People are always telling me that I don’t celebrate Christmas. I never correct them because when they say this to me they always sound very nervous, as if I might respond with something that rocks the very structure of our differences as Jews and Christians. But I find it hard not to celebrate Christmas considering it’s a day that I have off and happen to be in a food-filled environment with my family, so to me, that’s celebrating. Still, some Jews feel the need to tell everyone in the world that we are not CELEBRATING, or rather, refuse to celebrate. So instead we Jews do community service, because that’s the opposite of celebrating.
My parents used to take us to the Disneyland restaurant Goofy’s Kitchen for Christmas Eve every year, but when Pluto spoke to me (I pulled on his big rubber tongue and he said, clear as day “That’s not very nice.” I freaked out), we started spending our eve serving food at the local homeless shelter.
At first it was just the five of us and our Jew friends the Lebowitzes, but two years ago we were told that our services were no longer needed because there was a new gaggle of fresh-faced and unjaded volunteers from the church who weren’t afraid to serve corn with their hands when we ran low on ladles. While I took this as a sign to go back to Goofy’s Kitchen and finally confront my fears, my mom wouldn’t have it. She sought a new philanthropic endeavor.
At this point, all of us were in college so my mom was of course, like all moms nesting in an empty nest, beginning to go somewhat crazy. She told us we were going to be doing something philanthropic all day Christmas Eve, but we had no idea what it would entail. “It’s going to be fun.” She said.
On the morning of Christmas Eve we piled into the car. My brother was nowhere to be found. He hadn’t returned from the bars from the night before. He called from whatever ditch he woke up in and promised to meet us there.
We drove out to Westminster, CA. I always thought this town was weird because the street signs were written in this strange font that one might find on a Swiss chateau or in a kitschy restaurant where the waiters wear lederhosen. There was no reason for this font and it made me uncomfortable to look at it when we were stopped at lights.
Dad drove us to a strip mall called La Mancha center. We crossed a great expanse of parking lot before we reached the small office space that would be our philanthropic destination of the day.
We entered a small office that was riddled with tinsel, crepe paper, and old restless ladies wearing broaches featuring Santas or rosy-cheeked elves. One of them had her entire breast covered with little angels, each representing one of her children. These women were running around the place like it was Grand Central Station, cheerily barking orders at one another and hoisting bags of toys haphazardly around the fluorescently lit room. In the foyer, there were old clippings from Westminster community newspapers featuring the office and their philanthropic service. I hadn’t figured out what that service was yet, but angel booby was about to let me know.
Apparently, a man named Juan Carlos organized this event many years ago. Underprivileged children and their families could come to this parking lot on Christmas Eve where they would get a free toy, free meal, and a meet and greet with Santa. It had been a success for over 25 years now, and Juan Carlos was certainly revered to be a demi-god by these wrinkly ladies. But there was no time for history lessons; there was a lot to be done before the man in red arrived at 1 p.m.
Matt and I were immediately put to work wrapping presents. We went outside to the back of the strip mall and carried boxes of donated toys to the wrapping room. There were about 25 people wrapping presents and two pairs of scissors. Matt never even waited to use the tools, he just ripped the paper off the spools and fastened the sheets into open slits in the toys’ packaging.
After a few minutes a tiny lady wearing jeweled glasses and a red turtleneck screamed, “We’re running low!” to the room. Everyone became very tense and my eyes inexplicably started to water, because really, someone was going to cry that day and I wanted to be the first.
We had already stopped using holiday-themed wrapping paper and had moved onto the brown and green plaid print. Jewel glasses was talking to an important-looking woman and saying something along the lines of thousands of kids not being able to open presents because of lack in funding for wrapping paper. Thousands. She turned the battery off on her light-up Rudolf broach due to the seriousness of the issue. I looked to Matt to ask him if Christmas was ruined, and he was sitting with his head between his knees. When he looked up at me he said, “These toys suck.”
He was right. Since we arrived, I’d been wrapping the same “X-treme FlyMan” action figure and throwing it in the “Boy toys” box. An old toy store had donated a couple hundred boxes of the figurine. It was just a rubber figure of a guy with the face of a fly. The wings were on top of his head like a hat, not on his back like a normal insect superhero. I was sad that my brother was too hungover to make any Jeff Goldblum jokes, but I went on wrapping.
Jewel glasses came over to me to tell me in her sweetest voice not to use so much ribbon. If it hadn’t been Christmas I probably would have smacked that short puffy church lady hairstyle off of her head, but I couldn’t blame her. She was right, there would be a bunch of presents that would go unwrapped if we didn’t get more paper, and then we would be stuck with a surplus of “X-treme FlyMan” because none of the kids would want it.
I was trying to figure out how to get out of the wrapping room and away from all of the worried ladies when a thin, weathered woman with tinsel draped around her neck like a lei walked in with two giant CVS bags full of wrapping paper. The paper said “Happy Birthday” on it but it was a Christmas miracle all the same. In the joyful commotion I had a chance to slip out and see what the rest of my family was up to.
As I walked through the hall I saw the demi-god that had been mentioned to me. He was a tiny Latino man in a metallic silver suit and ivory leather shoes. He had white hair and a kind face. I got nervous when I looked at him, so I kept walking.
