January 15, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Authors’ Holiday Memories | 2017 Edition

For the last 12 years, School Library Journal has gathered and sharing holiday stories from more than 50 kid lit authors and illustrators, including Judy Blume, Andrea Davis Pinkney,  Kat Yeh, Jon Scieszka, Richard Peck, and Jack Gantos.

This year we hear from three more: Ruta Sepetys, Lesa Cline-Ransome, and Carmen Agra Deedy.

Sepetys is the best-selling author of Between Shades of GrayOut of the Easy (both Philomel, 2011 & 2013), and Salt to the Sea, (Penquin, 2016), winner of the Carnegie Medal.

Award-winning author Carmen Agra Deedy’s many books include 14 Cows for America (Peachtree, 2016) and The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! (Scholastic, 2017).

Beloved author Lesa Cline-Ransome and her husband, illustrator James E. Ransome, have collaborated on many books, most recently Before She was Harriet (Holiday House, 2017).

Sozzled Santa: A Christmas Story

By Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys with an intoxicated Santa.

“Santa’s drunk.”

The words were lost on me. I stared at the tumble of presents beneath the crooked tree. Surely one of the packages contained the game I had asked Santa for: Battleship.

Santa flew around the world and saw everything, didn’t he? He would realize the importance of the mission. My Lithuanian submarines were going to sink the USSR’s fleet.

“On the right—red paper with the Christmas trees,” I whispered to my brother.

He nodded. “Yeah, that’s the right size.”

The German beer hall was filled with smoke. In 1974, every public space was filled with smoke. We lived amidst a haze of nicotine that today would rival a dystopian novel challenge. By the time I was seven, I inhaled a pack a day secondhand and had the voice to prove it. No, I didn’t have a sore throat. I smoked ten Marlboro Reds in the car on the way to Grandma’s.

“Santa’s drunk.”

The disapproving pronouncements came from our mother. “There are young children here. It’s inappropriate,” she sighed.

I looked around the banquet hall. The merrymakers were all speaking German, not Lithuanian. I knew why. Mom had explained it many times: “There isn’t a Lithuanian team, love. Your father spent many years in refugee camps in Germany. The Germans invited him to play for their soccer team.”

“But Dad’s not German.”

“No, but there aren’t enough Lithuanian players to create a team.”

There weren’t enough Lithuanian…anything.

Mom sat on the bench in a Halston bell-sleeved kaftan. I wanted a Halston kaftan, but I was not allowed. My parents felt children should be dressed as children, so I was bow-tied in a pinafore apron getup that screamed Lithuanian milkmaid. For my birthday, I had negotiated to have my pretzel braids chopped off. It helped. My friends told me I looked “more American.” But my wardrobe still lacked. Despite my best efforts, “white go-go boots” had been crossed off my Christmas wish list.

“Santa doesn’t deliver go-go boots to little girls, darling.”

Really? I was skeptical.

Go-go boots were on page 78 in the Junior Bazaar section of the Sears catalog. And please, Santa delivered everything in the Sears catalog. Que será. Surely Battleship was in his inventory. Wait, would a German Santa have different inventory?

Being in a German hall gave me a feeling of displacement similar to visiting a different school. Remember that sensation? The gym, the hallways, everything was foreign territory and just felt odd. Insert pumping accordions, beer, and grown men in lederhosen and you’re there with me.

My brother and I marveled at German holiday efficiency. Kids were arranged in tight lines, advanced to Santa, posed upon his lap for a photo, and then shuttled quickly to the tree to select a gift.

A boy at the front of the line marched up to Santa. He perched on his knee and spoke loudly—in Deutsche. Oh no, did we have to speak in German to get a present? The boy then ran to the tree and grabbed a chunky, rectangular box. He immediately tore off the paper. A collective gasp shuddered through the line of children.

A football? A baseball mitt?

No. A German summer sausage the size of a man’s forearm snuggled in a bed of straw.

I looked at my brother. His shoulders sagged. This was bad. Very bad.

These were referred to as “cultural gifts.” My strange name, “Rūta Šepetys,” supposedly fell into this category. But here’s the thing—no kid wanted a cultural gift for Christmas. To a Lithuanian kid, the mammoth sausage was the equivalent of receiving a netted bag of beets or a jar of herring for Christmas. Holiday horror, indeed.

The German boy rolled his eyes. His mutter swatted his shoulder.

My turn arrived.

The puzzle present from Santa.

