Is Christmas over already? Holy crap.

When I was a kid, we lived in a raised ranch style house. If you don't know what that is, here's a description. Basically, it meant that when you walked in the front door, you were on a small landing with a set of stairs going up and another set going down. In our house, the bedrooms, kitchen, dining room and living room were upstairs, and the "family room" was downstairs. In order to keep some heat on the bottom floor, we had a magnetic vinyl accordion door at the bottom of the stairs. In the winter, this was almost always closed. Unfortunately for us, it also made quite a racket when you opened and closed it, due to the metal track and the magnetic latch. Why am I telling you about the layout of our house? Because that door was the only thing separating The Snitch, Houdini and me from our Christmas tree and the glorious treasure Santa brought us on Christmas morning.

For quite a few years, we were forbidden to go down there until our parents were awake. That wasn't really such a good plan on their part, seeing as how all three of us were usually up and out of bed at 4:30 am, and there was no way they were going to sleep through that. Finally, in an effort to get more than two hours sleep, my parents decided to simply pick what seemed to us to be an arbitrary time. It varied, and thinking about it now, I believe it was dependent upon several variables, including our behavior and how late Santa had stayed awake deciphering Korean assembly instructions on Christmas eve.

Most of the time it was 7 or 8 am. If we made giant pains in the asses of ourselves, that could be pushed to 9, with threats of (gasp!) after church, and nobody (except maybe my parents) wanted that. There was some quiet whining, but for the most part we were never better-behaved than we were between the hours of 5 am and 9 am on Christmas morning. I'm still not sure which was worse -- going to church first and trying to sit still for an hour in utter anticipation, or seeing it all first, and then being forced to leave it behind and sit in church for an hour just thinking about the stuff you barely had a chance to play with.

I think there were two main reasons we weren't allowed downstairs -- one, our parents wanted to witness us being surprised and two, Santa, being sort of a slacker, never wrapped anything. I've mentioned before about how we'd search to find the presents my parents had hidden under the stairs, or in the attic, but the ones we found were never from Santa. All Santa's presents appeared magically out of thin air while we slept.

We could never quite figure it out. Apparently, we weren't too bright, and we never questioned why my father always showed up at my grandmother's house a little late on Christmas Eve, after "working late." I am pretty sure the words my father most dreaded to see on that night were "some assembly required" and "batteries not included." He would get home from work and frantically build stuff until he had to meet us, then, after we got home and went to sleep, he'd finish everything up and put it under the tree. No wonder the poor guy wanted to sleep in a little.

As far as the whole Santa thing went -- I had some suspicions, but, on the other hand, I also believed in magic. I was a firm believer in Santa for a long time after all the kids in school were telling me he was fake. I distinctly remember slipping out of bed late one Christmas eve and eavesdropping on a conversation between my mother and father. They were sneaky and evil. Instead of yelling at me to get back to bed, they pretended they didn't know I was there. The conversation went something like this:

"I'm starting to get a little worried."

"You think he's not coming?"

"I'm not sure. Normally, he'd have been here by now. Maybe he had problems with the reindeer and he's running late."

"That could be. Or maybe someone upstairs isn't really asleep yet. I'd better go check."

To this day, I know from experience that there really is a way to force yourself to go to sleep by sheer willpower, but I seem to have forgotten how it's done. It's a shame, because it could really come in handy on some Sunday nights when you can't sleep and have to get up for work the next day.

We had no chimney on our house that was bigger than four inches in diameter, and that one went directly into a natural gas furnace in the downstairs hall closet. I knew he wasn't getting in that way, because I had seen that thing with the door off, and unless Santa was fireproof, those solid walls of blue flame looked pretty impenetrable.

I raised that particular concern one year, thinking we should maybe leave the back door unlocked for him, and it turned out that our particular version of Santa just needed a fireplace and he could magically appear. He wasn't picky about it either, because our fireplace looked like this:

Every year, my father inserted tabs into slots, locked them in place with brass-headed fasteners, and paved the way for our magical back-door Santa. Behind the "logs" there was a small orange light bulb and holder for a little pinwheel. The heat from the bulb would cause the pinwheel to rotate, casting weird shadows behind the logs. VoilĂ ! Ultra-realistic "flames." I remember that it had to be wired to the wall so it didn't fall over when you hung full stockings on it, so it was completely plausible that a 400lb fat guy in a red suit with a giant sack of presents would have no problem at all simply appearing inside of it without so much as popping tab A from slot B.

One Christmas morning, we decided that we'd had enough of the aforementioned iron-clad rule to stay upstairs. Do not go near the accordion door, do not even go down on the landing. Otherwise, your mean parents will take everything Santa gave you and give it to the less fortunate. And while we had nothing against the less fortunate, we knew that the big man usually did pretty good by us, and there was no reason to get carried away.

Plausible deniability was always our game. We tended to follow the letter but not necessarily the spirit of the law. They said we couldn't do that, but they never said we couldn't do this. So, while we couldn't go down on the landing, there were other ways to skin a fat guy in a red suit.

