When our four kids were younger, Santa Claus always arrived earlier than expected.
We set up the tree a few days after Thanksgiving, decorated it with lights and sentimental ornaments collected from special places we visited, and then prepared for Santa’s visit about a week before Dec. 25.
The reason for the early celebration was that both sets of grandparents lived about a mile apart in the Westside of Los Angeles and we used the last week of the year to get out of the cold, visit the folks, and connect with other siblings in the area.
Three of the four kids looked forward to getting presents early and then heading for the sunshine; we were grateful not to lug the loot aboard the plane and spread it out under grandma’s tree on Christmas morning.
The first several serious Santa years (and the explanation for the early appearance) were cushioned somewhat by an actual visit from the "big fella," the result of a successful bid at the local babysitting co-op fundraiser.
We invited the neighborhood, the event became a huge success, and our home was deemed headquarters for Santa’s annual pre-Christmas stop — regardless of who won "the hour" at subsequent co-op auctions.
Our old house, a large in-city place jammed with the craziness and crayons brought by four young people, looked great during the holidays. Its old brick mantle was perfect for wreaths and seasonal cards, and the Christmas tree in the corner by the picture window beamed to the outside world.
When we moved to a rural home away from the big city, the traditional co-op Santa visit was replaced by a day dedicated to finding the perfect tree. Right after Thanksgiving we’d grab the four kids, caps, jackets and a bow saw and head off to a tree farm to comb the rows of Douglas fir, noble fir and grand fir — often in a light rain or snow.
Up and down the tiny valleys we’d go, miniature candy canes and hot cider in hand, each family member picking a candidate tree and an explanation of why its size and shape would work best in our home. Voting was not taken lightly. In the end, Mom and Dad stuffed the ballot box so that winner rotated every year.
The child who chose the winning tree always received the honor of taking the first turn with the saw. Eventually, each kid flopped to the ground and push-pulled the saw’s sharp teeth through the trunk before triumphantly dragging it toward the cashier’s shed and onto the VW Bus.
An evening of decorating and Christmas carols followed, with wide-eyed kids knowing full well that something special was just around the corner.
When our children grew up and moved away, I usually made the trip to the tree farm by myself and surprised my wife with a fresh standing tree when she returned from work or shopping.
In recent years, when I flopped to the ground with the saw, I was stunned by how long it took me to work through the narrow trunk. We delighted in decorating the tree together, hoping that at least one of the four could make it home to visit and see the decorations and the tree.
Two months ago, we sold that rural home we’d owned for 22 years and rented a condominium closer to town. When the deal closed and all the furniture was gone, the carpets vacuumed and the floors wiped clean, my wife and I made a final tour of every room, recalling delightful memories and a few gut-wrenching setbacks associated with specific episodes in our lives.
I thought about setting up the tree in the living room, the Santa visits to the previous home, and I wondered how our children would choose to celebrate those times in their own homes.
We will go to Los Angeles for Christmas this year, but only my in-laws, now 93 and 90, remain there. My dad died 13 years ago and my mom moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to be closer to my two sisters and a brother. My wife’s side of the family still gathers for Christmas Eve supper and sometimes we meet our children for a few days, if their schedules permit.
One of the kids — the one who never wanted to open his presents early and who wished to experience Christmas morning in our own home — is usually the first to arrive.
He’ll also make a point of telling me how much the Santa visits, tree-cutting and trimming, and holiday trips to see the grandparents’ meant to him, even if he didn’t always agree, because "it was more important we were all together."