There’s a Nativity scene in the park near our house, courtesy of our local Fire Department, and for the second time in three years, someone has climbed into the manger and stolen the baby Jesus. It’s either a sign that as a culture, we’re now spiritually bereft, or that outside of video games, there’s really nothing for the kids in our town to do. The Fire Department has since replaced the little doll, but while the rest of the figurines in the manager are glazed ceramic, the new baby Jesus looks like he’s made of plastic. He also appears to be attached to the manger, assuring that if this one is taken, the thieves will be dragging with them a large piece of the creche.
While people visit the park throughout the Christmas season to see the Nativity scene, it’s over-run on Christmas Eve when Santa arrives, via a motorcade of firetrucks, and hands out bags of candy and fruit. But in a cruel twist, the children who sit on Santa’s lap that night tell him what they want for Christmas, and it being Christmas Eve, it’s too late for their parents to go out and buy that gift.
We took our son, Eddie, to see Santa. He’d already met one Santa at a local bar a few weeks ago. We’d gone to see the lighting of the Christmas tree in the neighboring town, and we went to a bar afterwards. As we sat at the bar feeding Eddie, in walked a Santa who was slightly inebriated.
“C’mon. Bring him over. Get out your camera,” he said, unsolicited. He then posed for a few snapshots with Eddie and went to the other end of the bar to have a drink.
The Santa we saw last night in the park was sober, and he worked for our local buildings department. As we waited on line, Mrs. Claus handed Eddie a plastic candy cane filled with M&Ms, which he shook a few times like a rattle before inadvertently flinging it at the ground, cracking the plastic. I asked Mrs. Claus for another one, though knowing it was our fault, I felt a little funny for the same reason I feel uncomfortable returning a meal in a restaurant when the only problem with it is that I chose unwisely.
When we got to Santa, Eddie sat on his lap quite happily, but my camera has a delay of about three seconds, so while Eddie smiled and seemed at ease with Santa, every photo I have is of a smiling Santa and the side or back of Eddie’s head.
We returned home to wrap a few presents and then walked over to the home of our neighbor, Jim, who has a big Italian family that commemorates Christmas Eve with a Feast of the Seven Fishes. I’ve wanted to join them for dinner every year, but Bruce’s brother usually has a Christmas Eve party, which we feel obligated to attend, but this year, they went away for the holiday so we were free to go to Jim’s house. Unfortunately, Jim didn’t invite us this year. So I invited myself. I was surprised when he said he would have to ask his wife.
“Lois used to do buffet, but now she wants to have a sit-down dinner. I have to see if there’ll be room at the table,” Jim said.
That was three weeks ago. I never heard back from him until Bruce bumped into him in front of our house on Christmas Eve.
“I just saw Jim outside, and he invited us over for the Feast of the Seven Fishes,” Bruce said. “He said to come over at 9 p.m.”
“Yea!” I said. “9 p.m.? That’s late, huh?”
“It’s leftovers,” Bruce said.
“Hey, leftovers is fine,” I said.
We arrived at about 9:10 p.m. and were invited into Jim’s living room. There was a coffee table with some cheese and a shrimp ring. On another table were empanadas and a bowl of dip that was scraped clean by people who had clearly been there before us.
A set of glass French doors separated the living room from the dining room, and through them I could see Jim’s sons and daughters standing around talking. The doors were open only slightly, and the family members remained back there, setting up a line of demarcation beyond which those outside the immediate family were prohibited. I was surprised his family members didn’t even come into the front room to say hello. During the summer, I would often see Jim and his children sitting out on his wrap-around front porch, and they were always very friendly. I chalked it up to the holiday and assumed for them, it was purely a family affair.
We continued to sit on one of the couches picking at the shrimp ring as a few more guests arrived: a couple who worked for the Department of Defense and lived in Brussels and had lots of friends who worked for the European Union, a neighbor, Deb, who attends Jim’s church, and a friend of Deb’s. The guests remained in the living room while Jim’s family members remained cloistered beyond the glass doors, laughing, chatting, and probably full from having eaten all of that fish. I was starting to feel like a second-class citizen. When Bruce first said we would be getting leftovers, I had no problem with it, but now I felt like a scavenger, having to wait in the drawing room for a couple of scraps. I wanted to go home.
Just then, one of Jim’s daughters popped her head out of the door and said, “Okay, everyone can sit down. Dinner is ready.”
As we walked into the dining room, I looked over at Bruce.
“I guess it’s not leftovers,” I said.
“I was wrong,” he said.
We sat in between Jim’s son, Ted, and his daughter, Rose, as his oldest son, who owns a bar in New York City, brought in platter after platter, one filled with a bouillabaisse of lobster, clams, mussels and octopus, another with stuffed clams, platters of sardines cooked two different ways, a bowl of mussels and clams in a sauce of kale and white beans, bacalao cakes, and a soup urn full of scungilli that people poured over stale bread called “tacks.” There were so many platters of food, we had to move a few to a side table to make room for the new dishes that came out. We gave Eddie a bottle of formula while we sat at the table, and he fell asleep in my arms as we ate, drank and talked about the disintegration of the European Union.