This is an amplified and expanded version of something I wrote a couple of years ago.
On Christmas Eve of 1984, my first in San Francisco, I found myself at the home of a close friend’s new boyfriend (I’ll call him “Daniel”), enjoying a little “pre-party,” prelude to a celebratory night of clubbing. While we sipped his elegantly crafted cocktails Daniel began to spin a web of enchantment, sharing with us some of his favorite memories of the season. Bittersweet to heartwarming to hilarious, Daniel’s stories of Christmases past tumbled out one on top of another, creating an almost palpable atmosphere which was nearly visible and wholly hypnotic. I was transfixed. What a magical Christmas Eve this is turning out to be, I remember thinking.
I had no idea.
At one point I mentioned in passing that my parents, unhappy and depressed (for reasons not germane to this story), weren’t celebrating the holidays that year. Well. Daniel found this entirely unacceptable.
The next thing I knew, six or seven of us were in Daniel’s car, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and barrelling north on 101 to my old hometown. When we got there we stopped at the first tree lot still open, grabbed an enormous spruce, and formed an impromptu tableau vivant on Mom and Dad’s front porch. I rang the bell.
The look of stunned surprise on the parental faces was something to see. After some initial confusion and embarrassment (Mom hurried upstairs to “put on some make-up”), we crowded in through the entry hall and went to work setting up the tree in the living room. I went out to fetch boxes of ornaments and such from the garage and Mom (who had come downstairs, appearance and composure restored, looking pretty — and happy) disappeared into the kitchen to lay out a tray of cold cuts from the fridge, while Dad lit a crackling fire in the hearth.
Everyone set to with a will decorating the tree, laughter and jokes festooned along with tinsel and glass. Mom emerged from the kitchen with the platter of nibbles, took one look at us, then at the tree, and started to cry again. Back upstairs she went to repair her face.
We finished loading the tree with ornaments and plugged in the lights. It was glorious. I went to the piano and struck up a carol, and we sang. Then everyone sort of stopped. I turned around, and there was Dad holding Mom, her shoulders heaving. She turned to me with black rivulets of mascara streaming down her face and, trying to sound indignant, spluttered, “Damn you kids, this is the third time you’ve ruined my make-up!”
We all laughed and then one by one, starting with Daniel, all my friends, who were merry and gay, none of whom had ever met my folks before, hugged Mom and Dad and wished them Merry Christmas.
I turned back to the piano and tried to continue playing, but my fingers stubbed clumsily against the keys, and it was suddenly very hard to see.
This little tale may seem like a treacly Hallmark holiday special, but it is indeed a true account of what happened that night. Had you been privileged to know the people involved, it probably wouldn’t seem all that remarkable:
My mother and father, for whom kindness and good manners were not optional, and who could always be counted on to offer the warmest hospitality to any strangers under their roof. If I’ve managed to learn the value of any of those attributes, it’s thanks to their example;
My (very) queer companions, the sort of people who would willingly give up a night of revelry in the fleshpots of the City — and for us, those fleshpots were beguiling indeed — for the dubious pleasure of making a two-hour round trip just to lift the spirits of a friend’s disconsolate parents;
And Daniel, dear, funny, loving, utterly remarkable Daniel. As I got to know him over the coming months and years, I found to my delight that the spell he cast that Christmas Eve was no product of a random confluence of time, place and circumstance. He truly had the gift of making magic of the mundane, and throughout the years of our friendship magic followed in his wake and hovered about him in a sort of glamorous nimbus, a halo of delighted wonder. He was the patron saint of joyfulness, his gleeful cackle a benison upon all who heard it.
As moved as I was at the time, a full appreciation of that Christmas Eve, that gift of love unselfishly given and graciously, touchingly received, only came to me across the distance of years. They’re gone now: parents and two of those friends dead, the others scattered by life itself across geographies too vast to traverse. But the memory of that night keeps them always close by.
Warmest wishes to anyone who stops in on this Christmas Eve or morning. May love walk with you wherever your holiday plans take you.