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'Twas the Night Before Christmas photo

There were four bedrooms upstairs, one child in each. On Christmas Eve, my siblings and I congregated in the third bedroom (since we liked to swap, typically over summer vacations, we labeled them 1, 2, 3, 4 for ease of identification), which was where the king-size bed resided. We never moved the king-size bed.

If we slept, I don’t remember sleeping.

Around midnight, scouts were dispatched. This was trickier than it sounds because once you got down the hall and then down the stairs, you had to choose one of three doors to get into the living room. The doors on either end made a lot of noise but were more discreet. The one in the middle was quieter but you were more likely to get caught. I know we must have stumbled upon our parents putting together a racetrack for my brother’s key cars or one of my kitchen sets, but in my memory the presents weren’t there, and then—perhaps as few as ten minutes later—they were, as if Santa had actually shimmied down the chimney and tossed his gigantic knapsack onto the floor that magically separated itself into four large piles (mine would have been the pinkest, most girlish one, as I was a fan of dolls, stuffed animals, and Easy-Bake Ovens. My parents must have thought I was destined to be a mother—though the dolls I liked best remained in their flowered Madame Alexander boxes—so perhaps not a very good one).

At that point, the nonstop harassment commenced. One by one, we went downstairs to our parents’ bedroom to ask if it was time. Around five o’clock, they’d finally relent. We’d plug in the Christmas tree, which we had all picked out and decorated together. Mom would put on the coffee and preheat the oven in preparation for the cheesy breakfast pies, which my father always prepared the night before: one with jalapenos and one without.

I don’t remember ever sitting in front of my stack of presents and feeling disappointed, or cheated. Much of the fun was in seeing what the others received, the toys and games we might play with together. 

My siblings and I never liked each other as much as we did on those early mornings; we never made a better team. There were certainly other times that we’d come together as a single-minded group, mostly when we had pretty, young babysitters and decided there was no other option but to go into full-on attack mode, methods of which involved filling balloons and water guns and two-liter bottles with various liquids. Despite our behavior, there were few, if any, ramifications. My childhood Christmases remind me of all that was kept from me: death and money troubles, the unfairness of life. When you did something wrong, you got away with it. When you wanted something, you received it. They were not the best lessons to teach a child but they were good at the time. Thirty years later, my siblings and I marvel over how badly we were misled.

image: Mary Miller