My obsession with dying would start around Thanksgiving and end on Christmas Eve when Santa Claus came down the chimney (a chimney we did not have), but that’s of little importance.
Between the ages of four- and six-years-old, I would get an unnerving feeling that I would die before Santa could arrive with my gifts, a feeling that was overwhelming.
The only way I could stop this travesty from happening was to stay awake and not fall asleep because, in my impressionable little mind, I associated death with sleeping.
Naturally, my cure against this “plague” called “death” did not work out very well.
I couldn’t tell my parents about this neurosis because I didn’t want them to think that their little Joseph was a coward.
I often thought about telling my grandmother, but I figured she probably already knew because she knew everything.
To shield myself against this tragedy, and my inevitable inability to stay awake, I prayed to God for a little Divine intervention. I promised to behave during the holiday season, and then, if he still felt a need to take me, he could have me a couple days after Christmas.
After all, I deserved a little time to play with my new toys…
Besides, dying and going to Heaven couldn’t be all that bad…my aunts and uncles constantly were departing for the Pearly Gates.
From the beginning, I realized that I was at a major disadvantage asking God to keep me alive for nearly a month, so like a good politician, I decided (in a good faith gesture, of course) that if he kept me alive at least until my grandmother’s Christmas tree went up that wouldn’t be so bad.
The decorating of my grandmother’s Christmas tree was a really big deal. It took at least three of my aunts and two uncles to get the job done.
If I remember correctly, they built a stage to accommodate the tree. The winter wonderland beneath the tree was at least half-a-football field wide.
I was permitted to watch, but not touch…
I used to make it halfway through the process before my greatest weakness overcame me…
And horror of horrors, I fell asleep!
Miraculously, I would awaken the next morning in my bed, thanking God for giving me another day, and run down the stairs to see the tree.
My grandmother would have my Aunt Rena light the tree for me, and I would simply stand there in amazement!!
It was pure magic!!
Apparently, it was bad luck to light the tree before dark, but on this one occasion it was allowed.
Staving off death with God’s help, I would take my bath early, put on my pajamas, and run downstairs.
I would sit beside the lighted tree and gaze for hours at the lighted villages filled with houses, churches, roaming puppies, and at the pretty young girls and handsome boys skating down the slopes of cotton and glittering snow.
It was all so clean and beautiful, so unlike the reality just outside my grandmother’s house.
The Nativity scene was astonishing. Two-foot handcrafted statues from Italy were gathered around the stable where baby Jesus was born to Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary who stood beside the crib that was to hold the Savior.
The three wise men always were kept at a distance because they arrived late and the face of the baby Jesus was kept covered until he was born on Christmas.
Naturally, my old nemesis…sleep…would strike me down after a few hours. The next thing I would remember was waking up in my bed the next morning, thanking God that I made it one day closer to Christmas.
Finally, the big day would arrive, Christmas Eve. Like many Italian families, we celebrated Christmas Eve much more than Christmas Day.
It was the one day, the only day, when a variety of expensive fish, such as lobster, crab, and shrimp were served with dinner. Bottles of red wine flowed freely around the large dinner table…never landing in my hand.
But that was okay because my grandmother didn’t drink any wine either, and if she could forsake the pleasure, so could I.
It was on Christmas Eve that I made a special effort to stay awake.
At about 10:30, everyone left for Midnight Mass at church, leaving my grandmother, my Aunt Jeannette and me alone in the large house.
The three of us would gather around the large dinner table near the tree. The nearby TV got into the holiday spirit with a crackling Yule log and Christmas music.
I would never make it to midnight, and would fall asleep between by my grandmother and my Aunt Jeannette; yet, unlike all the other nights when I awakened, I was not in my bed.
To my delight, I was still near the tree surrounded by Aunt Carmela, Aunt Rena, Aunt Jeannette, Uncle Al, Uncle Tony, my parents, and, of course, my grandmother.
Sitting beside the tree was Mr. Claus!
Cameras would be flashing all around me and, once the cobwebs were shaken loose from my being (After all, it was after one o’clock in the morning), my father would pick me and place me on Santa’s lap where a bunch of gifts were handed to me!
There were so many!! A lot more gifts than I had asked Santa Claus for, but then who was I to complain!
Among all the chaos, I would always look down at the baby Jesus, his face finally uncovered.
I would whisper quietly, “Happy Birthday, Jesus, and thank you for letting me live to play with my new toys.”
The world outside my grandmother’s house in The Bronx might have been quite different, but under HER roof, everything was wonderful and joyous and loving. No Grinch, no reality, no sadness could ever overcome the joy that my grandmother created.
Today, I no longer ask God to keep me alive during the holiday season, but thank him for showing me the magic of Christmas and leaving me with beautiful memories that are indelibly implanted in my mind.
And I whisper quietly, “Merry Christmas Mom, Dad, and Grandma. I hope you and Aunt Carmela, Aunt Rena, Aunt Jeannette, Uncle Al, Uncle Tony and all our loved ones are enjoying Christmas in Heaven tonight.