Uncle Frank worked nights in a steel plant, so it was understandable that he looked owly when he and Aunt Babe and all those girl cousins joined Aunt Gick and Uncle Hank and their boys, and Aunt Pat and Uncle Red and their kids at our house for dinner on Christmas Day.
Frank had shocky hair and a vaguely distracted look--like Stan Laurel--and a concave posture that was accentuated when he stood there with his hands in his pockets, surveying the noisy reunion of cousins as the coats got collected and dumped on a bed in a back-bedroom. The chaos was exquisite, but short-lived. Before long, the cousins would quiet down a little or disappear to other corners of the house. His wife would join her sisters in the kitchen. His brothers-in-law would take seats in the living room, to smoke and talk and Frank would sit down at the piano.
He would run through all the traditional Christmas fare – Silent Night, Jingle Bells, The First Noel – that sort of thing. Then he would wander off into popular Christmas tunes--White Christmas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Silver Bells, and what-have-you.
He played with a big, rolling left hand that bounced like a couple of heavyset aunts dancing a schottische with each other at a wedding. He sprayed the right hand notes over the top, adding plenty of sustain pedal to make it all ring. It was as if one of those barroom piano players in a western movie had suddenly launched into a medley of Tin Pan Alley holiday fare.
Eventually, he would run out of Christmas tunes. He would pause for a minute, light a cigarette, stare off into space, then turn back to the piano and, squinting through the cigarette smoke, he would begin a mazurka variation of Irving Berlin’s "Easter Parade".
And then it could be Christmas. Then all was right with the world. Somehow, that Easter song written by a Russian Jewish immigrant and played by a Polish American uncle in the din of a large Irish American family reunion with no one really paying attention came to represent all that is good and happy about Christmas for me.
Since those days, I’ve spent Christmas in war zones and Christmas with strangers. I’ve spent a Christmas or two alone--and more than a few in the crowded happiness of my wife’s extended family. But over the years, I’ve developed a resistance to the hype and the hustle. Christmas has become little more than retailers tugging at my heartstrings en route to my wallet.
All that would change in an instant , though, if just once--at a mall or on one of those radio stations that play Christmas music round the clock--or maybe on an elevator muzak holiday tape--they would slip in a piano solo version--almost a polka--of Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade.” Heavy on the left hand and the sustain pedal.