The Steinbergs’ First Christmas

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T’was the sixth night of Hanukka, and Christmas Eve, to boot. The Steinberg’s traditional holiday get-together was well underway. Boxes of gifts wrapped in shiny paper sat patiently on the floor off to one side of the room, and a table of New York-style Sloppy Joe sandwiches and potato pancakes on the other. Richard Steinberg lived snugly (some would say smugly) in the New Jersey suburbs with his wife Linda and their two children, Andy and Marcy. And, as he did for most holidays throughout the year, Richard invited his brother Ken and Ken’s wife Barbara to join the festivities.

The family gathered around their menorah to light the candles and chant the holiday prayers. The brightly-lit menorah reminded Andy and Marcy that there were only two more nights of this toy-cluttered frenzy to go. As they took turns lighting the candles, they glanced back and forth to each other and to the pile of goodies beside them, awaiting their zealous ravaging. The adults sang the prayers with a gusto designed to outshine their off-key performance.

Suddenly, just as the family reached a crescendo of full-throated harmony, an odd sound emanated from the bowels of the Steinberg’s dormant fireplace. It was a scraping, rustling sound that got progressively louder, and somewhat menacing. The family members abruptly halted their singing and focused on the fireplace. The muffled commotion from inside the fireplace chute culminated in something that sounded remarkably like “Ho, ho, ho.”

The Steinbergs stood aghast as a pair of black boots and red flannel trousers clumsily lowered themselves into view, to the accompaniment of still more ho-ho-hos. The owner of the stubby legs had apparently eased his way down the chimney backwards, and displayed some difficulty crouching down and backing his ample posterior out of the fireplace and into the room. He pulled with him a large, soot-covered sack, filled with unidentified contents, although the occasional sound of broken glass and loose bits of metal suggested that few items had survived his arrival undamaged. All family members stood dumbfounded, watching as the rotund man with the bushy white beard struggled to maintain his footing. He turned around, offering a hearty “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas, everybody!” before taking in a good look at just where he had arrived.

His greeting met with stunned silence. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. It remained so for several torturous seconds. Finally, little Marcy’s wonder and excitement broke the silence.

“It’s Santa Clause!” she squealed.

“No it isn’t,” corrected Linda, pulling Marcy against her. “Richard, call the police.”

“It is Santa Clause!” confirmed Little Andy.

“No, there is no Santa Clause,” admonished Richard. “And even if there is, he’s not this guy.”

Santa cleared his throat and forged ahead with his memorized spiel. “It’s great to see you all on this wonderful night! I must be a bit early. I usually like to visit and leave my gifts when everyone is already fast asleep. But such adorable little children! If you’ve been good this year, I have some toys for you!”

Richard’s primal instincts had him bounding in front of the kids and spreading his arms outward in a protective, if overly dramatic, gesture. Ken, known to have a fuse shorter than that of a trick birthday candle, was having none of this.

“Listen, pal,” he snarled, “I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you get your butt out of here before we do it for you.”

Linda took a decidedly more diplomatic tact.

“Will you two calm down? Listen, Santa, we appreciate the sentiment, but our name is Steinberg. We’re Jewish, and we’re celebrating Hanukka tonight. We don’t really celebrate Christmas as such.”

Santa stood glass-eyed and flummoxed. He struggled to recapture a cheery expression despite his obvious befuddlement. His reputation, after all, demanded that he maintain an unflappable jollity at all times, without exception. He had to think fast. Unfortunately, thinking fast was not one of his more finely-honed attributes.

“Well, uh, we all can celebrate Christmas in our own way!” he cackled. “Ho, ho, ho!”

“Yeah, well, the thing is, we don’t really do that, Santa,” Linda said, almost apologetically. “No offense intended. We just don’t celebrate Christmas.”

It was fast becoming evident that Santa was not very well-versed in adopting the proper protocol when inadvertently dropping in on Jewish households.

Richard again felt a need to gently, but firmly, set him straight on a few things.

“Well Santa, ya see, Christmas is, historically, the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, although there’s a lot of debate about the true origins of — “

“Rich, focus,” Linda admonished. He nodded and got himself back on track.

