One of the best memories of growing up in a large family of 8 children was waking up on Christmas morning to discover the pile of presents under the tree. The first one to rise would sneak out into the living room to assess the bounty then report back to those who were still asleep. The next challenge was to convince Mom and Dad to get up and start the gift opening which usually took several attempts. Eventually all 10 of us would gather for the annual ritual of ripping and tearing open the huge pile of gifts.
Then there was the year, 1965 I think, that Mom and Dad decided we would open presents on Christmas Eve. With at least 4 or 5 kids still believing in Santa Claus, this was going to take a creative strategy. I was in on the scheme as was my older sister Shelley and my next youngest brother, Tony. A simple plan was designed to create the illusion that Santa had arrived early on Christmas Eve at 935-35th in Des Moines, Iowa.
Here was the plan:
Dad was going to take the kids out to look at the holiday lights in the family station wagon. Mom and Shelley were going to stay home and take a nap. While we were out looking at the lights, they would be retreiving the presents that were hidden in our next door neighbor's basement. After driving around for a while, we would swing by the house and if the porch light was on, that was the sign that we could pull in the drive, enter the house and ......Santa Claus will have arrived early!
It semed like a good plan at the time. But in our family, if you tried to put 7 children, ages 3-14, in a station wagon and go anywhere for a drive, you were asking for trouble. Nonetheless, off to the suburbs we went to look at the Christmas lights and displays. In those dats both my parents smoked so I'm sure my Dad was smoking the entire time with the windows rolled up. And there were no DVD players or car seats back then. Heck, our station wagon didn't even have a radio. You just piled everyone into the back seat and off you went. After an hour of touring, the younger kids in the car had reached their limit. "We don't want to look at lights" "Joe kicked me" "Dad, can we go home?" "Waaaaah!"
So we headed for home in hopes of finding a porch light on.
Meanwhile back at 935-35th, things were not moving as quickly as planned. Not only did Mom and Shelley have to move the presents from Mrs. Wyatt's basement, they had to wrap them all. When we drove up the street and saw that the porch light was off, Dad announced that he needed to get his gloves. Tony and I were left in charge of keeping the 5 younger kids from escaping the car. What was probably 5 minutes seemed like 20 but Dad finally emerged from the house and off we went, back to look at more lights. We were only several blocks down the street when a voice from the back seat asked, "Where are your gloves, Dad?" He didn't respond.
Round 2 of looking at lights didn't go well. Crying, whining, and kicking ensued resulting in Dad threatening to stop the car and take off his belt. This was not the spirit of Christmas we were looking for. After another 30 minutes we returned home and again, the porch light was off. Dad parked the car and stormed into the house, leaving Tony and I to maintain order in the car. A few minutes later, he came out and directed Tony and I to escort the 5 younger kids into the house through side door, not the front door, and take them down the basement and keep them there.
Tony and I were positioned at the top of the basement steps blocking the path of 5 screaming, bawling brothers and sisters who were trying desperately to get to the top of the steps and into the kitchen. It was a bad scene. I'm not sure how long this drama went on but finally the door opened and Mom was there saying that we could all come up. I'm sure the scene resembled something out of Les Miserables when the rag-tag group of red eyed, snot-nosed children, who had just been through a traumatic incident, emerged from the basement.
Thankfully, this sad tale had a happy ending. As soon as the younger kids discovered that Santa had arrived early (while Shelley and Mom were taking a nap......apparently) all memories of the torturous car ride and the suffering from being held captive on the basement steps washed away.
I sometimes wonder if there was a moment when one of my parents said to the other, "You know, it seemed like a good idea at the time."