My mom was handing out lemonade to the very long line of people that was forming in the parking lot. My dad was now wearing a red and green apron and overseeing the production of hundreds of hotdogs. Becca was organizing the snack-pak size chips that were the sidedish to the hotdogs. I guess this was the meal.
A police car and a fire truck were there with all of their doors open so kids could go inside and look around. There were also a few officers present so that kids could shake the hand of someone in uniform. Along with that theme, four gigantic souped up trucks had parked next to the fire truck and had also opened all of their doors. Huge, mustachio’d, inked up dudes hoisted little kids into the driver’s seat of the trucks, and bored dads could come over and look into the engines (because the hoods were popped). I went over to admire the artwork on each of the cars; a portrait of the owner’s grandmother holding a old fashioned gun, a waving Mexican flag fading into flames, a crying stripper. It was quite beautiful craftsmanship. I left when someone asked to me to hold his baby.
I considered helping Becca organize the chips into categories of saltiness, but it was announced that Santa was about to arrive. From the end of the parking lot he came. He sat in the back of a long red Corvette convertible with the words “La Leyenda de Mexico” airbrushed in flames along the side. He wore a Santa suit but pulled the beard down below his mouth to reveal his thin mustache and gold tooth’d smile. He had a tattoo of a tear on his right eye.
The parents loved it. They cheered Santa on like he was coming home from war. The corvette had hydraulics so Santa bounced up and down with the car, saying “ho, ho, ho” all the way. The kids were a bit confused, and only a few were crying, so I think he pulled it off.
One by one children in line chose a toy from a gigantic pile of wrapped presents. They were told “don’t open it til Christmas.” Wide eyed, they were hoisted into the corvette with that scary ass Santa who did not have anything resembling a twinkle in his eye. They all looked miserable, and though my dad is a great barbecuer, I don’t think the nasty hot dogs made matters much better.
I felt a strange sense of anger because everyone looked so unhappy. Moms and Dads were yelling at their kids to stop being greedy and pick a goddamn toy already and brothers and sisters were stealing their younger siblings’ hot cheetos. It pissed me off that this organization was so centered around the gift and the wrapping and the Santa. It was so nice out, I feel like we all would have felt lot more warm and fuzzy if we’d played a big game of soccer. In fact, the only people having fun seemed to be the dudes driving Santa, who I’m pretty sure were Cheech and Chong.
I wanted to share these thoughts with someone, but my brother was hungover and being attended to by dozens of lonely church ladies, my sister was doing that thing where she relates to children, and my mom and dad were feeding hungry mouths. Once again, I felt alone on Christmas.
I went back inside and I found the man in the metallic suit sitting down on a box of “X-treme FlyMan” toys. When he saw me, he smiled and patted the box next to him, indicating for me to sit. I sat down and said something lame to start conversation, probably “So you do this every year?” Juan Carlos smiled at me and said he didn’t speak any English. I’m pretty good with Spanish but I had caught some of Matt’s hangover and couldn’t remember if the word for “Christmas” was “Navidad” or “Cumpleanos.” So we sat in silence.
“Conoces ‘La Mancha’ en Ingles?” he asked me. He pointed at the large sign we’d passed on our way in that read “La Mancha Center.” I shook my head. I did not know what the word La Mancha was. Juan Carlos smiled a huge toothy grin, revealing a few of his gold teeth and also a few of his rotted ones. “es STAIN,” he said. “’La Mancha’ es eSTAIN.”
Then he put his arm around me and laughed so hard I briefly had a vision of his head falling off. I started to laugh too. “The Stain Center.” That’s so funny, and so typical of a town that has all of their street signs in that weird Swiss chateau font. Juan Carlos gave me a warm hug and said “Feliz Navidad.” He smelled like corn and had the whole twinkle in his eye thing down pat.
Oustide, the crowds had died down and we were told we could go home. My dad was sitting in the driver’s seat of one of the trucks and talking to a man wearing a leather vest and no shirt. The policemen were chatting with the body-shop artists and the moms were cradling their snoozing children. My family and I decided to go to the beach for some fried food on the pier, but I had to drive Matt’s car because we were pretty sure he was still drunk.
It was such a weird day, but that’s how it always is in California. We don’t understand how to celebrate Christmas because it’s not cold, and the true meaning of Christmas is this: back in the old days when it was freezing as shit, all you wanted to do is eat food, drink cocoa, get babied by your parents and do what you could to provide that comfort to someone else. So simple things like holiday philanthropy tend to go awry in our great state because we’re just all very confused. And with my family it’s an even bigger mess, because we’re not even supposed to acknowledge that the day exists.
And yet, I’m here in New York, which is exactly what the entire world is trying to emulate when they decorate for Christmas. There are lights all over the city and the tree over Rockefeller Center is bigger than King Kong. There are children in coats and mittens and toy trains in shop windows (does anyone else not understand that Christmas symbol because I really don’t). Misteltoe is in every doorway and miracles are happening on 34th street as I write.
But this doesn’t feel like Christmas at all to me. I crave illegal immigrants and 90 degree weather. I crave multi-cultural Santas and sea salt fries.
I don’t know if I helped anyone that day in the parking lot, but I know that Juan Carlos made me laugh and helped me feel a lot more warm and fuzzy inside than if I’d been pulling on Pluto’s plastic tongue.
By the way, Santa was on COPS three days later for robbing a house. As Santa.