XMas in East LA


Growing up I thought I was special because on Christmas Eve every year Santa Claus would visit my grandparents house in East L.A. The evening would go something like this. I'd open the white metal door to my grandparents house that protected the actual wooden door-- and the delicious familiar smells of pozole and frijoles de la olla would give me a great big hug. Then all the aunts and uncles and cousins would give me a great big hug-- except for my little boy cousin Cameron, who I'd have to chase. Then I'd make a big paper plate of food, and catch up with family I hadn't seen all year.  After a few hours, the phone would ring. Only one person ever calls my abuelos house on Christmas Eve, and that's Santa Claus. 

"Hello, SANTA!?" Whoever answered the phone would say-- loud enough to get the kids to stop chasing each other or showing off any early presents they'd negotiated opening. "Where ARE you!? How did you find time to call!?" My entire family has a penchant for the dramatic. The phone would then be passed around to all the children who were old enough to pick up a phone. Santa would ask them all the same questions, "How are you? Have you been good?" I remember talking to Santa and thinking as a little girl that these simple questions made me feel the most special I'd felt all year. Then he'd tell us to all go to sleep and he'd see us soon. 


As kids we never cared that this part made no sense. We had to cram into my Mom's old bedroom, piling one top of one another, pretending to be asleep for about 30 minutes until Santa came. This is how it had always been and this was how it always would be. No one ever slept, instead one of the older kids would retell the legend of how Grampa saved Santa's life and as a token of immense gratitude, Santa came to my grandparents' house every Christmas Eve. The  story changed a little every year-- most of the time the story involved wars and trenches, but before any kid could ask something like, "When was grampa in a war? I thought he was a barber?" Santa's actual arrival would interrupt the story.  

When Santa arrived, he often smelled like my Grampa's pomade. He was short, about 5'3", just like my grampa. His white beard contrasted with his brown skin-- and when you sat on his lap, his breath didn't smell like milk or cookies, but Folger's, my grampa's brand of coffee. But we suspended out disbelief. Even one year when Santa's red furry pants fell down and my grama said, "Ramon! Your pants!" My cousin rushed to Santa's aid, holding the back of his pants as one would a bridal train as Santa merrily waved goodbye out the white metal gate of my grandparents house. No kid suspected a thing. 

The toys Santa gave were often unimpressive (one time I got batteries). But it didn't matter because actually seeing Santa Claus was the best present you could get for Christmas. There was something about that fact growing up that comforted me and led me to believe my life was charmed. Going back to school after the holiday break, maybe kids got the Power Wheels I wanted but never got, maybe they got to fly somewhere far away that had snow, maybe they got to see Santa at the mall (which of course everyone knows isn't the real Santa anyway), but no one got to see Santa in their house. 

Last year my Grampa, now 84, had to have heart surgery. I got so scared that I didn't visit him in the hospital. When I was little, I thought my Grampa was beyond magical -- after all, he saved Santa's life. But when I got a got a picture text from my Mom of a half-conscious old man, thinner than I remember, with tubes coming out of him every which way, I panicked. I didn't want it to be real. Couldn't Santa return the favor now? 

It's funny.  Sometimes crisis can turn us back into children.

The surgery was a success. And I later apologized to my Grampa for not being there for him. He forgave me, saying, "Don't worry hita, I'm still around, causing trouble." I cried. It was at my Mom's birthday dinner. The waitress asked, "How's the steak?" I couldn't taste it.

Santa didn't come last year. The was no phone call, no cramming into my Mom's old bedroom. No story of how Santa saved my abuelo's life. Instead my grama passed out bars of chocolate shaped like Santa, his cartoon image printed on foil covering the hollow chocolate. I MAY have been disproportionately upset about the whole thing. "How could this happen?" I asked my grama. "Santa can't not come!" But the answer of course was obvious. People get older, people get tired. People have heart surgery. People pass on their traditions, and traditions make us feel like were special. Now it's up to me how to figure out how to keep those traditions alive-- and it's hard!

I'll be in Pittsburgh with my boyfriends family this Christmas Eve.  I'm trying to figure out if I should go through the trouble of making tamales, if frijoles de la olla and pozole would have crossover appeal to Pittsburg Italians. I will miss the food my family makes, but most of all, I'll miss Santa. 

But if anyone asks what I usually did for Christmas, I will tell them about how my grampa saved Santa's life, and how Santa would visit us every year. I imagine it starting out, "My grandfather was not just a barber, he was also a great hero..."