I walked up to Santa and sat on his lap. In the spirit of Christmas, his nose was decorated with bright red veins. It looked alive. I couldn’t stop staring at it.

Santa slurred something in German. His breath smelled just like my dentist’s. Someone snapped a picture. Santa seemed eager to get me off his lap. I was eager too. I hopped down and grabbed the box. My box. Battleship. But as soon as I lifted the package I knew my mission had failed.

Lightweight. Rattling sound. A puzzle.

I turned to Santa for the obligatory “Thank you” but an adult woman was already nestled on his lap, probably asking for go-go boots. I returned to my bench and slowly unwrapped the present—a puzzle of a German castle.

A girl whose father had fled from Yugoslavia gave me a conciliatory smile. “Don’t worry, my dad says one day Lithuania and Yugoslavia will have their own teams again,” she said sweetly.

Laughter roared through the beer hall. Santa and the woman had fallen off the chair in a bizarre tangle of hugs and kisses. What a strange Santa.

Lithuanian Santa brings the right gift.

“You’re right. Santa must be drunk,” I announced to my mom. “I asked for Battleship but he gave me a puzzle.”

A week later, our own Santa—the real one who came all the way from Lithuania to our house each year—brought me Battleship. Of course he did! Ačiū labai, Santa!

I’m still waiting for the Halston kaftan and the white go-go boots.

The Perfect Tree

By Lesa Cline-Ransome 

Lesa Cline-Ransome, James E. Ransome, and their children.

I love holiday tradition. Christmas carols on the radio. The annual family Christmas card. Ornaments on our chandelier. Growing up the youngest of three, my older, very tired parents didn’t have time for baking cookies for Santa. And they didn’t have time for stockings. They decorated a tree. Bought the gifts my siblings and I included on our detailed lists. And enjoyed the time with family without much fanfare.

By the time I reached my teenage years, and my older siblings were away at college, I deemed myself the keeper of the holiday flame, by wrapping everyone’s gifts and often decorating our artificial tree alone. I vowed that when I had children, I would create holiday memories with the centerpiece of a perfect Christmas tree.

And this task was made easier by the Christmas tree farm right up the road from our home in the Hudson Valley region of New York. We’d had a good run with perfect trees. Each year since the kids were born, my husband James and I would head out the first Saturday in December, armed with good cheer and a saw. We would walk the rows, critique the tree from all angles, chop down our tree, cart it home, wrangle it into a holder, and the decorating would begin.

Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome

But one year, we got off to a slow start. James and I were out of town the first weekend of December. Heavy snowfall hit early the second weekend, leaving only Sunday. We started out on a bitterly cold morning, outfitted with heavy coats and boots to trek through the snow. Because it was later in the season, the pickings at our regular farm were scarce. Good trees were harder to spot with snow-covered branches, and we left to try a different farm, where there were decent options, but many were too small for our grand designs. A third farm had only Scotch Pine when we wanted balsam fir. We returned to our regular tree farm.

By now, the kids were whining about cold and hunger but I was undeterred. We had no choice. The following weekend, there would be even fewer options for the perfect tree, so deeper into the woods we trekked. The good cheer was gone. Our cheeks were red, noses were runny, and the kids were no longer even pretending to look at the trees as they stood to the side shivering and begging, “Please can we just go?”

Finally, I found one not-half-bad tree. I shook the leaves free of snow, the kids nodded approvingly, their eyes silently pleading to let this be the tree that would end this expedition. James grabbed the hacksaw, got to work, and dragged it all the way down a very steep hill to our very tall truck, where we somehow managed to tie it with our frozen rope onto the roof rack without the bother of baling it and rushed the kids off to the warmth of hot chocolate and a warm breakfast at a local diner.

Over breakfast, we could feel the good cheer returning as we made a list of some last minute items we needed from the store on the way home: egg nog, another box of lights….One hour later we arrived at our driveway. Christmas carols blared on the radio station, the kids chatted loudly in the back seat, and as the garage door opened and our truck pulled in, we all heard the loud, cracking sound at the same time. And then there was silence. James and I looked at each other in a flash of realization.

Our youngest was the first to ask.  “What was that?”

More silence.

“I think it was the tree,” my son bravely ventured.

Between the cold and the breakfast and the errands and the very long day in our hunt for the perfect tree, we’d forgotten the unbaled tree atop our very tall truck entering a low garage. James slowly backed out to survey the damage.

