Tom Matlack and others share their most indelible Christmas memories of their fathers and grandfathers.
When I was a kid, my parents were hippie-Quaker-pacifist-over-intellectual activists who spent most of their time hanging out with lesbians, smoking pot, and getting arrested. By the time I was 8 years old, I had found an antidote to my sense that I had been born a freak: football. Compared to the free-for-all at home, football made sense to me; it didn’t require complex philosophical debate or civil disobedience. Controlled violence with clear winners and losers was manly and “normal.”
I worshiped the “Purple People Eaters,” the Minnesota Vikings’ dominant defensive line. For Christmas that year, all I wanted was Viking gear, and Santa obliged. Under the tree Christmas morning were full pads and a real football. Yes.
My grandpa Jesse was bald as a bowling ball, and he’d mastered the art of moving his scalp to make his enormous ears wiggle. He was a big guy who had once played football; that made him a god in my eyes. After all the gifts were opened and wrapping paper cleared away, Grandpa Jesse and my dad took me—suited up in my new gear—to the field across the street. Dad threw me a bomb. The ball whistled toward me and I reached out for it, holding on for dear life as it brought me to the ground. For that moment, nothing else mattered but the connection to my dad and my grandpa. As I lay motionless, breathless, on the frozen ground, staring up at the clear blue sky, I felt like I had just scored a Super Bowl–winning touchdown. Best. Christmas. Ever.
With Christmas approaching, we asked people to share holiday stories of their dads and granddads. Here’s what they said. We’d love to hear your favorite, or most indelible, Christmas memories, too—please share them with us in the comments section below.
My dad, Gary Miller, sends himself Christmas presents from other women to get my mom riled up. A tried and true favorite is from the “Girls at the Copa Cabana.”
—Casey Miller, Durham, North Carolina
My father could tolerate only so much company during the holidays. So one year, to get everyone out of the house on his own terms, he recorded an episode of the Weather Channel during a severe winter weather advisory. You know, the one where they say an impending storm is about to drop a foot or more of snow within the next several hours. Then, when he was tired of the merry-making, he put that tape into the VCR and made a huge commotion that everyone should get home where they’d be safe. People grabbed their coats and high-tailed it out of there.
—Brian Hyland, Little Ferry, New Jersey (story occurred in Brick, NJ)
In the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, my father was all over me about my grades. I made him a bet: if I made the Dean’s List, he’d have to lose 30 pounds. Instantly, he yelled, “Done!” He chuckled like a hustler. “No way you ever make Dean’s List.”
I spent the fall semester in London, where—in spite of the shenanigans—I got a 3.67. When my mother, brother, and sister picked me up at JFK in mid-December, I told them the good news. Mom nearly cried happy tears at the thought of her heart-attack-waiting-to-happen husband shedding 30 pounds. I like to think she might’ve been proud of me, too. That night Dad asked me about my grades. I inhaled deeply and shook my head. “I dunno …” He reacted predictably: “Why did I pay for this semester?”
The trap had been set.
Like all fathers, Rich Reidy is “difficult” to buy presents for. Which helps explain his unbridled glee as he opened the first one from me: Double Stuffed Oreos. “How did you know?” The next package brought more elation: Chips Ahoy chocolate-chip cookies. But then he remembered his wife doesnt encourage such treats. He stifled his idiotic beaming and looked at her with an innocent shrug. “Honey, your eldest son did this, not me!” Finally, he finished his unwrapping and ended up with three packages of each cookie brand. For him it was truly a Christmas miracle. I smiled.
“Enjoy it now, Dad, because starting January you’re losing 30 pounds!” This absolutely did not compute in his brain. Mom jumped up. “Jamie made Dean’s List!” He looked to me for confirmation of the impossible. I nodded with a Cheshire grin. “Three point six seven.” Dad coughed in disbelief. He knew he had to congratulate me. And he tried. And failed miserably. “That’s, uh, wow, that’s … just … terrific.” Our living room glowed with the Christmas joy of four Reidys, my mom, brother, sister, and I. And that spirit lasted days longer than normal.
Of course, my old man never lost the weight!