There was one thing our parents didn't count on, and that was Houdini and his really small head. Well, two things actually, since Houdini's small head was of no use to us without this:

I was nothing if not a Ready Ranger. I know, that sounds really gay in retrospect.

"I have an idea," I whispered. "You guys want to to see what we got from Santa?"

"We'll get in trouble," Snitch said. "We can't sneak down. Daddy will hear the door."

"Yeah, but I don't think we have to. Houdini, go in my room and get my Field Pack."

A few moments later, he came back with the kit, and I opened it up. If you're not familiar with this piece of ultra-high tech spy/survival gear, all you need to do is look at that picture up there and figure out what the tall black thing is. I popped it free.

I held the periscope through the railing and tried to angle it to point through one of the little triangular openings in the top of the accordion door, but it wouldn't work. I couldn't get the angle right. If I adjusted it so I could actually look through it, all I could see was the door. In order to tip it so I could to look through the tiny openings in the top of the door, I had to hold it out beyond the railing, and then I couldn't get my eye close enough to look through it.

"Houdini," I whispered. "Does your head fit through the railing?"

He immediately tried it, and it popped through like we had buttered the sides. I already knew mine wouldn't fit, mostly due to my fat head and ginormous ears. Also, I still had recurring nightmares about the one time I actually managed to get my head jammed between the balusters on the stairs. I screamed bloody murder for what seemed like an eternity while my mother ran around frantically trying to figure out a way to free me. Eventually, she really did butter my head, and I wasn't going there again.

After he pulled his head back out, I said, "OK, now lay down and stick your head back through, and when you're set, I'm gonna give you the periscope."

He laid down on the floor, stuck his head through the middle two balusters, and put his arms through the openings on either side. I handed him the periscope.

"Don't drop it," I said.

"I'm not gonna," he whispered defensively.

Of course he wouldn't drop it. Why should he drop it? He was only lying on the floor with his head sticking through the railing, barely able to move his arms.

"OK, now hang it down a little bit, and see if you can get it pointed through one of the little openings in the top of the door. Then tell us what you see."

It took him a second to get situated, but then he struck the mother load. "Whoa," he said, breathlessly.

"Jeez, c'mon, tell us! Whattaya see?" I said, desperately hoping for Rock'em Sock'em Robots.

"I see a lot of stuff. A bozo bopper. Battling Tops. I got a big wheel, I think. Snitch, you got a bike!!"

The Snitch did a little dance of joy. "What else?" I asked impatiently.

"Those fighting robots you wanted," he said.

Score! That was all I needed to hear.

"OK, give that to me and come on back through," I said, as I sat on his back and pried the periscope from his hands. He didn't want to give it up, but he was in no position to resist. Luckily, he didn't have an "outer ear" problem like I did, and his head popped back out effortlessly.

"Good job," I said, already deciding in my head that Red Rocker was going to remain undefeated forever. After we packed up the Field Kit, we immediately went back to being the best behaved kids in the world for another 3 hours, secure in the knowledge that our magical back-door Santa hadn't let us down.

A belated Merry Christmas, everyone. Here's to a fantastic 2009!



  1. My parents always threatened my sisters and I that if we weren't quiet until 8am, that they wouldn't let us open our presents until after New Year's.

    They never had any problem with us with that rule.

  2. I was one of those weird kids that never wanted to know what I was getting. I hated to have the surprise ruined on Christmas morning. But man, you guys were ingenious with the periscope!

  3. A great story. We were always afraid of ruining the surprise and of pissing off the old man...so we never risked it. I love the ready ranger kit. I haven't thought about that thing for ever.


  4. Anonymous8:16 PM

    Damn you, Johnny Virgil! I got in trouble because of your Christmas card. We were staying at my sister-in-law's place over the holliday and I got bored and was playing on their computer and checked in with your site. I printed out your card and hung it on their fridge, forgetting that my neice is now in 3rd grade and can read. Imagine my horror when my little neice asked me, "Uncle David, what's an assknob?" My sister-in-law wasn't as amused as I had expected, either. I wasn't exactly sure how to define "assknob" for her any better than I could define it for her daughter. I should have just told the both of them to look it up on the internet.


  5. That was a fun read! I remember as a kid making a periscope... and having hours of fun with it. As I had no brothers, it did not involve getting one's head through railing bars, however, of which there are none in my parents' house anyway...

  6. Awesome. I've said this before, but we had very similar childhoods. I can't wait for my kids to pay me back when they're a few years older.

  7. hahaha..classic! Where there's a will...

