An L.A. Christmas Carol

Novelist Kathryn Harrison's grandparents created a Dickens Yuletide just off Sunset Boulevard. And they had good reasons ILLUSTRATION BY TINA ZELLMER.






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MY PHILOSOPHY
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Publication: Sunset
Author: Harrison, Kathryn
Date published: December 1, 2011

BY NIGHTFALL, the fire would be belching sparks onto the beige wool rug. We'll have to let it die down to coals before roasting chestnuts. Along the front of the mantel, my grandfather has stretched fine wires on which to hang greeting cards its surface won't accommodate, covered as it is with candles molded into Santas and snowmen, all placed with care among miniature flocked fir trees. Having never been Ut, the candles' wicks are flattened down into their soft heads, the black paint on Santa's boots and belt chipping from long wear, the red of his suit thinning to expose the uncolored wax below. Stooped under lumpy sacks of toys, they fall over a lot, and not one stands back up looking as he did before.

The living room is warm, a balmy 85° or so. Sun streams through the windows. Outside, roses are blooming and the neighbor boys are shirtless, gripping new skateboards with bare toes. I'm wearing a wool dress and black patent leather Mary Janes, melting, just like the wax Santas, and trying to hold still while my grandfather fiddles with his camera. A wreath the size of a truck tire eclipses the door knocker as well as the knob; mistletoe dangles from a red ribbon in the foyer. To avoid what strikes me as a sanctioned demand for a kiss from anyone who might come calling, I take the doorbell's chime as my cue to run upstairs.

My mother's parents, who are raising me, are hardly the only people to fetishize Christmas. Probably there are other families that sit down to a holiday meal inspired by Dickens's Christmas Carol, although I don't imagine many of them anticipate the arrival of a hamper from Fortnum & Mason, in London, to announce the season. Under the hamper's lid are a York ham, Scottish smoked salmon, jars of real mincemeat, and the culmination of our holiday dinner: a 3-pound plum pudding immediately whisked away and elevated to a high perch, where it will remain until its unveiling, its days numbered, just like the little windows on my Advent calendar.

Prawns with cocktail sauce, turkey with stuffing, roasted potatoes and carrots and onions: We're too full for dessert by the time my grandmother turns off the lights, retrieves the brandy-soaked pudding from the sideboard, and places it before my grandfather. I watch as he sets a lit match to its glistening brown flank, conjuring a wreath of blue flames that dance around the sprig of holly resting on top. The lights go back on, my grandfather dismantles the pudding; my grandmother tops each slab with a dollop of hard sauce and serves it on Christmas china. She keeps two sets, so we alternate between the redrimmed Spode with a Christmas tree in the center, and the fluted Johnson Brothers' plates, whose painted Yuletide scene mirrors our own holiday decor. After I'm asleep, my grandfather takes a pair of his size 11 shoes, dips them in the hearth's cooled ashes, and tracks them over the beige carpet to the tree and back; he drains the cocoa left on the mantel, reduces the cookies to a few crumbs, and leaves a thank-you note signed Santa Claus in an unfamiliar hand.

Perhaps none of this would seem peculiar if it weren't Los Angeles in the 1960s and my grandparents, elderly European Jews raised in Orthodox homes. As a child, I don't know what differentiates a menorah from a regular candelabra; the gelt coins in my stocking are embossed with busts of smiling reindeer. I'll be in college before I understand our family pageant as a celebration not of Advent but of Assimilation, my grandparents having left Judaism in an Old World they'd forsaken, buried with the relatives they lost during the Holocaust. Hanukkah, like Kristallnacht, is a word I never hear at home.

But I know all about Boxing Day, when we have an open house, the dining table's centerpiece - a Santa in a sleigh pulled by gold-antlered reindeer - competing for space with eggnog and fruitcake and Christmastree cookies sparkling with green sugar crystals. It's London, 1910, because my grandparents' Gentile fantasies are retroactive, reaching back to thoroughly flock their own childhoods.

The college girl I become will want to fault her grandparents for their embrace of the season. But if sophomoric political correctness suggests defining their December pageant as self-loathing, it also requires forgetting for whom the illusion is staged. My mother's parents may not be Christian, but they have a Christmas wish: that my mother and I never regard ourselves as Jews, and therefore targets for the anti-Semitism they discovered in California in the '40s. Even as their adoptive country was at war with Nazi Germany, my grandparents found themselves barred from what turned out to be a community closed to those who were what my grandfather's passport proclaimed him: "Hebrew." What prejudice they endured wasn't dangerous, but they felt it nonetheless. The day my grandmother heard a parking attendant call her beloved baby blue Cadillac a "Jew canoe" was the day she traded it in for a Lincoln.

Tinsel and holly and waiting in line to sit on a department-store Santa's red-velvet lap, the spangled tree: For as long as I üve in my grandparents' home, the glittering spell they cast works. I'll have grown up and moved out before I have any notion of myself as what the matriarchal law of my birthright proclaims me: a Jew. In fact, having been the object of my grandparents' Christmas spell, I'll have held tight to childhood fantasies my friends shucked off. So tight, perhaps, that a vestige of enchantment remains. My younger daughter, 12 this coming March and a child whose observations often startle me for their precocity, claims - or pretends aloud for my benefit - she still believes in Santa Claus. Is it even possible, I wonder, to navigate middle school and preserve such a faith intact? And if, somehow, she has, what good could come from destroying what she's necessarily worked to protect?

"Don't you?" she challenges me. I'm not sure who's performing for whom, and taking the time to formulate a cleverly ambiguous answer would tip her off. And really, what's the harm?

"Of course I do," I say.

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