Santa came through the open window, my mother said, as we didn’t have chimneys in Florida.
Plus, he’d only come in the very middle of the night, long after midnight, when there was no chance we’d wake.
Except at my cousin’s house.
Then Santa came just after nine pm, but only if we would pretend-sleep before.
My aunt would eventually come into the bedroom and pretend-wake us, tell us she heard something outside.
We’d sneak out to the living room where Santa would be quietly taking presents out of his bag and placing them under the tree.
I was scared; I’d run back to the bedroom.
Mostly he pretended we weren't there, and we felt proud to peep on Santa undiscovered.
One time, however, he turned to us.
Asked us to come close.
He handed my cousin a present; the box moved.
A puppy popped out.
I hated Santa; he didn’t bring me a puppy.
When I woke up, in my own bed, in my own chimney-less house on Christmas day, I found the 10-speed Santa had left for me.
I loved Santa.
Then, when I was older and ‘knew’ about the man in the red suit, I loved watching my little brother get excited for the magic of Santa.
I played the game; I helped mom pick out gifts, wrap presents and sign them, “From Santa.”
I helped her pin hundreds of cloves in Florida oranges, before running outside barefoot in green blades of warm grass.
Sometimes, on Christmas afternoon, we sailed on the catamaran.
Sometimes, we played tennis.
Then we came back to eat turkey, a perfectly golden roasted turkey.
I remember my father always cut off the choice piece of crispy fatty skin and kept it on the side of the platter for me.
I remember my grandmother in the kitchen, basting the turkey.
My mother in the kitchen, whipping potatoes.
My aunt in the kitchen, whisking gravy.
They hated the kitchen.
After dinner, my father snored on the couch.
My mother hated my father snoring on the couch.
But none of that mattered to me.
I focused on the booty.
Hundreds (it seemed) perfectly wrapped, beautifully bowed gifts of various sizes.
The lure of the wrapped presents was always more thrilling than what was inside.
I remember the 'let down' when every last gift was opened.
Even in the lean years, there were always gifts under the tree.
The white-lighted, red velvet-bowed, tangled-tinsel tree.
We walked into the Florida woods of sandy bottoms, hidden rattle snakes, and skinny pine trees that reached to the clouds.
We chopped one down: a big forty foot pine, then took the green top off, leaving behind the long barren trunk.
I don’t know what my elders did with the leftover wood? Did they simply abandon it? Make wood chips? Mulch?
I don’t remember; nor did I care when I was young.
The green top was the only piece that mattered for Christmas.
Though, I didn’t much like the top either.
I wanted a beautiful, manicured, prim and well-put together tree, like the kind I saw in Snoopy, the kind they grown up North.
Instead, ours flopped and looked scraggly, with pokey pine needles long as my arm. After decorating the tree, I’d have cuts and scrapes and my fingers stuck together from the sap.
I hated that tree.
What wouldn’t I give for that tree, this year, sappy and pokey, upstairs in the beach house with,
Uncle Jack sitting in his chair,
Mom and Dad laughing,
Granny scooting around the room filling a Hefty trash bag with decimated wrapping paper and bows,
Me digging into plump stockings, and
Little brother and cousins squealing in delight, ripping open present after beautiful present.