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Check The Candles, Would You?

Are they too hot?

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, December 21, 2005.

Previous to my birth, my father had gone through a homemade phase which resulted in particularly hideous Christmas creations of two six-foot candles that he placed on the too-small front porch that could, notionally, support them. At least two of Dad’s hernias, and probably one of mine, are credited to lifting those babies from hand truck to porch level.

Atop these grey based, bright red candles was a small light bulb of the sort then popular on Christmas trees. Because he didn’t, and not without reason, trust his own wiring, Dad insisted the bulbs be of small enough wattage not to overheat and relentlessly build and drive the tin, lead, and iron candle frames pass their apparent flash point: a temperature of midday December sunlight in Massachusetts combined with an errant passing of a lit Kent cigarette, which every adult and near adult in our family smoked. Dad spent time each Christmas peering out the narrow porch windows like a Charles Addams character, seeking first indication of the flames.

The year I first put the candles up, I entered adolescent rebellion and stuck in hundred watt bulbs that would give the impression of a functioning Christmas decoration in use rather than the normal supposition of storing stage props from a local church on the front porch in the dark. When Dad returned, he went berserk and replaced my bulbs with those of Christmas tree luminescence, utilizing asbestos cloth to touch the bulbs complete with intake of breath at each twist. The penalty, for my obvious pyromaniac-induced decision, was to go outside every half hour to check to see if the candles’ wiring, with their traditional seven-watt bulb, was overheating. My hand generally froze to the metal every time I touched it.

As a result, unless all the lights on the front of the house, not excluding lights from behind drawn curtains, were off, our primary outdoor Christmas decoration had all the brilliance and holiday warmth of two gelded and atheistic fireflies. One year, my mother had a huge wreath she wanted to put lights on to not only to indicate we were home and not in deep mourning for a succession of past ancestors but rather a family who celebrated Christmas. Of course, the relative super nova produced on the wreath rendered the candles’ vaguely glowing wicks invisible. My father sulked. This, rather than check or redo the wiring, a ten-minute process I eventually attempted in later years, but found the wiring inside of a gauge and durability sufficient to bear the entire power load from Albany to Perth Amboy for a century without fear of melting. Dad was unclear about certain things, like electric wiring.

But it’s Christmas, and I don’t want to leave the impression that we didn’t get into the spirit of things, at least once inside the doors. We always had a tree from our grandmother’s country place, always pine, always smelled great, and always in the doorway between dining room and living room, each of which had their own fireplace designed to withstand coal in the 1890’s, and so even my normally hysterical father had cheerful fires going, and a martini pitcher, and our family was together.

When I or his grandchildren were there, and in the Santa Claus believing era that really doesn’t last that long, Dad went gaga. You had, of course, having been good all year, to leave a plate of something for Santa, something with sugar that goes with milk or Canada Dry ginger ale – cookies, that’s a good idea…do you know if we have any? - and you should write a brief note to lay on the plate to tell Santa it was okay to eat them and to tell him the name of the dog, who’d sleep by the tree. This prompted, of course, all the discussion about the heat resistance of Santa’s clothing because he came down a chimney with a fire at bottom. Appeased, note written, food set, to bed you go.

In the morning, the children waited at their bedroom doors as if restrained by a steel chain because of all the warnings about leaving their rooms till freed. The adults, of course, lugubriously awoke with death-dealing hangovers, and all were confronted by the footprints of boots, tracking a carefully calibrated muddy combination of wood ash and spilled late-night martinis to each room, up and down the stairs, around the tree, to the table where amazingly the dish and former glass of milk were stacked. This proof beyond price of Santa’s visit in those vastly more innocent days of the 1950’s was viewed with cancerous eye by my mother even on the year Dad gave her the romantic gift of a vacuum cleaner with the power of an emphysemic gerbil. “Show me how to use it, Mac,” she said, pointing to the proof that must have taken an hour to plan out and complete late Christmas Eve when my father was sure the children slept soundly.

And he did, cheerfully, answering questions from nodding heads. “Do you think he liked the cookies? Had he pet Mica, our dog? Did he see the presents under the tree? Speaking of which……

And speaking of which, Merry Christmas, from me, a dedicated atheist, to every Wicca witch, Christian poseur, and Muslim fundamentalist among you. I say that in honor of a mere man who wanted only to be a good Jew, and whose lovely tale we celebrate in goodwill. Peace. And check those porch candles, will you, on the way out?