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Billy’s Christmas Gift
The first American Christmas I experienced was in Chicago in the ‘60s, when Kennedy was president, Chubby Checker was doing the Twist, Marilyn Monroe was the resident sex symbol, and Greece still had a king and queen.
We had just moved from Montreal, Canada and were renting the top floor of a house on South Lotus Avenue, which had a fireplace (with bricks painted white and which we never used), and where the landlord drove a Cadillac that he washed and polished every weekend, and his son drove a Thunderbird that he washed and polished every weekend, and the landlord’s cousin was Carol Lawrence, the singer and actress, who was married to Robert Goulet, a singer and heartthrob of the time, and the landlord’s daughter had once shown us a snapshot of her visiting Carol Lawrence and Robert Goulet in their dressing room backstage after a show, and they were both wearing white bathrobes.
In Canada, despite all that snow, I don’t remember celebrating Christmas with much ceremony—or the island in Greece where I had lived with my grandparents when I was little—except once somebody came around to the blue-washed walls of my grandmother’s taratsa around the holidays and said to her, “Kale, na sta vrontixome?”—Lady, should we sing to you? And then he started drumming on a jug with a skin and singing New Year’s carols—Antiminia, antihronia!–with his mouth gaping open and his gold teeth flashing.
Now in Chicago, in America, we were getting the full taste of an American Christmas—where at night whole streets turned into a blaze of Christmas lights, red and green and yellow, and some houses had silver Christmas trees in the window that changed colors with a revolving wheel, and recordings playing Christmas carols over the street sung by Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole and Gene Autry. And on TV there were Christmas commercials showing a rosy-cheeked Santa Claus chugging bottles of Coca-Cola after sneaking down the chimney and distributing his presents, or sledding down snowy slopes and giggling on a Norelco shaver. And Mitch Miller had a Christmas show, with all his guys wearing gloves and mittens as they sang, even though they were in a studio; and Andy Williams had a Christmas show wearing his gloves and scarf, even though he was in a studio; but our favorite was Perry Como in a studio, resting on a studio sleigh powdered with studio snow and wearing his gloves and scarf, while he sang Christmas carols between commercials for recipes stirred with melted Kraft caramels.
And since we were Americans now, and Americans had Christmas trees, my father decided one bone-chilling night that we should also get a Christmas tree, too, and since we couldn’t afford a silver tree in the window with the revolving lights, we should buy a real one and put it in the bay window where his desk was.
So we all bundled up and got into the white Impala with the red stripe and red vinyl seats, and waited for the heat to come on, while we stared at the lights glowing on the dashboard like candles, before my father gave the engine a few final grunts and swung the red steering wheel around so we could putter down South Central Avenue, past the golf course to Columbus Park.
The park is where they sold the trees in the parking lot, strung with makeshift lights on poles, and where the cars were jammed in a traffic of ‘60s car fins, and Christmas carols blared from speakers, and a barrel on the sidewalk blazed with a fire where the tree salesmen stopped to warm their hands from the brutal Chicago winter.
Including my friend Billy from school—who was just a kid—but during the holidays he worked selling trees (Billy was always working), when he wasn’t skipping doing his homework and being sent to the principal’s office, and the principal was my father, but Chris never took offense, cause he liked my father and liked their visits, and my father liked him, and they had lunch together regularly and a nice chat about Billy’s ambitions when he grew up: he wanted to be a garbage man.
“Just a garbage man?” said my father.
“What’s wrong with being a garbage man?” said Billy, grinning through his two front bunny teeth. “Don’t they have to pick up your garbage?”
As usual, Billy made sense. And now he was selling Christmas trees, wearing a hat with fur ears like a bear, gloves like a hockey player, and boots flapped open like a fisherman.
“I’ll show you the best tree in the house,” he told us, grinning through his bunny teeth, before he tramped away in his boots and with his big gloves dangling like some kid with mittens.
And first he pulled out a tree and stumped down and it looked as fat as Jackie Gleason.
“That’s a nice tree,” he said.
“It’s fat,” said my sister, who was a moody teenager.
“We don’t want a fat tree,” said my mother. “We don’t have any ornaments yet.”
“You want a nice tree?” said Billy.
“We want a nice tree,” said my father.
“Okay,” said Billy, with a shrug, “I’ll show you to the best tree in the house.”
“I want to go home…” said my sister, who was a moody teenager.
But we followed Billy and he led us to a tree that he pulled out and stumped down and it looked taller than our whole house.
“Billy, we don’t live in the Empire State Building,” said my father.
“Where do you live?” said Billy, peeking under the fur visor of his hat.
“Not in the Empire State Building,” said my father.
So Billy thought about it under his visor.
“I’ll show you to the best tree in the house,” he said.
“You said that already,” said my sister.
“Show us the best tree in the house,” said my father.
“I’ll show you the best tree in the house,” said Billy.
And we followed him again—until he brought us to a tree that seemed to be standing miraculously all by itself like it was growing out of the ground—only it was on a makeshift wooden platform–and it wasn’t too fat, and it wasn’t too tall, and it looked like the very model of a Christmas tree.
“It’s the best tree in the house,” said Billy, and he didn’t need to pull it out and stump it down cause it was perfect just the way it was.
“Why didn’t you show us this before?” said my mother.
“Cause I cut it down myself,” said Billy, with a manly shrug at my sister.
“So it’s your tree,” said my sister.
“I can give it to anybody I want,” said Billy, with another manly shrug to her.
“We don’t want your tree,” said my mother.
“I’ll give it to you for nothing,” Billy told my father.
“We don’t want it for nothing,” said my father.
“It’s your tree,” said my sister.
“It’s my gift to you,” said Billy. “What am I going to do with a tree?”
We knew his father worked as a long-distance truck driver and was never home, his mother had died long ago, and his brother had joined the Army and was stationed in Germany.
“So you decorate it for yourself,” said my mother.
“I got no ornaments,” said Billy with a manly shrug.
So we accepted his gift, but paid him for the tree, as our gift to him, and since it was our first American Christmas and had no decorations, we went to Goldblatt’s department store downtown to buy all our Christmas lights and ornaments, and then we invited Billy to come over and decorate the tree with us, which he did very officially wearing a sweater vest and tie and bringing us a Christmas-green carton of egg nog as a present.