—Jamie Reidy is author of Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman. Jake Gyllenhaal just received a Golden Globe nomination for playing Jamie in Love and Other Drugs, the movie based on his book. His parents have always lived in Rockland County, New York.
My mother has these antique porcelain figurines of angels holding small candles and letters that spell out “Noel.” She had a few pairs of these around the house, and every Christmas, my paternal grandfather, a very quiet and staid man who rarely cracked a joke, would go around and rearrange them to spell “Leon.” Once she’d fixed them, he’d go back and do it again. How this 80ish-year-old man could do it so stealthily, we’ll never know, but he was very good about it.
—Amanda L. Sage, Columbus, Ohio
My dad was Jewish, as was my whole family, but I loved celebrating Christmas. Dad would put a Jewish star on my Christmas tree, and one year he bought gifts for himself and put them under my tree. To this day, I still remember our last Christmas together.
A friend of mine was away from her family and all alone, so of course I invited her. I made sure there were little gifts for her under the tree. My dad was not well and I thought that perhaps this would be our last Christmas together. I was worried that I had made a mistake inviting my friend. I was surprised and happy to hear him tell me that inviting her over was the right decision. After all, this was the season to give. He died that next February, 27 years ago; he was only 61 years old. He may have been Jewish, but he knew what the Christmas season was all about.
—Martyne Lo Russo, Brooklyn, New York
In 1958, my father had just returned to Havana from another of his frequent trips to the mountainous, eastern part of Cuba. Never a talkative man, my father asked me to accompany him to a farm next to his shop on the outskirts of Havana early on Christmas Eve morning—the day families in Cuba traditionally gather for a holiday dinner of roast pork. The farmer led us to a hog pen, where my father sized up the candidates and made his decision. I was 8, and my father must have felt it was time for me to understand the grim facts of life. As I watched, the hog was slaughtered, dressed, and taken to the pit where it would cook for the next several hours. I am not proud to say this, but the pork was delicious.
—Raul Ramos y Sanchez, Beavercreek, Ohio
The screen on our chimney blew off and we didn’t know. A squirrel found it during the night, crawled down, and settled in our Christmas tree. The next morning one of our dogs kept whining, so I went over and realized there was a squirrel nestled in close to the trunk on a branch. My husband flipped out and started screaming, “Everyone out of the room!” He wanted to open the doors to let the squirrel out, but one of my sisters told him not to. She said the thing would run and poop all over the house and knock things over.
We called WDC animal control. They came fairly quickly (this wasn’t their first visit to the house) and used gloves and peanut butter to grab the squirrel. “What would you like me to do with him?” asked the woman as she held the squirming thing. My husband said, “Um, I guess take him to another neighborhood.”
A few days later, the girls found a stuffed squirrel that looked real and planted it in the tree. “Oh, Daddy,” they said, “it looks like it’s back!” Their dad screamed, “Goddammit, everyone out of the room.”
The girls cracked up and it took my poor husband a few minutes to realize they were playing a trick on him. It is now a tradition to get him one squirrel item every Christmas: a tie, a tray, a glass squirrel.
—The Evans Family, Washington, D.C.
On Christmas Day in 1991, my dad gave me an envelope. Inside was a contract for four seats at the brand-new local minor-league baseball team, the Kane County Cougars. The best! I had only mentioned I was interested in discovering how much these tickets may be—and here I had an entire season of baseball ahead. Dad was so excited, so happy for me! This gift meant he really “got” me, that he knew I liked sports, especially baseball.
The phone rang during lunch at my parents’ house. It was a call from the GM of the Cougars. He was “very sorry” but the four front-row tickets we had were unfortunately sold to a large corporation and we needed to reselect our seats. My dad was crestfallen. He stopped everything. He told me to get my coat and hat. It was snowing outside and a foot had fallen the day before. We showed up at the stadium, all smiles and excitement. The GM invited us to walk around the new stadium and pick out some other seats. Dad and I giggled, slipped, fell, got up again, and sat in piles of snow on seats to see our vantage points of the field. It was a wonderful daddy-daughter bonding experience. I still have the season tickets to this day. I will always have warm memories of that day and how Dad was so happy to give me something he knew I’d love.
