I was really surprised that everyone at the holiday reading had printed out their pieces (except Brendan O’Connor, who straight murdered it with some stand-up comedy). Saul Fussiner, though, I knew would be printing out his piece. He’s that kind of guy. He’s paper and ink for life. I love him.
A Chavkin Family Christmas by Saul Fussiner
Scott’s family was one of the few Jewish families in the neighborhood. The only time the Chavkins ever had a Christmas tree was the year that the Danish au pair lived with them. But Scott was little then and had no memory of that. The holidays for Scott were about the smell of cheap burning candle wax and a lingering fog of fried potato smoke that got all over your clothes and inside your pores. But it was Christmas, the biggest holiday of the year in shopping plaza America and so, like all others, the Chavkins needed to in some way take part. And so, after years of being serenaded with “The First Noel” and “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” by the neighborhood carolers, Scott’s father decided that they would A, teach them “Oh Chanukah” and B, bring the latkes to the party.
Scott’s mom was not so sure about this. Mrs. Chavkin pointed out that, in the old country one hundred years ago, Christmastime was essentially known as “Kill a Jew week.” Scott’s dad countered that, in the ensuing one hundred years, nearly every new Christmas carol had been written by some Ashkenazi member of Tin Pan Alley America. This caused Scott’s mom to shrug her shoulders, which is Jewish for “oh, alright.”
And so it began: the Chavkin family’s particular 1970’s celebration of Christmas. The caroling was fun in the smell and taste of the crisp December air of their Massachusetts small city, although they had to hide their faces and voices when they got to the home of the neighborhood Holocaust survivor and his wife, who were deeply scornful of the Chavkins’ adopted Christmas cheer and who scanned the crowd for Chavkins every year when the night in question came around.
Afterwards they would get warm in one of the families’ big houses beside a fireplace, eating potluck lasagna, drinking hot cider, and finally gathering around Josiah Standish the eighth, a neighborhood dad who would dramatically read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to all the gathered children.
And then the ‘80’s came along, and all of the non-Jewish parents got divorced and married other people’s divorced parents. The Chavkins’ world of Christmas became topsy-turvy and rolled around for a few years. When it settled, the new tradition was for the whole family to go to the home of Mrs. Standish, now divorced, and her four children. Because her ex-husband was so connected in everybody’s mind with “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Mrs. Standish switched the literature over to Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and Christmas was re-branded down to a meal, a fireplace and the lyrical imagery of the doomed Welsh poet, read in pieces by every attendee as the woodcut-illustrated New Directions paperback was passed from hand to hand around the rug and the chairs and the love seat in a most Passover-like Christmas ritual.
Dylan Thomas is great, but any story read Christmas after Christmas, year after year, is bound to lose some of its power over time, and so Mr. Chavkin began to bring other material to the proceedings. One year, the Chavkins and Standishes passed the bible from hand to hand as they read the original gospel versions of the Nativity. Another year, they watched the holiday story at the end of Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s Smoke, and the 70-something Mr. Chavkin got mad respect from the younger crowd when he exclaimed, “Is that Tom Waits music in the background?”
But whom were they kidding? Their 1980’s Christmases lacked the pure unadulterated magic of the caroling years.
The year that Scott Chavkin was a freshman in college, and Myles Standish the sixth had just, like Jonathan Richman before him, dropped out of BU, Myles introduced Scott—as they sat on the porch staring out at the snow and waiting for the feast to begin—to a brand new substance that scientists were calling MDMA and drug enthusiasts had just then nicknamed “Ecstasy.”
“What does it do?” asked Scott.
“I’ve heard it makes you incredibly happy.”
Okay then. It was Christmas and they figured it would be a service to the community if the late adolescents arrived to the proceedings incredibly happy.
This moment is remarkable, because soon after it, both of them would more or less give up drugs forever. For Myles, it was to recover from a true drug habit. For Scott, it was simply that he lacked focus. The same ADD that made it impossible for Scott to learn to play guitar or drums or speak a foreign language properly also made him forget to ever develop a drug habit. Myles played guitar and avoided drugs with equal ferocity, while Scott neither made music nor ingested much in the way of drugs with equal forgetfulness.
They took the ecstasy and waited for something to happen, but were unsure if anything would. Myles slipped a cassette copy of Ziggy Stardust into the boom box, probably because it represented an earlier time in which they had been closer, when all the families were together and the world felt all safe and Christmas-like all year round. It was still a normal Christmas night, although “Five Years,” a song about the end of the world, started to sound very much like the triumphal life-celebrating music of a college marching band, and the snow-twinkled tree branches and blue night sky stopped looking real and started to resemble the background in every jungle painting by Rousseau.
The two boys opened the mist-covered French doors to discover a kitchen full of the best lasagna they had ever smelled as Myles’s mother’s dishes winked and shined at them from their glass display case. “Those are the most beautiful dishes I’ve ever seen,” Scott squealed. “Why, oh why, have I never previously appreciated the beauty of a dish?” It was Christmas, and Scott loved everyone and everything. “Baruch atah Adonai” and God bless us, every one.
After dinner, the two families assembled around the sofa and Scott sat with the other young people on the floor. Suppressing an urge to hug everyone there, he looked into the brilliance of the fireplace and then at all the shining faces around him and someone handed him the book and he began: “One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” Hallelujah. Amen. Mazeltov. It was Christmas again in the world, and it stayed that way for a fantastic little precious while. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.