I’ll always remember 1963 as the year my parents put Christ in Christmas.
That year my mother set up her nativity in its usual place of honor – on top of the console TV. The carved wood nativity was lit by one incandescent bulb that served as both general illumination and, through a cleverly cut hole in the peak of the stable, the star of Bethlehem.
Oh, and it served as one other thing – the ignition point. But I’m jumping ahead.
That festive season actually began six weeks earlier when my cat, inappropriately named Beelzebub, had kittens. As soon as they took their first shaky steps, my sister, brother and I devised kitten racing.
The sport of paupers.
We’d line up the kittens at an imaginary starting gate and cheer on our favorites like a bunch of backsliders from Gamblers Anonymous.
By the time Dad put up the Christmas tree, the little devils had reached their exploratory stage and could scale the trunk of the Douglas fir before the tree top angel knew what hit her.
The kittens, though, quickly grew bored with desecrating angels and, attracted by a particularly shiny bulb, went out on a limb – literally. But the tree, unable to hold the lop-sided weight of five chubby kittens, did a Holly-Go-Lightly “Timber” and crashed to the floor.
Ornaments shattered, tinsel flew, water from the tree stand wiped out our entire cardboard village. My father ran in, shouting, “Jesus Christ! What happened?”
After we righted the tree and cleaned up, the kittens, having found a new sport they liked, immediately toppled it again. This sent us kids into uncontrollable giggles, and by the third downing of the tree our laughter rose dangerously close to wet-your-pants levels.
My father, who’d had a few rum toddies, muttered, “Jesus Christ! Enough already,” and took what looked like railroad spikes and nailed the tree stand to our hardwood floor.
My mother, just back from Christmas shopping, was greeted by the pounding of a 5-pound sledgehammer. “Jesus Christ!” she hollered. “What are you doing?”
Her angry tirade would have continued had the flames not distracted her.
In unison my parents cried, “Jesus Christ!”
The Star of Bethlehem had over-heated and set the roof of the nativity ablaze.
Several miniature ceiling beams crashed onto the baby Jesus, incinerating him in front of his horrified parents, before they too were engulfed. The only survivors of the inferno were one lone shepherd and a slightly dazed sheep – but I’m not going there.
Luckily, the nativity sat on a blanket of spun glass angel hair, so the flames sputtered out without spreading to our Zenith black-and-white. We kids were thankful because we had plans later that night to watch “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” (There’s nothing like poking fun at an elderly blind man to put you in the holiday spirit.)
And to this day, though I don’t recall what gifts I received that year, I still remember the laughter I shared with my sister and brother – and despite the baby Jesus going up in flames – it was my best Christmas ever.