thanks, uncle tim.

my dad has returned and/or stated his dislike for every gift i've ever given him. last year, i got him an orange vest because he said he wanted a vest. "not that kind of vest, though." i saved him the trouble and returned it for him. one year, he asked for a supremes cd. i got him a greatest hits disc. "it's not the right one," he said. i told this to my cousin. "how could it not be the 'right one?'" he asked, incredulous. "it's a greatest hits!" one year, i went out on a limb and got him william faulkner's the sound and the fury for his birthday. i honestly don't know what i was thinking.

christmas eve used to be our big family tradition, until my grandparents died and all my aunts and uncles stopped pretending that they liked each other. but when lolo and lola were living, my dad's side of the family would meet at their house, and they'd have everything set up: decorated tree with a moat of presents, fire in the fireplace, tons of food on the table, a christmas cartoon or movie on the tv, and christmas music on the stereo. of all the traditions, why couldn't we have kept this one going?

there always seems to be beef or drama in my dad's side of the family. somebody, no matter what, is always pissed at somebody else this time of year. whether it was ate being rude to one of her sisters, or one of my aunts feeling like she wasn't loved as much by my grandma, or two brothers arguing about selling a car, it was almost always guaranteed that someone would end up crying on christmas. we kids stayed out of it. for us, it really was all about the presents.

we had two plastic chairs, a red one and a blue one. these were tiny, cheap chairs from albertson's or lucky's, and two kids, youngest to oldest, would sit in them and open at the same time. depending on who had just been born, i'd either open with byron or claire. after every gift, we were promptly reminded to say thank you. "thanks, uncle tim." and any time someone opened something, whether it was socks or something actually cool, everyone in the room felt compelled to say, "wowww." when the kid opened his last gift, he had to go around the room and hug everyone.

the katulongs ("helpers") would open their gifts last. it was kind of messed up, but we wouldn't stick around for that. after all, we had nerf guns to shoot, music to listen to, and micromachine garage complexes to assemble. the katulongs would usually get money or clothes, so it was never interesting. for the longest time, too, uncle tim would get us gift certificates to mervyn's. "why does he keep getting us mervyn's gift certificates?" i asked my mom. "he probably has a membership," she said.

after presents and exhausting the toys, it would be time for dinner, the sequel. that's when we would hit up food again, followed by desert again. lola would make potato salad with beets so that it would turn pink. my mom would make the layered cake, which was vanilla wafers, chocolate pudding, cream cheese, whipped cream, nuts, and cherries. claire would make mashed potatoes, and my aunt would make a bean and cheese casserole and then later, artichoke dip. the katulongs would sometimes make palabok or fried chicken. there was always plenty to eat.

at midnight, the adults would toast their champagne and everyone had to hug everyone else and say, "merry christmas." we'd stick around a little bit after that, but eventually, it would be time to go home. my parents and i had this tradition of opening the gifts we got for each other on christmas morning. one year, i realized that my cousins, all of whom had divorced parents, didn't get this christmas morning experience. it kind of sucked, and i felt guilty.

christmas day was always depressing as hell, and then the day after christmas was even worse. i have to wait another 364 days, i'd tell myself. on christmas day, we'd go visit my mom's side of the family, but since my cousins on that side were older, i never really knew how to act around them. i'd usually end up sitting on my aunt's nice couch, and i'd feign interest in whatever football game was on. when i'd visit my other aunts and uncles, it was more of the same. everyone would just be sitting on the couch, watching tv or a movie, and eating warmed up leftovers. there really was nothing to do on christmas day. whenever someone brought up that maybe we should hold our tradition on christmas eve, the idea would be immediately rejected.

one year, my cousin darwin spent the night at our house on christmas eve. "hide all your money," my mom warned me. i locked up my christmas money in my treasure chest. darwin, my oldest cousin on my dad's side, had the reputation for being a thief, a liar, and a druggie. he seemed like a normal guy whenever i talked to him, though, so i wasn't too worried. when my parents and i opened our gifts that christmas morning, darwin came out of his room, and watched us from the hallway. i felt bad. no one even knew that he was going to show up that year, so he didn't get a single present. my parents gave him some money, and in a few days, he was gone.

i used to always look forward to christmas. my mom even tells me that "christmas" was my first word. i'd look at christmas lights and yell "christmas!" i wish that i could find that kind of spirit and enthusiasm again, for something, anything.

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