When we untied the rope and installed our tree into the holder, its trunk split nearly in two, it’s branches had been torn clean from the bottom third down, and leaned crookedly to the right. We added extra ornaments. A few additional lights. But each day, needles rained down onto our presents, until by Christmas day, it was a brittle skeleton of a tree.

I had set out to create holiday memories, for my children but the one they most remember is the year they nearly froze to death searching for the perfect tree and ended up with a broken, nearly branchless version that was completely and hilariously memorable.

Three Kings Day

By Carmen Agra Deedy

Carmen Agra Deedy

In December of 1963, my Cuban parents, sister, and I were living as refugees in Mexico City. Each day our father walked the dozen or so blocks to the U.S. embassy to check the status of our visas. There was nothing to be done but wait.

And wait.

When Christmas morning came, there were no gifts from our parents; we hadn’t expected them. But where were Santa’s presents? Our anguished mother drew us onto her lap, “Remember? Santa Claus doesn’t know how to find us, girls. But we’ll be with your cousins in time for Three Kings Day….”

After the Santa debacle, I found this prediction highly suspect.

In bed that night, my sister did her best to comfort me. Santa, she explained, brought mostly school supplies: pencils, erasers, shoe laces.

The Three Kings brought children toys.

“Tell me again about the Three Kings,” I whispered.

She was like a 10-year-old Scheherazade as she described fir trees with tinsel and glass ornaments, delicate almond paste turrónes, and gifts wrapped in bright colored papers. Born into the austerity of a revolution, I fell asleep imagining wonders I had never seen.

The following morning, my sister decided to write a letter to the Three Kings:

Dear Reyes Magos,

Mami said that Santa didn’t come because we are moving from place to place. But you are traveling men too, so I know you will find us. My little sister has never had a proper Three Kings Day. She would like a big cat. I don’t know why. She’s only three.

We’re going to a village called Decatur, Georgia. If you get lost, use your star.

I promise to leave water for your camels.

—Tersi (and Coqui)

It was February before our visas came.

When we arrived in Decatur, GA, we were greeted by joyful cousins and introduced to our sponsors, Mr. and Mrs. Leslie.

He had been a GI during World War II; she, a German survivor of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They would be two of the most extraordinary people I would ever know. But all of that knowledge would come later. That day they showed us to an attic apartment above their own home that was cozy and welcoming.

I could hardly sleep that night.

“Do you think they’ll come?” I asked my sister.

“We’re a long way from the desert. It may take them a while. Now, go to sleep.”

The following night, I pestered my sister with the same question. This time her reassurances were more subdued. By week’s end, she had stopped leaving water out for the camels.

“They’re never coming,” I said that night.

“They’re coming.”

“Can I sleep in your bed tonight?” She sighed, but lifted her blanket as I ran across the cold floor and scrambled in.

Carmen Agra Deedy with her sister and Mr. and Mrs. Leslie.

The next morning I woke up to find my sister’s face inches from my own. She was shaking me and shouting, “Despiertate! Wake up!” Within moments we were side by side, taking in the impossible sight. Our little attic was littered with gifts. There was a tree with tinsel, dolls, books, even a toy kitchen.

In the center of the room, taking pride of place, were two enormous, hot pink, stuffed cats.

In a photograph taken that morning, I’m looking undeniably Christmas-drunk. My arm is slung around the neck of one of those ridiculous cats. The photo was snapped about a nanosecond before I surrendered to a dead faint from the bewildering wonder of it all.

But there is a second photograph, taken later that morning. I’m in Mrs. Leslie’s arms, my sister stands alongside Mr. Leslie.

In the photo, in between those two people––who had learned of a little girl’s selfless letter and rallied a small Southern town––a burst of light appears. One of the window panes had caught the reflection of the camera flash. It looks like a blazing Star, for all the world to see.

More holiday stories:

2016 Holiday Memories

2015 Holiday Memories

2014 Holiday Memories

2013 Holiday Memories

2012 Holiday Memories Part 1

2012 Holiday Memories Part 2

2011 Holiday Memories

2010 Holiday Memories

2009 Holiday Memories

2008 Holiday Memories

2007 Holiday Memories

2006 Holiday Memories Part 1

2006 Holiday Memories Part 2

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Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.

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Comments

  1. J Rodriguez says:

    Wonderful stories!!

  2. Santa flew around the world and saw everything, didn’t he? Christmas story touched.

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