by Austin Bay
December 22, 2004
As a child, I hated the word.
"Wait," my mother would say. "Just wait," my father would echo.
"Put the present back," my grandmother would tell me. "You have to learn to wait for Christmas, sonny boy."
And I would reluctantly place the present back beneath the Christmas tree, eyeing my slight, careful, minimal but oh-so-strategically sited tear in the wrapping paper. And if you pressed the wrapping paper (SET ITAL) just right, (END ITAL) with a high-intensity lamp for light, the shape of the manufacturer's name began to sort of, kind of appear on the frustratingly hidden box --
For a 7-year-old who begged Santa for an Erector Set, "Waiting for Godot" ain't nothing compared to waiting for Christmas. The no-parole, hard-time sentence of the days and nights before Christmas starts with a soul-grinding trial: the blessed moment school closes for the holiday vacation. As it is, second grade is an endless drag. Then the ecstasy of raising and decorating the Christmas tree gives way to the agony of waiting for the day to arrive.
The Day -- you finally get the go-ahead, and your fingers shred the hideous snowman and icicle wrapping paper and uncover the secret source of the rattle in the present you've shaken once an hour for the previous week.
What adult with a clear memory of childhood doesn't sympathize?
What adult, other than a diet-conscious supermodel, doesn't relive the ordeal -- at least a bit -- when waiting for Christmas dinner? Turkeys, racks of lamb, glazed hams, mashed potatoes, gardens of steamed vegetables, brown rolls, baked bread, the alluring prospect of strawberry cake, chocolate pie, cherry tarts.
The ravenous appetite anticipates quick satisfaction. The eyes enlarge, salivation begins, stomachs clear for action.
But hang on. Hold your horses. Stomp the brakes, and wait one more agonizing second -- it's time for grace, the blessing before the meal. With the certain exception of Thanksgiving, the most agonizing grace of the year is the one before Christmas dinner.
Admittedly, prayers of thanks before a meal can become rote and habitual -- the kind of hollow ritual that eventually lapses. However, my parents, my grandparents and, in particular, my favorite grand-aunt, Aunt Lillian, insisted on at least a moment of genuine gratitude for food, roof, family, the miracle of life and Christmas.
Born in 1900 in Manhattan -- on West 84th Street between Broadway and West End -- she was the elegant, cosmopolitan New Yorker to the core. She signed her letters to her Texas relatives as either "Ant Lillian or "Ain't Lillian," since the Yankee pronunciation, "aww-unt," wasn't in our vocabulary.
At many an agonizing Christmas dinner, as I started to poke a fork into the turkey dressing before the prayer, when I couldn't wait a second longer, Aunt Lillian gently stopped that fork with lines like, "I know you're hungry, dearie, but thankfulness should precede takefulness."
Aunt Lillian understood 7-year-old and 57-year-old appetites. She understood that the 7-year-old had been waiting long enough. This genius of a woman produced the perfect holiday prayer, one that everyone tired of waiting but thankful for the bounty at hand must surely appreciate.
Hence, Aunt Lillian's prayer -- simple but, like her, so elegant and complete -- truly a work of inclusivity and diversity:
"This, us, them, God bless. Amen."
This prayer, she assured me, covered the whole of Creation -- and quickly put an end to the Christmas wait.