The last link to Christmas

Every year, on Dec. 14, my family hung a red and green paper chain from the ceiling light in the dining room. And every night after that, we tore off one link before dinner. When the last link was gone, we knew the next day was Christmas Eve.

It was my dream to tear off the final link. But we took turns, and I was a middle child, so my turn always came in the middle. Good old anonymous Dec. 20; that was me.

The glory of that last link went to the youngest -- Heidi, who was so small she had to be hoisted up toward the ceiling. The rest of us sat at our places around the long dinner table and cheered.

Bring on Christmas!

One day in early December, when I was in kindergarten, my teacher handed out red and green construction paper, snub-nosed scissors, and those messy pots of white paste. We would make our own chains. Finally, I could usher in Christmas Eve myself.

I brought my chain home and Scotch-taped it to the wall by my bed. It was exciting to have it so close, a potent reminder of the impending festivities, candy canes and loot.

That night, I tore off a link, and then I snuggled under the covers and went to sleep.

In the morning, the chain was gone.

Almost before I could holler, my mother came in the room. She held the remnants of the chain in her hands. It was in pieces; every single link had been ripped in half. "This was downstairs on the coffee table," she said. "What in the world happened to it?"

I had no idea. And then David came forward -- David, age 7, my older brother and an apparent eyewitness.

He said he had heard a noise in the night. He got up to investigate, and he saw me.

I was standing in the upstairs hall in my white nightgown, holding the paper chain in one hand. The house was creaking with those old-house moans that always sound more pronounced at midnight.

He called my name, and I turned to face him. I looked at him, but he could tell, even in the dim light, that I didn't see him; I was asleep. I turned and glided away.

David ran back to his room and pulled the blankets over his head.

While I, apparently, continued on downstairs in the dark, in my hopeful and impossible and sound-asleep attempt to hurry the arrival of Christmas.

Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302


It's always time for holly

First things first. I wasn't born in December. I wasn't named for Holly Hobbie or Buddy Holly (at least not that I know of). And yes, my sister really did try to set me up with someone whose last name was Jolly. I've forgiven her. (Cue Burl Ives as the singing snowman ... till death do us part.)

And yes, those are Christmas dishes stacked in the china hutch, year-round, mocking the calendar deadline for holiday dining and hall decking.

One year in the height of wedding season while looking over yet another bridal registry, I decided that this never-married Holly needed some decent dishes. I imagined something refined yet practical that would look lovely in a china hutch. Heck, I might even register for a pattern. That way my family would always know what to buy me.

But I didn't act on the impulse, and the season passed.

Summer sped into Christmas, which sped into post-Christmas shopping with my mom, who spotted a display of tasteful china with holly garlands along the rims.

Apparently the pattern was a Lenox wannabe and very much on sale. My mom, who was clutching 60%-off department store coupons, looked at the box and nearly yelled.

"Holly, the pattern is called Holly Holiday. This is your china pattern!"

Now, I am a softie for anything with my name on it. My auction-loving dad once spent $2 on vintage bottles, crates and mugs from the now-defunct Holly Pop bottling company in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Holly trucking company in Akron. I've even contemplated a holly garden, but I know the northern zone we call home limits my growing options.

So even though I frown on snowman dishes and Santa cookie jars, I had to admit that those dishes were beautiful -- and a bargain.

I determined then and there that lovely Christmas dishes on clearance with holly garlands could be year-round china, simply because Holly said so.

And every year until that pattern was discontinued, my mom went to the department store after Christmas with coupons and bought me another piece of namesake china.

Now I have a hutch full, looking lovely in a red dining room, ready for celebrating any season of life -- just without the singing snowman, by golly.

Holly Collier • 612-673-7947

Santa impostor saves the spirit

For most children, Santa Claus is a man with a white beard, rosy cheeks and a thick belly. In my household, Santa Claus is a short, bald Chinese man with a thick accent, bad right ear and questionable table manners.

