I retain memories of roughly 60 Christmases spent here in Arlington.
Those sugarplum visions range from family trips to buy a Christmas tree at churches or the Optimist Club lot, to early visits to the laps of Santa impersonators at Hecht’s or Kann’s department stores.
But when I drive through my boyhood neighborhood to admire the familiar homes decked out to warmly glow, the memory that resurfaces most readily is the Christmas my brother and sister and I learned (not without pain) the grown-ups’ notion of tact and timing.
I was perhaps eight years old when the tensions erupted during an early ‘60’s Christmas Eve family sing-along. We were sitting Indian-style around a tree that, in that era, would have been stuffed underneath with boxes containing such treasures as the board game Stratego or a Remco bull-dog tank.
As we went through the carols, inevitably it occurred to us kids to “play around” with the lyrics as we had done so often within our peer group.
So we sang: “We three kings of orient are. Tried to smoke a rubber cigar.”
I probably thought I had receiving tacit permission for such antics from my mother, who had once read parodies to us from a book of modern English verse. British children in the 1930s, reacting to the news that Edward VIII had abandoned the throne to marry an American divorcee, were heard to sing, to the tune of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” a rejoinder: “Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king.”
In Arlington we may have tossed in the number I still hear from today’s elementary school kids: “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg…”
Now, here we were: my father, mother, brother and sister, in a moment of rare familial solidarity, butterflies in the belly over Santa’s ETA in just a few hours, marking a joyful cultural tradition that transcends the generations.
That’s the moment I chose to “edit” the famous French carol, like a budding journalist. In lieu of the line” Shepherds, why this jubilee?” I paraphrased it as “Shepherds, basically what’s the scoop?”
To which my sister replied, without missing a beat: “Who, what, when, where, why and how?”
Boom! I can still feel the crash of my father’s use of my name, shall we say, in vain. My mother joined him in a scolding lecture, probably addressing maturity, respect, discipline honoring the occasion etc.
Tough for a child to grasp, in the giggle of the moment, that at another day, another time, the humor might have gone over better.
Appropriateness was something that grownups decide.
Lo, a half-century later, my parents’ lesson hasn’t really endeth. To paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes, there’s a time to parody, and a time to sing carols right. Try saving the gags for the day after Christmas.
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I noticed it on a neighbor’s home that their beautiful multi-colored splash looked a tad distorted—as if viewed through a fish-eye lens. When I drew close, I realized the lights weren’t actually there. They were projected on the brick via a set of projectors disguised in a gift box in the front yard.
“A revolutionary, time saving, portable laser light that comes in three colors and allows you to decorate any surface in a kaleidoscope of brilliant color,” says one ad. To boot, it’s energy-efficient!