—Katie Podl Fish, Fox Valley, Illinois
My Christmas memory is of my dad, Scott Thompson, running around our house with sleigh bells on Christmas Eve when my brothers and I were very young. He would circle the house, shaking the bells loudly as our mom would excitedly tells us Santa was flying over our house to drop off presents for the neighborhood. He kept this up for years, sprinting around the house no doubt in a bright green robe, looking like a crazy person, but he did it out of the love for his kids. The gig was up when we got older and saw those mysterious sleigh bells hanging on our front door one year as a Christmas decoration, but in the end, it’s the thought that counts.
—Hailey Thompson, Westlake Village, California
Many years ago my dad would call the neighborhood kids pretending he was Santa Claus. He’d stuff wax paper in his mouth to disguise his voice and put on his best Santa: “Ho ho ho! This is Santa Claus. Have you been a good boy this year? What would you like for Christmas? Don’t forget to leave me cookies and milk.” One year he called our neighbor and did his usual. Then an hour or so later he called again but didn’t disguise his voice as well. She picked up on it and said: “Mr. Alpert, I know this is you. The real Santa called an hour ago.”
—Jonathan Alpert, author of the syndicated column “No More Drama”
My father was complex. An intelligent and generous man with loving qualities, he was also a violent alcoholic who tormented my brother, mother, and me with his brooding silences, controlling behavior, and angry outbursts. Christmas seemed to tame the demons inside him and he embraced the season with a child’s enthusiasm. At Christmas, he lavished presents on us. After the stockings and presents were unwrapped, he’d get up from his recliner and leave the room. “Wait, wait. I think there’s one more present.” And then he’d walk back in with another gift for us, usually something really big.
December 1999. My father’s hoarse voice hadn’t cleared up so I had urged him to see a doctor. “The doctor thinks there’s a tumor. Can you call him please?” he said over the phone. I called a physician colleague who arranged a consultation with a cancer surgeon. A week later we flew down. “What do you want for Christmas?” he asked me at the airport. “One of your shotguns,” I replied. His face crinkled. “What the hell do you want one of those for?” “Because its yours.” I knew it was going to be his last Christmas. I wanted something meaningful from him. Ironically, his guns were a link to a part of him I adored—the strong, nurturing character that the outdoors brought out in him.
Christmas Eve. I phoned the surgeon’s office for the test results. My father called to check in. “Did you hear anything?” I hesitated; I hadn’t wanted to spoil Christmas. “Do you really want to know?” “Of course,” he said. “It’s positive. They said it’s lung cancer.”
Christmas night we all gathered at my father’s apartment in Montreal. The cancer had weakened him and dampened his usual Christmas buoyancy. But despite the bad news, he was cheerful, as much for his grandkids as for himself. We were finishing up the presents and I was cleaning up wrapping paper when my brother, Rich, disappeared upstairs and came back into the room with an empty gun case. “It’s at the house. A 20-gauge. Rich will show you how to use it,” my father said. There was always one last present.
—Wendy Knight, New York, New York
My Grandpa was bald all the time I knew him. As a teen, or maybe preteen (I’m 48 now; he died 8 years ago), I developed a bad habit of picking split ends out of my long hair. So Grandpa teased me that he wanted my hair. One day, probably in early December, I got my hair cut. I had my beautician save the hair and I wrapped it up and gave it to him for Christmas.
—Ellen Porter, San Bernardino, California
It was December 8, 2000. I was just noting the date and recalling where I’d been where I’d learned John Lennon had been shot 20 years before (at my parents’ house in Chicago, watching the news). Now it was a Friday and I was at work; my then-boss Ray—a real father figure to me to this day—sat right behind me.
My phone rang. I picked it up and heard my mother’s voice on the other end. “I’m at the hospital,” she said. “Your father’s had an accident.” Then she said something about falling off the roof (hanging lights, of course) and brain swelling and observation. I dropped the phone and remember yelling in that deep, guttural way people do when that visceral horror strikes. My coworkers came around to see what was going on and Ray said, “Do you need to go home? Go home.” I lived 300 miles from my parents and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing my actual dad. And so I remained frozen.