    When i was a kid i don't think there was a single surprise on on any Christmas morning. I searched out every item relentlessly and even carefully untaped and retaped wrapped prestents with master precision...to this day my parents never had a clue. But like you, the Santa gifts always remained elusive somehow. Once my mom got mad because my sister and I wouldn't clean our room so she 'cleaned it' for us and said she threw everything away. Guess what Santa brought us that year? All our old crap in a big box--didn't see that one coming. I'm definitely doing that with my kids when they get a little bigger. MOooahhahhaha

  8. We lived in one of those houses in Virginia. They were called "split foyers". I lived downstairs. The rest of the family lived upstairs. That way, the drum noise and the smell of glue, didn't invade the entire house.
    My parents about gave up on Christmas by the time I turned 10. Dad isn't the handiest person in the world. He'd finish the cussing and assembly of toys, about 2 AM. We were up at 6 and I had all the toys taken back apart and reassembled correctly, by 8....

  9. Anonymous11:47 AM

    I always saw those cardboard fireplaces in K-mart when I was a kid and wondered who bought them.

  10. yayayayya! I've been waiting for stories of you the Snitch and Houdini! and you did not disappoint :)
    but as funny as it was, all I can think of is how many times I've had to free one of my four children's heads from the banister...and little-kid rocking chair...and fence posts...I wonder what the appeal is? Or maybe my kids aren;t that bright? or maybe they like to see their mom with her finger poised over the last '1' in 911...no one knows :)

  11. Got my head stuck in a wrought-iron railing as a kid. Just about had to call the paramedics. I wrenched it loose when I saw the neighbor coming with a hacksaw.

    Years later my mom's brother said all you have to do is turn the shoulders and pull the kid the rest of the way through.

    Of course with all the new modern railings being much closer together (and hence far less fun), I'll probably never get to test that theory.

    Great post once again, JV-- and Merry Christmas to you!

  12. BG - good threat!

    Melissa, that's just weird. You probably got straight A's. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

    IB, The periscope was the only thing worth a crap in that whole kit.

    Anon, that's fantastic. Glad to help.

    doreus, I remember thinking I oculd angle mirrors to the kid's house across the street and we could see each other. forgot about that little thing called magnification.

    FM, good luck with that.

    AM, you have to read the other story I linked to. I had a kit.

    Ray, glue? couldn't get nitrous?

    Anon, you gotta have a way for Santa to get in. Damn, man.

    Mary, I don't know! I also stuck my tongue to a metal screen door in below zero weather.

    Steve, congrats! I don't think that occurred to my mother. Therefore, butter ears.

  13. omg that fireplace is hysterical... and yet sad in its slot A/tab B kind of way...

    my brothers had rock 'em, sock 'em robots... I can still hear that zzzhhhhh sound when the final punch made a head pop up...

    thanks for the trip down Christmas memory lane... butter and all....

  14. Great story, Johnny. Happy New Year!

  15. Xmass is lame.

  16. I had one of those fireplaces growing up too. But my mom didn't even try the magic stuff -- she just told me we left the door unlocked so he could get in. Of course, with the packing tape holding tab B in slot A, he probably would have just knocked the thing over anyway. :)

    As for willing yourself to sleep, did that once too. We were at a friend's house and their water-radiator-heater thing kicked on. It sounded like bells. I freaked! I made my mom leave and go directly home and was in bed with coat, boots & mittens. She says I was asleep before she had the front door closed. I was POSITIVE that it was Santa's sleigh and if I wasn't in bed asleep, he would pass me by. I was taking no chances.

    Ahh...the memories of being a kid in the 70's.....

  17. Great story.
    I'll never forget how back in the late fifties, when I was a 8-year-old, Santa amazingly delivered a stand-up organ complete with bass pedals and bench seat right next to the tree in our livingroom.
    We lived in a small 4 room apartment the kind where we had to share a bathroom with the neighbors who also lived on the same floor. How can you hide anything back then?
    Alas, dad has been gone a while and mom can't remember who I am.
    Before posting this comment I called and asked my two younger sisters if they remembered the organ and how it got there.
    Both remembered it but neither knew the answer.
    It hade to be Santa.
    It just had to be.

  18. 3 hours, come on! Christmas Day was always at my Grandparents house. We would have to go to church, have breakfast, clean up the kitchen, wait for everyone to come over, and do family pictures before any presents were opened. Good Times.

  19. Anonymous12:41 AM

    "Magical Back-Door Santa." Worst. Porno. Ever.

  20. kristina12:02 PM

    Hope you had a great Christmas, and a very Happy New Year!!

  21. What a great, and well-told, story. These vignettes from your childhood are some of your best stuff. I hope the book is full of them.

  22. this entry brought back some Christmas morning memories of my own childhood. One year, my brother asked if he could get up and go to the bathroom. He didn't specify which one, so he went to the one on the opposite end of the house, where he of course, had to walk through the living room where the tree was to get there.

  23. We had one of those "fireplaces" at one time!

  24. Sometimes your stories of growing up are so similar to mine it freaks me out. We had that same exact fireplace too. The orange bulb lit "fire" was mesmerizing. lol. I actually included a little shout-out about it in a Christmas essay I wrote last year....

    Must be a Canadian border thing! Or something. :-P

    Happy New Year!

  25. Anonymous2:21 PM

    OMG, we also had one of those cardboard fireplaces! I have the pictures to prove it too! Toooo funny...