No one would ever mistake my dad for jolly ol' St. Nick. He isn't particularly jolly and certainly is no saint.

But even my old man wasn't immune to that special something that accompanies the holiday season. When it was time to open presents, Dad impersonated Santa Claus. Well, he didn't impersonate Santa Claus so much as he locked his knees, bobbed up and down, and grunted "Ho, ho, ho!"

Oddly enough, dad's virtuoso performance was the closest thing to normalcy in our family. My immigrant parents weren't too keen on American holidays. I was 15 the first time I went trick-or-treating, which presented its own unique challenges.

I wanted candy and got a lecture.

"You should get a job," one homeowner sternly told me.

Oh, but how my parents sure love Christmas! We painstakingly decorated our fake Charlie Brown tree. Bing Crosby and Perry Como played endlessly on the stereo. I can still recite lines from "It's a Wonderful Life," "Holiday Inn," and "White Christmas" with deadly accuracy.

And of course, there was always that heavily accented "ho, ho, ho."

A few years ago, my sister Linda died of cancer. She passed away in November and no one was in the mood to celebrate anything. I dreaded going home for Christmas, especially since I would be the only one of my siblings to do so.

The grief was so thick I could choke on it. My parents didn't even want to put up the tree, but relented after I begged them. I was desperate to inject any scrap of holiday cheer into that dark and gloomy house.

When it came time to open what few gifts we had, I grabbed a present, locked my knees, bobbed up and down, and in my best impersonation of Dad impersonating Santa, grunted "ho, ho, ho!"

My parents roared with laughter.

I guess I really am my father's son.

Thomas Lee • 612-673-7744

Security risk? It makes scents

I grew up in a typical American family.

Alcoholism, debt, depression, disease, one shotgun wedding, a couple of divorces, underachievers, overachievers, family suing family ... you get the picture.

Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mother gathers most of this bunch together for a meal, spending days preparing the food and decorating the house.

Although it breaks her sweet Southern heart, I usually opt out of these holiday meals.

Not that I don't, in some sick way, enjoy those inevitable and overly dramatic dashes from the room when someone feels insulted. Or the juicy family gossip, couched as concern.

I avoid family holidays (while no doubt worthy of psychiatric examination), because I get too little quality time with my stressed-out mother for the price and hassle of flying down to Jacksonville, Fla.

Why is it that the airlines think it's their bounden duty to charge as much as they can, cram in as many passengers as they can and lie to you about how long it takes to get to your destination? They trap you in the airplane for a half-hour before takeoff, circle your arrival city for 20 minutes before landing, and miraculously arrive "on time" without blemishing their flight record.

One Thanksgiving in the post-9/11 world, I used a layover in Atlanta to visit the other side of the family.

It was there that the airport's Transportation Security Administration agent pulled me out of line to "randomly" check the bags that had sailed through the X-ray machine at the terminal just minutes earlier.

He spotted it immediately. A wrapped Christmas present from my 95-year-old grandmother.

With all manner of a person who has a whiff of responsibility but no true authority, the TSA officer pronounced his intention to open the gift.

What? Spoil my Dec. 25 surprise? Right here at the Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport?

"Aw, come-on," I pleaded. "Grandma doesn't know I look like a terrorist. What's the harm in letting me open it?"

"Sorry, ma'am," he said, shaking his head gravely. "Once it's in our possession, we can't give it back to you."

I tsk-tsked, summoning the best of my dysfunctional family training. Perhaps I even pointed a finger, or stamped my feet.

"Grandma has Alzheimer's, for goodness sakes. She doesn't know about Osama bin Laden and his sadistic cronies."

Who knows what might have changed in his tiny Grinch heart. But across his stern face, I thought I saw flash a sneaky smile.

The officer slowly lifted the small package so that it barely cleared the desk top. He offered me a corner.

Taking the gesture as a token of holiday goodwill, I gingerly tore back the snowman wrapping paper.

Together, we opened the gift of ... potpourri.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335