Sometime later that day I was still at work, unable to do anything but lay my head on Ray’s desk and relive the call, when the phone rang again. I braced for the worst. It was my father, who had sustained two broken arms, two broken wrists, a broken nose, torn lip, and had most of his teeth knocked to the opposite side of his head. “Honey,” he slurred, “if you have to fall off a roof, land on your face. It doesn’t hit anything vital.”
I did go home for Christmas, one of the last times I did so. Dad’s arms were in casts and much of the bruising was gone. He stood off to the side at the edge our family portrait, his arms tucked behind his back. But he was smiling.
My father-in-law loved Christmas. He loved it so much that he would spend hours searching for just the right tree. Later in life, he would decorate his own tree as well. My mother in law would make absolutely gorgeous trees that I envied, but my father-in-law wanted the colored lights and all the same old ornaments. So he had his man tree in the family room basement.
Christmas was always a time that brought out my father-in-law in my husband. His actions showed the memories nestled deep within. The tree-buying ritual, the joy and patience in hours of decorating and the same thing my father in law would always say (“That’s a great tree, isn’t it?”). So much pride in that tree. When my father-in-law passed away several years ago, my husband was on a mission for a certain present for our three boys. When he came home with three sets of golf clubs, I knew exactly what he wasn’t able to express to me or our boys: that he missed his dad and the passion for golf they had shared together—and the Christmas joy his dad had passed along to him.
—Colleen Sheehy Orme, Virginia
My father was supportive, always attending Little League games, parent-teacher conferences and the like, but he was also pretty strict and worked long hours. I looked up to him and admired him, but rarely felt like I bonded with him. One Christmas, when I was about 10 years old, he got up from the dining-room table during dinner and went into the kitchen to get something. As he did so, he started whistling the melody from “The Carol of the Bells.” Impulsively, I started whistling the harmony (loud enough for him to hear), and we whistled together for several measures. When he returned to the dining room, he didn’t say anything, but gave me a look as if to say, “Where did you learn to do that?” I always think warmly of the moment many years ago when I actually bonded with my dad, if only for an instant, during Christmas dinner.
—Scott Swanay, New York, New York
I remember my dad with a shirt and tie and apron cutting the turkey in a very organized fashion. He was especially good at this because when he was in high school and very poor, he worked in a small kitchen where they made chicken pies and sold them at a store near his home. My dad told me that he always did a terrible job cleaning the chickens, so he would take the carcasses back to his mom who then made soup, stews, and food for the family. Since his own father had died when he was young, he always had to look for ways to provide.
To come from a poor family and then provide food for 30 people each and every year was important to him. I smile, knowing how he got this experience, and know how proud he was always looking out for his family.
—Robin Samora, Readville, Massachusetts
It was snowing Christmas morning. My siblings and I, ages 3 to 9, had our noses pressed against the cold glass window as we watched my grandparents’ car pull into the driveway. With boundless energy, the other kids raced to the door. I remained at the window, wiping away the fog, as I watched my grandfather, De-Dad, open the trunk of the car and produce package after package of beautifully decorated Christmas presents. I saw my dad hurry outside to grab an armful of gifts and take my grandmother’s arm so she did not slip on the ice. As De-Dad was walking up with the last stack of gifts, a bright red bow blew free from a package and got stuck in the branches of a bush. It stayed there for a week. One by one, as they came in the front door, boots were stomped, hats, gloves, and coats were shaken free of snow, hair was fluffed up, noses were red, and hugs and kisses were exchanged where warm cheeks met cold ones—ones that warmed up fast in front of the fire and with the warmth of family.
—Brenda Jones, Southampton, New Jersey
My dad would wait until Christmas Eve to wrap his gifts and would use all of the remaining teeny-tiny scraps, so his gifts always looked like a wrapping-paper quilt of sorts. We also had a fun family tradition trying to guess what was inside the package before we opened it, so he would “disguise” all of his gifts. For example, one year he put one of those nail clippers with a little chain inside a box for me that contained an item of clothing. So the package rattled in an unusual way, throwing me completely off track.
—Susan DiMezza, Erdenheim, Pennsylvania
When I was 19, a girlfriend and I decided to move out on our own and share an apartment. Trying to be fiscally responsible, we decided we couldn’t afford a Christmas tree and all the trimmings; no matter, we thought, we’d be visiting our families anyway. Well, my dad wouldn’t hear of it. The week before Christmas, he unexpectedly appeared on our doorstep wearing his woolly toque, a grin from ear to ear, and sporting a live Christmas tree in one hand and a bag of trimmings in the other.
