I am halfway to 34, and this coming December 24th will be my 34th Christmas Eve, which is how I measure Christmases. For me, Christmas has never been so much about lists and presents and trees as it has been about making those lists and anticipating those presents underneath that tree. Which means that, for me, the essence of Christmas is the breathless hope of wishing on the brightest star in the sky and believing it might come true. That singular moment of potential.
Christmas Eve occurs before the fire at my parents’ house, surrounded by my mother’s sister and her family, as well as any friends who happen to wassail their ways to our home. It’s full of egg nog and sugar cookies and chances are there’s enough nog it gets blurrier as the evening continues in fits of discarded wrapping paper and torn asunder envelopes, but one thing stands out. One thing always stands out.
Over 34 Christmas Eves, I have only one Christmas tradition: a regular-sized vinyl LP with John Denver’s smiling mug on the cover. He’s surrounded, of course, by the Muppets.
I grew up watching the Muppets. One of my earliest-ever dreams: I was at my grandmother’s house, and I dreamt I looked out her front window and watched the Muppet monsters stride purposefully across her lawn to assume their rightful places while lighting the lights.
Christmas, for me, has never existed without the Muppets. Our Christmas tradition when I was a child: putting that old vinyl record on my dad’s stereo while we trimmed the tree. I was a teenager before I realized “trimming the tree” didn’t actually involved scissors; I’d assumed my mother judiciously pruned errant branches to make the tree perfect sentry over our presents. I don’t remember John Denver & the Muppets’ A Christmas Together as anything besides a big round black circle with grooves.
I should note that trimming our tree never occurred early. My mother was always very determined that our artificial evergreen should remain undecorated in our living room for a while, aging into the season as a fine wine in a cellar. Weeks would pass between the moment my father pulled the tree from our attic and put it up in our living room and the day he’d withdraw the box containing decorations for it.
The entrance to our attic seemed, to childhood me, a trapdoor in my father’s hallway attic (it was the same closet in which they stored bags full of presents for my siblings and me, which would later spell trouble for my belief in Santa Claus). And every year, a week or so after the tree had gone up, my father would set his old, rickety wooden ladder against the lip of that attic entrance, and he would climb that ladder up into our attic. I would watch him ascend, disappearing into that square darkness; at that time, the attic was undiscovered country, because it was all bare plywood and itchy insulation and obviously Not a Place for Children. Which obviously made it even cooler, especially when he subsequently descended that same rickety ladder with our Budweiser box of decorations like a Gentile Moses delivering unto my siblings and me the very idolatry that Old Testament God was so against–my siblings and I never got excited about Christmas mass, but you can bet we prayed to Santa to complete our holiday wish lists.
As my father set that old box down, he’d also turn to the wall unit that housed both his 30- or 40-book library of Stephen King books (and whatever else was in vogue among readers), and he’d withdraw that familiar record. He’d pull it from the cover, set it in his stereo, and we–my father and mother and siblings and I, my whole family–would set about finding a place on the tree for every piece of holiday cheer in that Budweiser box.
And we’d sing.
How could we not?
One of the first things I learned about Christmas was that it meant the goose was getting fat, though I always felt bad about the old man who needed my penny in his hat. Years later I can’t decide whether that image has more in common with Dickens or Occupy Wall Street, but it probably doesn’t matter; I know, at an early age, I was aware not everyone was as fortunate as I was, and about more than just presents under the tree.
I also learned about acknowledging talent. Like when Rowlff the Dog nods (even though I couldn’t see him nod), “That’s nice,” when John talks about faithful friends who are dear to us gathering near to us once more. It’s one of my favorite sentiments in the world.
We would all laugh by the time Animal shouted “RUN RUN REINDEER” during the Electric Mayhem’s rendition of “Little Saint Nick.” I never mentioned I had a crush on willowy, blonde-haired Janis, but how could I not, and we always–never failed–all said “Sorry” just like Animal, at exactly the same time.
We also always “Ba-dump-bump-bumped” with Miss Piggy during “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” But that was to start the record. By the end, were laughing about figgy pudding. Which is pudding. Made with figs. And bacon.
But my favorite Muppet Christmas song–in fact, my favorite Christmas song, period–and the one that means the most to me, and the one by which I now, 34 Christmas Eves on with the Muppets, still abide, is called “The Christmas Wish,” which begins with the simple sentiment: “I don’t know if you believe in Christmas/ Or if you have presents underneath the Christmas tree/ But if you believe in Love/ That will be more than enough/ For you to celebrate Christmas with me.”
Thirty-four Christmases on, I’ve begun to build new traditions as I make a new home. This year, my fiancee and I have no tree–the last time we purchased one, we ended up deciding it was a house tree meant to remain standing year round. This year, I can’t imagine how our kittens–both of whom, at several months old now, are firmly on their way to being cats, and at least one of whom seems to be going through a rebellious adolescent phase–would react to low-hanging baubles, but I know for sure I don’t wish to tempt them.
But this year, at some point, we’ll listen to the album, probably via an iPhone, and we’ll share a shot of Johnnie Double Black in front of our false hearth over which stands a hand-hewn menora hung with a single Christmas ornament from The Cloisters, and that will be more than enough.
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