:
“Oh, that’s a secret. It’s magic.”
Barbara had almost grown accustomed to the embarrassment her spouse often provoked in social settings. She spoke up, partly because she hadn’t had any lines for a while.
“Kenny, don’t be rude. The man’s obviously confused.”
“I just want to know if he’s been to, say, Belgium already this evening, or maybe New Zealand.”
Santa valiantly pressed on. “I bring gifts for good little boys and girls everywhere. Christmas is for everyone!” he sputtered, wiping visible flop sweat from his forehead.
“This guy’s smooth enough to run for Congress,” Ken muttered. “And all those toys are from that one sack?”
“Uh, that’s magic too, my fine young man,” stammered the flustered, reindeer-herding oaf. Feeling a touch of dry mouth, he leaned to the side to address Linda across the room. “Say, is that soda coming along all right, dear?”
Ken took his brother aside.
“Rich, we’re in the middle of everything here, lighting the menorah, exchanging the gifts, and if he ho-ho-hos one more time I’m gonna have to belt him one.”
“I’ll try to get him out of here as soon as I can.”
Linda and Barbara presented Santa with the meal of the evening. He graciously accepted the plate and drink and immediately began his examination of the sandwich.
“And this is…?”
“A Sloppy Joe,” Richard said. “Roast beef, corned beef, turkey, slaw, and a pickle on rye bread. We also have it on pumpernickel, if you prefer.”
“Very interesting!” nodded the corpulent party crasher. “No ham?”
“Still, it looks delicious.”
Linda needed to shift Santa’s bag on the floor to give herself room to sit beside him.
“Here, let me help you, dear,” offered the portly, wool-suited fashion disaster.
He grabbed his sack and heaved it over his shoulder. The shifting weight threw him off balance, causing him to lose his grip on the sack, as it sailed through empty air and head-on into the lit menorah. Santa stumbled face-first into the wall as the menorah toppled onto the stack of the gift-wrapped presents, igniting the wrapping paper from the burning holiday candles.
“Fire!” shrieked Andy.
“Throw it in the fireplace!” somebody yelled.
“No! You’ll burn yourself!” somebody else yelled. “Get the fire extinguisher! It’s under the kitchen sink!”
Richard hurried to the kitchen and returned with the extinguisher, as the smoke alarm on the ceiling pierced the air with its ear-splitting chirping. In his blind panic, he opened the nozzle in the general direction of the blaze. However, Santa found himself on the receiving end of most of the foam. It was difficult to tell where his beard ended and the foam began. The kids hurried to rescue their presents as Linda and Barbara attended to the mealy-mouthed, jackbooted vandal.
“This guy’s a menace!” Ken growled, now with an even better case than before.
“I’d have to agree,” nodded Richard as he turned to Santa. “Come on, Gramps, out you go.”
Santa was either not on the same page as the others, or was wizened to the ways of deflecting blame. “It probably isn’t safe to allow your darling children to play with matches and candles in the house,” he offered. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Linda turned to her husband with her eyebrows down-turned, at a well-practiced, disapproving angle. “Richard, he’s stunned. He could be hurt.” She and Barbara continued to wipe the foam off the portly, hirsute stumblebum.
“He brought it on himself. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, but we didn’t ask for him to disrupt our evening.”
“No, no, he’s right,” Santa conceded. “I’m sorry. I’ve made a dreadful mistake.” He then noticed how comforting Linda and Barbara’s warm, soft hands felt as they wiped away the extinguisher foam from his rosacea-afflicted cheeks. “I should be on my way.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes, I’ll be fine. Perhaps, though, I’ll use the front door on my way out, if I may. I’ll arrange to meet with my reindeer elsewhere in town later this evening, after I’ve seen to all the good children here in your neighborhood.”
Andy had a special request on that issue. “Please don’t go to Tommy Keegan’s house, Santa. He bit me in the head last week.”
“He really did,” Linda confirmed sadly.
Marcy, for her part, didn’t want the excitement to end, or see the cherry-nosed arsonist leave. “Let him stay!” she demanded. “He’s cool!”
“He’s not really,” snarled Richard. “And he’s here by mistake. So come on, whoever you are, time to go.”
He helped Santa retrieve his battered, smoldering bag and showed him to the front door. “Start at that far end of the street down there, and keep going in that direction. That’ll keep ya busy. And don’t forget Ted Thornton’s house.”
Linda brushed past her husband and escorted Santa outside into the crisp December air. They stopped at the foot of the driveway. Once she was out of view from the others peering from the front window, she produced Santa’s share of the Sloppy Joe sandwich and slipped it into his coat pocket.
“A little something for the road tonight, Santa. Merry Christmas.”
“Thank you, young lady. And happy Honolu—”
“Hanukka. Don’t ask me how to spell it. There are about five different ways.”
“Yes, well, happy Hanukka to you and yours.”
And with a merry wave, Santa turned to continue his Christmas Eve mission. Linda needed to assist him just one more time by turning him around and sending him off in the proper direction. He smiled and was on his way again, heading toward the house he thought was Ted Thornton’s.
And to all a good night.