“But, we’re Jewish,” he continued, “and therefore we don’t celebrate that particular event. I don’t deny that it’s a nice holiday, and we enjoy seeing homes and trees decorated with lights and displays, and the songs are sweet…”

“And the sales!” Barbara interjected.

“But,” Richard said, “we don’t personally partake in those traditions. I’m surprised you haven’t run into this situation before.”

Santa could only shrug his shoulders. He didn’t want to admit as much, but he had no idea Christmas was a holiday based on religious ideology.

“And as for delivering toys for my kids,” Richard concluded with a dash of defiance, “I like to think I’m a good provider on that score, thank you, so you can save whatever toys you have for them, and give them to children perhaps a bit more in need. I know for a fact that Ted Thornton down the block took a bad hit on Wall Street this year, so…”

Linda felt a need to come to Santa’s aid. “Rich, I think Santa is attempting to represent the more secular aspect of Christmas good will. Isn’t that right. Santa?”

Richard maintained his skepticism, although with considerably less aggression than Ken. “Well,” he said, “that’s all well and good, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for him to — ”

“Aw, let him stay, Daddy,” pleaded Marcy. “I want more toys.”

Richard shot a disapproving look at his daughter. “What did I tell you about asking for toys? Always with the toys.”

Linda was not about to be seen as a poor host, regardless of the circumstances.

“At least offer him a drink. Rich. Santa, would you like something to drink? We have hot drinks, cold, and maybe a Sloppy Joe if you’re hungry? We have brisket, turkey…”

Santa wasn’t sure how to respond. Being a tad slow-witted by nature, he resorted to his increasingly tiresome ho-ho-hos in an effort to stall. Linda pressed on.

“Come on, you look like you could use a snack.”

“Are you kidding?” cackled Ken, “Another snack and he’ll pop like a pinata.”

The obese Yuletide icon looked relieved by Linda’s unexpected glimmer of hospitality.

“Yes, a drink will be fine, thank you. And perhaps a Messy Joe.”

“Sloppy Joe.”

“Yes, thank you”.

Linda gave Richard a firm don’t-forget-your-manners nudge. He picked up on it and attempted a friendlier disposition, turning to the red-clad, soot-covered, chimney-spelunking intruder.

“Might as well have a seat, Santa. It’s probably not healthy for a guy like you to eat standing up.”

“Thank you, don’t mind if I do.”

Santa eased himself into an easy chair — Richard’s easy chair — and let out a sigh of exhaustion.

Ken still wanted some answers.

“Now let me get a few things straight, pal,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to know. Just what is your name, anyway? Is it Saint Nick? Santa Clause? Father Christmas? And do you really visit every house in the world on this one night? How do you pull that off, anyway?”

The chubby sleigh jockey wasn’t accustomed to such an interrogation, but at least nobody was phoning the police just yet, so he managed to blurt out his safely evasive reply:

“Oh, that’s a secret. It’s magic!”

Barbara had grown accustomed to the embarrassment her spouse often provoked in social settings.

“Kenny, don’t be rude. The man’s obviously confused.”

“I just want to know if he’s been to, say, Belgium already this evening, or maybe New Zealand…and what about the Arab countries? Do you just skip them altogether to save time?”

Santa valiantly pressed on. “I bring gifts for good little boys and girls everywhere. Christmas is for everyone!” he sputtered, wiping visible flop sweat from his forehead.

“This guy’s smooth enough to run for Congress,” Ken muttered. “And all those toys are from that one sack?”

“Uh, that’s magic too, my fine young man!” stuttered the flustered, reindeer-herding oaf. He began to feel a touch of dry mouth, and leaned to the side to address Linda across the room. “Say, is that soda coming along all right, dear?”

At the same moment, Ken took Rich aside for a hasty conference.

“Rich, we’re in the middle of everything here, lighting the menorah, exchanging the gifts, and if he ho-ho-hos us one more time, I’m gonna have to belt him one. Let’s call the cops. Either that or we’ll just throw him out.”

“I’ll try to get him out of here as soon as I can,” Richard said. “He looks harmless enough.”

Linda and Barbara presented Santa with the meal of the evening. He graciously accepted the plate and drink, and immediately began his examination of the sandwich.

