I come from a family of performers. My parents were both schoolteachers when they met, and in my opinion, teaching children for 9 hours a day requires at least a modicum of stage presence. Although my mother stayed in teaching for 20 years and has now been a principal for 16, my father went into the insurance business when my sister, Chava (pronounced Hah-vah), came along. For the next 20 years, his days were spent mediating human resources conflicts, but his evenings remained devoted to the theater. The three of us kids--Chava, me, and my younger brother Anthony-- got our own tastes of the stage by appearing a variety of his productions throughout our childhood. Those community and regional theater ventures, however, paled in comparison to the independent theater troop we founded at ages 6, 4, and 2. It was called The Red Red Rose Band (the origin of this name is still hotly debated), and it was the source of several original plays and musical revues, as well as much amusement for my parents and any dinner guests they entertained from approximately 1986 until 1992.
Now, since I've used the term "theater troop," you might be assuming that the three of us shared equal billing and stage time. Not so, my friends. Chava, very smart, equally precocious, and a born leader, served as Playwright and Director. I, allegedly (or undeniably, depending on who you ask) somewhat of a ham, was the Star. And Anthony, the quiet, shy baby of the family who really would have rather been playing in a corner with his Matchbox cars, was roped into being the Stage Manager, aka, Prop Boy, Errand Boy, Steal Snacks from the Pantry Boy.
And so it went, for most of our childhood--Chava and I cajoling Anthony into participating in "Hauntings from the Past"--an original play that borrowed heavily from Disney's Beauty and the Beast and, as I recall, lacked both a climax and a conclusion--, "Susannah sings Broadway I, II, and III," and a version of Rapunzel that didn't get beyond dress rehearsal due to some in-fighting between the Director and the Star. Through it all, Ant was (we think) content to create stages from cardboard moving boxes, hand out programs the night of the performance, and remain in background for all the rest.
Except at Christmas time, that is. Every year, somewhere near the middle of December, after we'd picked out a Christmas tree and after my parents had cursed their way through fitting into the stand that was inevitably too big or too small, we'd turn on the traditional Wetzel holiday record: John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together. As Miss Piggy's and Kermit's and John's sweet, slightly nasally voice filled the room, the five of us would stand back, admire the tinselled tree, and get dancing.
You've probably never heard of this album before. I don't think many people have. And if you went out and bought it and listened to it now, you'd probably chuckle at me saying how special it is. It is, after all, a bunch of puppets led by a man whose songs often walked the line between reflective and hokey. Perhaps its simply nostalgia on my part, or the fact that I am actually a big fan of John Denver in general--hokey or not--, but to me, this is a near perfect Christmas album. I remember, even as a child, being moved when John sang "Merry Christmas, little Zachary" about his newborn son, and listening closely to the story of how "Silent Night" was written. There's some sort of love and humility in the songs that I never found in our other Christmas collections.
And fun, lots of fun. Which brings me back to Anthony and his star turn every December. After Chava and I, in that year's ballet recital costumes, had danced our way through most of the first side of the record, the evening's highlight would commence. "Little Saint Nick," the very last song on Side A, was a rock and roll romp compared to other, sleepier classics like "The 12 Days of Christmas." All the Muppets joined in for it, with Fozzi leading and Animal having intermittent solos. It featured a fast beat and drums, and therefore Chava and I, in our tutus and tights, thought it needed a boy dancer.
So, as my parents tried to keep a straight face on the couch, we'd drag Ant into the center of the living room and start dancing in circles around him. After a bit, as he was the smallest at that time and veritably trapped in the middle of our twirling, he'd start to dance, too. A little shyly at first, maybe, but by the last verse, the boy was working just as hard as we were. All curly hair and dimples, he certainly deserved the limelight. He was Little Saint Nick, for a few brief minutes, and then the song was over and it was time to turn the record. Although none of us ever said it, we knew one thing, all those years: it didn't feel like Christmas until Little Saint Nick had danced.
Ant's been far, all this year: to the Gulf, to the East, to plenty of places with hard to pronounce names that I don't know if I'll ever see. He knows how to fight fires and fix engines and be at sea for six months--things none of us can really appreciate. But since he arrived home, four days ago, we've welcomed him back the right way, with many of his favorites: tofu and rice, steamed crabs, sausage and peppers, a massive lasagna. Chava's boyfriend, Christian, even braved the unseasonably frigid weather to grill some incredible wings the other night.
And tonight, Christmas Eve, we'll continue the feasting, the welcoming, the celebrating. The Red Red Rose Band has been reunited, and although there probably won't be any dancing (I can't make any promises, however, since we did bring a really good bottle of Prosecco), John Denver and the Muppets will definitely be playing on the stereo. Little Saint Nick is here, and thank goodness for that. It wouldn't be Christmas without him.