Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Christmas Stories III – Jingle All The Way!

This is the last of my Christmas Stories. It actually took place, not on Christmas, but on New Year’s Eve.

Allow me to give you a brief overview of the Russian, or should I say Soviet, holiday traditions that we experienced growing up. As you are probably aware, religion was expressly forbidden in the Soviet Union, as were, naturally, religious holidays. So we didn’t have Christmas or Easter. (A lot of people celebrated discreetly in the privacy of their own homes, but my family, being of Jewish descent, of course didn’t.) Instead of Christmas, we celebrated New Year, and it was just as big as Christmas is here, with all the same attribute – except, of course, for a small detail that is the birth of Jesus, but, hey, no one remembers that part in America, either. We decorated trees, had parties, sent cards, and exchanged presents. Schools closed for winter break, and our parents got a few days off work. The night of the New Year’s Eve itself was the night of major celebrations, music, dancing, fireworks, and generous amounts of alcohol. (It still is one of my favorite holidays.)

We even had a special Soviet Santa that visited the children on New Year’s Eve, left them presents under the tree, and made their New Year wishes come true. He was called Father Frost. Also an older, bright-cheeked man with a long white beard hauling from North Pole, he didn’t, however, have reindeer or Mrs. Claus. Instead, he traveled with his young and very pretty granddaughter, Snegurochka (“Snow Maiden?”) I remember trying to explain the concept of Father Frost to my coworkers during my first year in America. They seemed to be following pretty well, until I got to the part where “Father Frost always comes with a young woman”.

I also remember, in my first job after college, how a group of my coworkers was unsuccessfully trying to convince a guy from our department to be Father Frost for the year. His job would have been to visit the children of our plant’s employees and bring them New Year presents (provided by the plant management). He was a short, stocky, prematurely balding guy that looked remarkably like George Costanza. He had almost agreed to take the job, when my 23-year-old self blurted out, “Yeah, and I can be Snegurochka. This’ll be a sight the kids will never forget”. The poor guy looked at my five-foot-nine frame, said, “I’m not doing it”, and walked out. Everyone else thought it was a really good joke. In retrospect, I was pretty brutal in my younger days. Today, I’d never say anything that would humiliate a nice guy just for the sake of a good laugh. Okay, maybe I would, but only to my family behind closed doors, where no one else can hear.

But I digress.

The story that I’m about to tell you happened on a New Year’s Eve four years ago, when ChinchillaBoy was in kindergarten and LilProgrammer in third grade. The day before, we got a phone call from our friends, very nice people, who I will call Mr. and Mrs. NiceGuy. The NiceGuys invited us to their house for a New Year celebration. There were going to be a lot of children our kids’ age, so the NiceGuys actually planned something for the kids.

In fact, Mrs. NiceGuy told me that Father Frost was going to pay a visit, and give presents to the children. She said that it was up to us to get presents for our children, wrap and label them, and give them to Father Frost to be handed out to our kids later.

She also said something about a kids’ concert, but I wasn’t listening. I had to run out and get my kids’ New Year’s presents. I hadn’t counted on that, and had nothing at all to give them.

The kids and I ran out to Target and got some transformers or toy cars or whatever it was they liked to play with back in those days. At home, I wrapped the two transformers/toy cars/whatever, and told the kids that Father Frost was going to give it to them at the next day’s party.

Next day at the party, we were happy to see our friends the NiceGuys and their various friends and relatives, among them our acquaintances SoccerMom and SoccerDad. I don’t believe the SoccerChildren played, per se, soccer, but they were definitely the type. You know the one I mean – overachieving kids with over-ambitious parents. I always felt uncomfortable talking to SoccerParents. It became easier when LilProgrammer got into the gifted program – now, at least technically, I met the requirements. But of course, there was still a lot to be desired. My older son was weird, my younger son was chubby, and my both kids swore like sailors and watched South Park, while SoccerMom expressly forbade her children to read Judy Blume books, because in them, the author used unacceptable words like “stupid”.

Then again, SoccerChildren really are very talented and nice kids, and SoccerParents are indeed extremely hardworking parents and nice people. So maybe I’m just jealous.

SoccerMom greeted me with an affectionate:

“Wow, ChinchillaBoy has gotten BIG”.

She was right – ChinchillaBoy had packed on a lot of weight that year, I just didn’t particularly enjoy talking about it. I smiled and said thank you.

“No! I mean, he’s gotten BIG!” – and she showed exactly how big with her hands.

The night was off to an interesting start. But, in a company, the right amount of good food and alcohol can release almost any tension. After a while, even SoccerMom eased up and started laughing and playing party games. We were all enjoying ourselves immensely when SoccerDad disappeared from the room. He came back a few minutes later dressed up as Father Frost. Mrs. NiceGuy called for the children to come over from wherever they had been playing.

“Hello there, children!” – said Father Frost… no, really, I don’t remember what he said. But the point of it was, “let’s see what you have prepared for me”.

The concert.

I had forgotten all about it.

The parents all gathered round to watch the kids perform. I felt a freezing sensation in my stomach, but kept smiling as if everything was going exactly according to plan.

The SoccerChildren were the first to perform. They played a very nice piece on the electronic keyboard and the violin, and received their presents.

NiceGuy kid was next. He walked up to the keyboard, switched to “Demo” mode, and selected a song. The keyboard played “Jingle Bells”, and the NiceGuys’ son sang along in what turned out to be a very good singing voice.

My two children were the only ones left. Father Frost was sitting in front of them, their presents in his lap.

As LilProgrammer told me later, neither of them had any intention of performing in the concert, but they were afraid that, if they didn’t, then Father Frost wouldn’t give them their presents back. And they really, really wanted to get their presents back.

ChinchillaBoy went first.

“So what’re you going to do?” asked Mrs. NiceGuy, very nicely.

“I’m going to sing “Jingle Bells”, offered ChinchillaBoy.

The parents giggled. SoccerMom seemed to find it especially amusing.

All in all, it was decent. ChinchillaBoy has a nice singing voice, can hit the notes most of the time, and he knew over 50% of the words. He received his present and scuttled off to play with it.

LilProgrammer stood up. I already knew what was coming, and was praying for a quick death.

“I’m gonna sing Jingle Bells”, announced LilProgrammer.

That was it. Every adult in the room was howling with laughter. SoccerMom was about to collapse from the hilarity of it all. Even I couldn’t help cracking up.

No one heard a word of what LilProgrammer was singing, but he still got his present.

It took SoccerMom two years to stop bringing this incident up.

Dear parents, please don’t be like me. If you’re told there’s going to be a children’s concert, take your time and train your children to do at least a small and simple performance. Even if all it includes is a one-digit salute in the direction of an overly ambitious member of the audience, in order to cool them off a little. It’s still better than nothing.

The Goldie has spoken at 7:21 AM

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