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December 19, 2012

Just another Christmas story

Santa Claus was a dick. Jesus, too. Those were Jasper’s views about Christmas in a nutshell. Frosty, Rudolph and Hermey the Dentist could all kiss Jasper’s ass. And God? Literature’s most implausible science-fiction villain.

Jasper’s brother Cal had died on a cold December midnight, gasping for air as cancer stole his life away in the dim, steel-and-rubber oncology ward at the hospital. When Christmas came a couple of weeks later, Jasper and his mom and dad had all stared silently at their tenderloin and roasted potatoes, unable to summon another tear. They hadn’t even put up a tree. Christmas would always remind Jasper of his inability to cry, once the crying had stopped.

But that was 20 years ago, and Cal was becoming harder and harder to conjure. What color was his hair, exactly? What did his laugh sound like? What was that silly song they’d sung after the cancer came calling? “I want a new drug — one that won’t make me feel three feet thick?” What did Christmas feel like before it started feeling like pain?

He had a dim memory of Christmases as a child. One year, his dad, a notorious wiseass, had given him his best gift ever: a tennis racket, wrapped only in paper, its shape taunting him for an agonizing week under the tree. When the time finally came, Jasper made Cal go to the park with him on Christmas Day and they’d played tennis for hours, their breath blowing white and their hands burning red from the bitter cold. Every backhand down the line was a Christmas miracle, every overhead smash a glory to God in the highest.

There were earlier memories, too: His grandfather jingling bells and bursting forth in a basso-profundo “Ho ho ho” while Jasper and Cal lay terrified in their bunk beds on Christmas Eve. And there was a comical memory of struggling to put together the artificial Christmas tree with their mom every year, matching the color-coded limbs to the pressed wood “trunk,” and singing about corncob pipes and eyes made out of coal while their mom danced, merrily, with her vodka gimlet.

The living room in their old house, where his mom now lived a lonely old widow’s life, seemed cavernous and shiny in his memory, but to his middle-aged perspective it was small and dim and hideous and made him feel oddly embarrassed when he brought his wife and their 10-year-old son there for Christmas.

And now his son Calvin was too old to believe in Santa but young enough to be thoroughly enchanted by Christmas. It was one of the rare days when he chose hanging out with the adults over an afternoon of “Guitar Hero” or “Madden NFL.”

When Calvin was younger, it was easier for Jasper to hide his disdain for Christmas. He could set aside the pain of Christmases past and distract himself with Legos or toy trains and try to insulate Calvin from his snarkier observations, which he tried to save for like-minded sad sacks at work.

But Calvin was growing up and becoming insightful. And now, while the women fussed in the kitchen and he and Calvin played an ancient game of Boggle on the living room floor, Calvin looked at him with anxious eyes and asked, “Dad, why do you hate Christmas?”

“I don’t,” Jasper said a bit too loudly. Then, quieter, “Oh, Callie, I don’t hate Christmas.” But Calvin could tell it wasn’t so, and Jasper tried to articulate his feelings. “It’s just that, well, Christmas is for kids, not grownups.”

Jasper could tell Calvin wasn’t satisfied. “The thing is,” Jasper said, “I’ve been sad at Christmas ever since your uncle died. Sometimes Christmas can make some of us sad. But I’m glad that you and Mom like Christmas.”

“But Dad,” said Calvin, “I’m the new Cal. You don’t have to be sad anymore, see?” And then the boy did a funny little dance, a cross between Charleston and hip-hop, and that’s when Jasper’s tears began to flow. And he grabbed the boy and held him tight and he cried and cried. He cried for Cal and he cried for Calvin and he cried for himself and for all the Christmases of the past 20 years.

And Calvin said, “See, Dad? Christmas doesn’t have to suck, not if you don’t want it to!” And Jasper had to admit that maybe Santa Claus still had some tricks up his sleeve.