Commotion! — A Brand New Christmas Story!

Here it is, folks—my brand new Christmas story for 2023! Suitable for reading around the tree on Christmas Eve …

It was Christmas Eve and the old church was aglow with candles. The choir in their robes and tasseled hats had just begun to process down the aisle to the strains of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” when one of Gladys Pilchard’s high heels got stuck in the filigree of an aluminum heating grate. Stepping out of the shoe, she left it there and carried on, while Mabel Spriggs, right behind her, gracefully stooped to pick up the shoe. Regrettably, the grate came with it, leaving Mabel to carry both items, still attached, up the aisle, along with her hymn book, and also leaving a cavernous hole behind her, into which the following chorister stumbled, then another on top of the first, and so on until the whole procession lay in a heap like a dog pile of football players, as the organ played on and the congregation sang, “Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies!”  

This is a story my father told me, and which I in turn have told over and over to my son Malcolm, who always, no matter how often he’s heard it, laughs his big donkey laugh. Thankfully, none of the choristers were hurt, and while probably nothing else about that Christmas Eve service is remembered, this story survives, no doubt because of the huge commotion it occasioned. At Christmas, it seems, we need commotion, and Christmas is only too happy to supply our need, just as it has done from the very beginning. The commotion in the heavens over the sleeping town of Bethlehem. The commotion of the shepherds hurrying to greet the baby, and then rushing out to tell the news. The commotion of the soldiers slaying all the other baby boys in Bethlehem, leaving just one survivor to die on a cross. 

My son Malcolm is on the spectrum. He’s autistic, more or less high-functioning, though that depends on the day. As it does with all of us. In fact Malcolm is like all of us in a lot of ways, except where he’s not. For example, any story I tell him has to be exactly right, word for word, just as I told it the very first time. If I make a mistake, he interrupts with, “No-o-o-o-o-o,” drawing out the vowel almost to a howl. “Wrongwrongwrong,” he chants, in time to head shakes. This especially applies to my story about Santa Claus’s uncle, Reginald Donderblitzen, who taught the reindeer to fly and so got Santa’s North Pole Enterprises off the ground (so to speak). Malcolm views this story, I think, as a kind of talisman, which if I don’t get exactly right, the reindeer won’t fly. Sometimes I deliberately make egregious mistakes just to give Malcolm the satisfaction of correcting me. 

Malcolm loves Christmas. He’s always loved it from the time he was little. He cannot understand why it can’t be Christmas all year long. This is my fault, because early on I told him another story he never tires of hearing, about the Christmas Cathedral in Hollywood where it’s always Christmas. You can go there any Sunday of the year and sing carols, enjoy festive decorations, see a living nativity, and hear a Christmas sermon. In Narnia it was always winter and never Christmas. But at the Christmas Cathedral it’s always Christmas and never Easter. Jesus is always a little baby. 

Of course this is not true. There is no Christmas Cathedral in Hollywood. Even so, I’m under orders to keep telling Malcolm this story, even now when he’s twenty-four. Naturally his favorite Christmas carol is “Silent Night,” but he always has to end it with a BANG! Sleep in heavenly peace, then BANG! and up jumps Malcolm and brays his donkey laugh. 

Last Christmas our neighbors across the street installed a big blow-up Santa on their front porch. The trouble was, in a wind he rocked back and forth, first leaning far forward as if bowing, or about to take off and fly, then flipping up and bashing the back of his head repeatedly against the brick wall. I called him Harvey Wallbanger, and whenever a wind arose Malcolm and I would rush to the window to enjoy a good laugh. It was SO funny! Until it wasn’t. Because Malcolm started imitating Santa, bashing his head against his bedroom wall at night. I’d have to run in and wake him up, yelling, “You’re not Santa Claus!” to which he’d say, “I am! I am!” until he woke up properly, and then he’d cry, and it would take forever to get him back to sleep. It was just like when he was a baby and I’d have to walk the floor with him. Only now he was far too big to pick up, though how I wished I could. 

Finally I had to ask our neighbor to please secure his Santa, which he did with bungee cords, and after that Malcolm’s head-banging gradually settled down. But it was sad, in a way, seeing that jolly Santa so still, frozen in place even in a stiff wind. 

The Christmas before the head-banging, early in December Malcolm came down with Covid. He had to be hospitalized, and we almost lost him. For two weeks he wasn’t home—the only time like that in his whole life. I don’t know how he stood it. I don’t know how I stood it. We sent him piles of Christmas cards every day, and we all pulled through. He was home for Christmas Eve, and I guess that was our happiest Christmas ever. 

Whenever I tell Malcolm the story about the Christmas choir procession, after a good laugh he always asks what would have happened if all those singers had fallen into that hole and disappeared. And I say, “Malcolm, they would have fallen and fallen through the long Christmas night, the way one day the stars will fall from the sky like little apples shaken from a tree, until finally they’d land on Christmas morning somewhere completely unimaginable.” Malcolm likes that. He always bobs his head and says, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” Just like when I recite “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and at the point when the whole family is nestled in bed and not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse, we both pause to listen for the clatter out on the lawn. “There it is, Malcolm,” I say. “Santa’s coming,” and he says, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” He really likes that word. 

This year, once again, Malcolm has had a rough December. More nightmares, a chest infection, and now a worrying lump in his groin. And when I come to that place in the poem where the man of the house hears the clatter and springs up to see what is the matter, I find myself thinking, Yes—what is the matter with Christmas? Why do things always go badly? Until, that is, somehow they turn around and go right. 

Even at twenty-four, I still put Malcolm to bed every night. I tell him stories—about the Christmas Cathedral, or the Christmas Choir, or even a bit of old Scrooge (just the last part)—and we say some prayers, until finally he nods off. And then, as I steal from the room, maybe I’ll pause in the doorway to listen to his breathing—a bit rattly, but still peaceful—and sometimes I even think I do hear, up on the rooftop, the faint prancing and pawing of each little hoof. And then I’ll tiptoe back into Malcolm’s room and stand at the dark window and look out at the stars—and still and silent as they are, there’s also a great commotion going on up there—as if the whole universe is hurrying to Bethlehem. 

free ebook
Posted in Stories and Excerpts and tagged , , .