Christmas at 2320 North Short Hills Drive in Bath, Ohio in the 1960s was a magical time. It was a focus of the year for the five growing children in the Webner clan and lives on, rich and funny and idyllic, in my memory.
The Webner Family Christmas was steeped in traditions that heightened the excitement of the holiday. On Christmas Eve we would leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk near the fireplace, so Santa could have a snack after dropping off what we hoped would be a heavy load of presents. Then we would rush upstairs to get into our PJs and try to go to bed extra early, because Mom had explained that the earlier you went to bed the sooner it would be Christmas morning. (Smart move, Mom!) In those days all five kids, separated youngest to oldest by nearly seven years, would sleep in the bedroom UJ and I shared, in a room crammed with pillows and blankets. It seems impossible that five little kids, charged with excitement and crazed by their lust for toys, could ever fall asleep, but one by one we did. Our last thoughts before falling into slumber no doubt were about whether we had been sufficiently good that year, or whether the Malt-O-Meal bird that Mom convinced us was reporting to Santa on our every activity had told about enough transgressions that we would only get the dreaded lump of coal the next day.
The next morning we would get up early — and by early, I mean 5:30 a.m. or so — wake up Mom and Dad, and then sit at the top of stairs, waiting. Another tradition was that no one could go downstairs until Mom and Dad were ready. The wait seemed to take forever. (We later learned, of course, that Dad had been up until 3 a.m. putting together some of the toys we were about to get.) In the meantime, we would give each other reports on Dad’s progress through his wake-up routine, like radio play-by-play announcers describing a ball game. Yes, it was confirmed — Dad is out of bed! Now we can hear the shower, that means he is making progress! I’ve heard it from the source — Mom says Dad is shaving! Shaving was always the last, and longest, step. With each scrape of the razor, the excitement at the top of the stairs would build, reaching feverish proportions. All five of us knew that just a few steps downstairs, but tantalizingly out of sight from our perch atop the stairs, was the Christmas Tree and Santa’s judgment on whether we had been good or bad.
Finally, seemingly hours after he had been abruptly awakened by five shouting, hyperexcited children, Dad appeared and we were permitted to race downstairs. We first noticed the indisputable visual evidence of Santa’s midnight appearance. We saw that the milk had been drunk and the cookies eaten, and the telltale track of sooty boots traced the path from the fireplace to the TV tray where the glass of milk and plate of cookies had been left. We also could see the tree, glittering with tinsel and sparkling with ornaments, and appreciate the rich haul of brightly wrapped packages jammed underneath. Our eyes immediately were drawn to the largest present, and all of the children shared the same greedy thought: “Please, let it be for me!” But we would not find out the lucky recipient for a while, for another time-honored tradition was that we could only open what was in our stockings. You would get a candy cane or two, a chocolate Santa and perhaps a marshmallow snowman, and maybe a Tonka truck and a comic book. Given our toy-hungry condition, it was like tormenting a starving man with a Saltine cracker. Afterward, we headed to the kitchen table, where we ate our breakfast of hot cereal — undoubtedly the influence of the Malt-O-Meal bird again. Never was hot cereal consumed so quickly, as we thought furiously about what we had asked for in the Christmas lists prepared weeks before. As we shoveled down the hot cereal Dad chugged a few cups of coffee, trying to steel himself for noisy orgy of present-opening that loomed dead ahead.
And then, the Supreme Hour arrived. We would troop over to the tree and sit down close by, and Dad would hand out the presents one at a time. Wrapping paper would be ripped to shreds, the presents would be speedily examined, and then they would be put aside so that the next one could be received as quickly as possible. And all the while side-long glances would be cast at brothers and sisters and the presents left under the tree, and lightning-fast mental calculations of the remaining likely gifts would be performed: “Jim got a stocking cap from Gramma and Grampa Neal — that means that one of my remaining presents is a stocking cap, too. Arrgh! A stocking cap! Hey, everyone else has gotten a big gift, but I haven’t so far — so one of my remaining presents probably is going to be something big. Whoo hoo!” Dad usually saved the biggest gift of all for the end. By then we all had given eagle-eye looks at the present to look at whose name was on the tag, and the lucky recipient waited, adrenalin pumping, to see what was in such a big box.
Eventually the carnage of gift-giving was over and we sank back, hip deep in the blizzard of shredded wrapping paper, ribbons, and tags, our greed sated and ready for a more careful examination of the presents we had received. And deep down, many of us felt: “Hey, Santa must have concluded I was pretty good. Maybe the standards aren’t very high, after all! Or maybe the Malt-O-Meal bird didn’t see the time I broke one of Gramma’s figurines and blamed it on Margaret. Or, maybe Santa just fell for the last two weeks of good behavior in the run-up to Christmas. Heh heh!” Flush with that important realization, we would gorge ourselves on the foil-wrapped chocolates from our stockings, play briefly with our toys, and then bundle up and head out into the quiet, frosty, snow-covered neighborhood, to find out what Santa brought to the dozens of other kids who lived there.