—Susan Harrison, Mississauga, Ontario
Sometimes men have a hard time putting words to their feelings. In my large Irish-American Catholic family, the men didn’t shower their kids with words of praise. We didn’t hear the words, but we sensed the feeling. When I was still young enough to sit on his knee, my grandfather would put his arm around me sing me a song:
David, David ain’t no good
Chop him up like kin’lin’ wood
Put him in a stove and he’ll be hot
He’ll be good for mutton chop!
Everyone would laugh and clap. Of course, I loved it and wanted to hear it over and over again. Mostly, I wanted the undivided attention of my grandfather. Only as an adult, recalling the words, did it hit me what a horrible song it was! The ghoulish words belie the warm and loving feelings I received from my grandfather on those rare and special moments when I sat on his lap, the center of his world, on Christmas.
—David G. O’Neil, Newton, Massachusetts
We live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, so our tradition was to get up the last Saturday before Christmas, pull on the hiking boots and sweaters, and head out for a day-long adventure. With Dad at the helm of our truck, we’d go at least 100 miles to find a cut-it-yourself Christmas tree place. Once there, it was a trek to the farthest tree, then a hunt for the perfect specimen. We’d have to walk all the way around it. Once you found one as tall as your arm raised up and as wide as your wingspan, you could think about cutting it. After the entire family voted yes, the cutting would begin. Dad would saw and saw. With glee, we’d wait for the sign to yell, “TIM-BER!” Then he’d push the tree over and we’d carry it down to the car. I thought every family did this.
—Holly Duckworth, Lake Oswego, Oregon
When I was 6 years old, my dad thought it would fun to surprise my brother and me by dressing up as Santa and visiting us at our home. He and my mom had an elaborate plan they knew would make for a lasting memory. After dinner my mom had us sit on her lap by the Christmas tree while she read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The scene was set perfectly! There was a fire burning in the fireplace, we were sipping warm mugs of cocoa and the lights on the tree were twinkling. About halfway through the story, there was a knock at the front door. My mom said, “I wonder who that could be.” As she opened the door, my eyes grew wide when I heard, “HO HO HO!” and saw Santa Claus standing in the doorway.
My little brother jumped up and ran toward Santa with his arms wide open, ready to give him a big hug. Unfortunately, the family dog, a German Shepherd named Rosie, beat him to it. Only Rosie didnt want to hug Santa. She wanted to taste him! Instantly, Santa stopped ho-ho-hoing and started NO-NO-NOing. My mom literally had to pull Rosie off Santa Claus. I stood there frozen, thinking Santa would not be leaving us any gifts that year.
—Karen Hoxmeier, Canoga Park, California
When I was a kid, my mother Christmas-shopped for the three kids, her parents, my dad’s parents, the cousins, the mailman, the paper boy, and who knows who else. Dad shopped for her. He was always tight lipped and never asked for help or opinions. By Christmas Eve, speculation about Dad’s gift to Mom ran high. When I was 7 or 8, I blurted, out of the blue, that he had bought her a mink stole. (It was quite a long time ago, when women still wore stoles and fur was not yet politically incorrect.)
Sure enough, the next morning my mother let out a whoop of joy and danced around the living room with the soft, warm fur draped over her bathrobe. After the excitement died down, all eyes turned to me. I just shrugged. I just knew.
Unwilling to throw caution to the wind, the next year Dad pulled me aside a few days before Christmas. He wanted to know if I could again divine his plans for my mother. I thought for a minute or two and then gave an answer close enough to the truth to make him nervous and cement my reputation as a Christmas psychic.
We began a father-daughter tradition. In exchange for my silence, I became his sidekick and joined him on his Christmas shopping expedition. Driving home, Dad would remind me that this was our secret and I was again sworn to secrecy. He needn’t have worried. I never dreamed of telling. I didn’t want to be left at home on the next clandestine shopping trip. Even more important, I felt a fierce rivalry with my older sister. I would have carried those secrets to the grave. Knowing something that she didn’t was just too good to give up.
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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.