“And this is…?”

“A Sloppy Joe,” informed Richard. “Old-style — roast beef, corned beef, turkey, cole slaw and a pickle on rye bread. Or pumpernickel, if you’d rather.”

“Very interesting!” nodded the corpulent party crasher. “No ham?”

“No ham.”

“Still, it looks delicious.”

Linda needed to shift Santa’s bag on the floor to give herself room to sit beside him.

“Here, let me help you, dear,” offered the portly, woolen-garbed fashion disaster.

He grabbed his sack and heaved it over his shoulder, but the shifting weight threw him off balance. He lost his grip on the sack, sending it sailing through empty air and head-on into the menorah. As he stumbled face-first into the wall, the menorah toppled onto the stack of gift-wrapped presents, causing the wrapping paper to burst into flames.

“Fire!” Andy shrieked.

“Throw it in the fireplace!” Ken yelled.

“No! You’ll burn yourself!” Barbara warned, thankful to get a word in edgewise. “Get the fire extinguisher! It’s under the kitchen sink!”

Richard hurried to the kitchen and returned with the extinguisher, as Ken threw soda onto the flames. The smoke alarm on the ceiling pierced the air with its ear-splitting chirping. In his blind panic, Richard opened the nozzle in the general direction of the blaze. However, Santa found himself on the receiving end of most of the foam. It was difficult to determine where his white beard ended and the foam began. The kids hurried to rescue their presents as Linda and Barbara attended to Santa.

“This guy’s a menace!” Ken growled, with an even better case for police intervention than before.

“I’d have to agree,” nodded Richard. “Come on, Gramps, out you go.”

Santa was apparently not on the same page. “Oh, dear, you know it probably isn’t safe to allow your darling children to play with lit candles in the house,” he offered. “It’s just an accident waiting to happen.”

Linda turned to Richard with her eyebrows downturned at a well-practiced angle.

“Richard, he’s stunned. He could be hurt.” Linda and Barbara continued to wipe the foam off the portly, hirsute stumblebum.

“He brought it on himself! We didn’t ask for him to disrupt our evening — climbing down the chimney — who does that? And what if he got stuck?”

“He’s right,” Santa conceded. “I’m sorry. I’ve made a dreadful mistake.” He then noticed how Linda and Barbara’s warm, soft hands felt so comforting as they gently wiped away the extinguisher foam from his rosacea-afflicted cheeks. “I should be on my way.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Barbara asked. “You’re breathing heavily.”

“Just a touch of asthma, my dear. I’ve learned to live with it. I’ll be fine. Perhaps, though, I’ll use the front door on my way out this one time? I’ll arrange to meet with my reindeer elsewhere in town later this evening, after I’ve seen to all the good children here in your neighborhood.”

Little Andy had a special request on that issue. “Please don’t go to Tommy Keegan’s house and give him toys, Santa. He bit me in the head last week. Right on top.”

“He really did,” Linda nodded sadly.

Little Marcy didn’t want the excitement to end, or see the cherry-nosed, trespassing arsonist leave.

“Let him stay!” she demanded. “He’s cool!”

“He’s here by mistake,” Richard snarled. He turned to Santa. “Come on, old man, time to go.”

He helped Santa retrieve his smoldering bag and escorted him to the front door. “Start at that far end of the street down there, and keep going in that direction. That’ll keep ya busy. And don’t forget Ted Thornton’s house. It’s on the right, beige with light blue trim.”

Linda brushed past her husband and escorted Santa outside into the crisp December air, walking him down to the foot of the driveway. Once they were out of view from the others peering at the front window, she produced Santa’s share of the Sloppy Joe sandwich and slipped it into his coat pocket.

“A little something for the road tonight, Santa. Merry Christmas.”

“Thank you, young lady. And happy Honolulu — “

“Hanukka. Don’t ask me how to spell it. There are about five different ways.”

“Yes, well, happy Hanukka to you and yours.”

And with a merry wave, Santa turned to continue his Christmas Eve mission. Linda needed to assist him just one more time by turning him around and sending him off in the proper direction. He smiled and was on his way, ho-ho-ho-ing as he meandered down the street.

And to all a good night.

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.

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