Certain songs in anyone’s life can evoke a past moment. The start of a song can bring us back to an exact date and time trapped in amber. We can see it, smell it, hear it, and sometimes even taste it. Through a series of musically notes we can be transported through time back to another age, a powerful feeling, a past point of view. Christmas songs are some of the strongest of these talismans of time and memory.
“Feliz Navidad! Feliz Navidad!”
The voice of Jose Feliciano came from the wood paneled speakers of the stereo system. His voice sounded a bit thin and reedy and the pop and hiss from the speakers betrayed the age and wear on the album. Seven-year-old Ricky noticed none of this. It was his second favorite song on his second favorite Christmas record and as long as it played it made him feel happy and warm as he sat on the floor in the living room of his family’s home.
“Feliz Navidad! Prospero ano y Felicidad!”
Ricky’s first favorite record, Elvis singing Blue Christmas, would be put on before the night was through. He was determined to make this happen, even though he knew it was already dark outside and his bedtime was fast approaching.
“I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas! I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas!”
Christmas day was only three more sleeps away and the school break was only two days in. Ricky had planned to get the most out of the time at home. He’d already played both records most of the day, taking breaks only because his parents and his older sister had insisted he do so quite vehemently.
“I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart!”
As the music came to an end, Ricky turned the knob on the side of the player. The needle lifted off the record like magic and the record arm traced its way back to it’s small cradle on the side. The record kept spinning even though the motor stopped propelling it.
Without waiting for the record to stop, he reached towards the edges. It slowed in his fingers, coming to a halt. He lifted the record off the player, only holding the edges gently, just the way his father had shown him and carefully slid it back into the paper sleeve that lay on the floor next to the album jacket. He then slid the papered record back into the jacket and placed it on the wire shelf in front of his father’s Gordon Lightfoot albums.
Beside him, on the coffee table, lay the dog-eared Sears catalogue. His other Christmas obsession. When he wasn’t playing records, he was thumbing through the now worn pages dreaming of all the toys he wanted. The fact that he knew he really wouldn’t get most of them hadn’t dimmed his excitement one bit. The thrill of the possible was enough.
He’d written his letter to Santa, his mom had mailed it and chances were, he’d get at least one or two of the coveted items. He’d put them all on the list, all the items in the catalogue that remotely piqued his interest. He wasn’t greedy, he didn’t expect everything, but he figured Santa had to cut him a break and give him something. He’d followed all the rules. He’d been nice all year, hadn’t fought with his sister much at all and made sure to give change to the plastic dog at the grocery store that raised money for the blind; At least he did whenever his mom would give him some change for it.
He'd really tried this year. Santa must have noticed.
He’d even made his own envelope out of some leftover gold wrapping paper. The envelope had been a bit misshapen, and a bit off sized for the letter he wrote, but he had proudly tapped it shut with his list inside knowing that Santa couldn’t help but notice its uniqueness in with all the normal letters. Santa would have had to read it first. He was sure of it.
His sister Wendy, who was five years older than him, hadn’t even made a list this year. If she had written to Santa, he never saw the letter and when he asked his mom, she’d said only, “Your sister is making a different choice about Christmas this year.” and left it at that.
Even at seven, Ricky could remember what felt like endless Christmases before where he and his sister had fought over the Sears catalogue, each circling their chosen items with different coloured markers, each counting the other’s circles as to not be outdone by the other for wants. This year Randy didn’t even have to circle anything. The whole catalogue was his. She’d glanced through it once or twice but left the toy hunt for him.
Ricky realised he was sitting staring at the cover of the catalogue. Should he partake in one more round of Christmas wishes or play his favourite, Blue Christmas? It was a constate debate he’d had with himself a lot over the past couple of hours. He couldn’t do both at the same time either. Whichever he chose required his full attention. He chose the record.
Reaching for the sleeve on the wire shelf, this time in front of Feliz Navidad, he pulled out the familiar red cover; A photo of Elvis looking just off centre in front of a collection of shiny wrapped presents.
He pulled out the paper sleeved album and with as much care as he had put the last record away, he put the new one on the turntable and turned the knob. The arm did its magic again and lifted up and over. As the needle settled down gently on the turning record, the speakers crackled back to life.
“I’ll have a blue Christmas, without you…” crooned Elvis, followed by the back-up singers doing the part of the song Ricky loved the most.
“Ew ee ew ee! Ew ee ew ee!”
“How do you not get tired of this song?”
It was his mother’s voice behind him, laughing as she asked.
“Because I don’t.” said Randy turning back to look at her.
She was all done up in a long green dress he’d never seen before. Her dark brown hair was up in a bun, where she normally wore it down. She was also wearing lipstick and a bright gold bulky brooch on the dress in the shape of an angel blowing a horn. He could smell the perfume she was wearing. It smelled like flowers.
“Can you turn it down a little, honey?”
He did as he was asked and turned the volume knob on the stereo system. Elvis was lamenting red ornaments on a green tree. The backup singers were less clear now. The rise and fall of their tones blended into the background and almost sounded inhuman. Ricky determined to himself that he would have to hear the song in its entirety again at a better level once his parents left for their evening out.
They were going out to his father’s office holiday party. His mother had secretly told him for days that she didn’t really want to go. She told him it was their little secret and he couldn’t say anything to his father since she didn’t want to let him down. Ricky liked being able to share something with his mother that no one else knew. It made him feel important.
Even though he knew they were going out for the evening, the sound of the doorbell ringing surprised him.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“Who do you think?” she countered.
His mother smiled her lipstick glossy smile and headed towards the door. As she did, his father came down from upstairs dressed in a suit and tie. He’d just gotten his hair cut that afternoon. The short buzz made him look a lot younger.
He tussled Ricky’s hair as he bent down to him.
“How’s it going, Skipper?” His father always called him that. Ricky was never sure if he liked the nickname or not.
“Good.” Ricky said.
“Listen,”, his dad looked him in the eye. “Your mother and I will be out a bit late tonight, so I need you and your sister to behave and be good for Jennifer, all right?”
“You can count on me!” Ricky said. It was too close to Christmas to risk getting in trouble for anything. He knew his dad had just had the same talk with Wendy upstairs in her room where she always hung out now.
“Good!” his father smiled back. “Your mother has been looking forward to this and I don’t want to disappoint her.”
Ricky nodded his reply.
His father stood up again and groaned slightly as grownups did when they had to get up from kneeling. Ricky always wondered what was so painful.
His father looked down at him and around him and laughed at the record sleeve lying on the ground.
“You and your mother and Elvis. I was always more of a Beatles fan.”
“Elvis is better.” Ricky parroted his mother. “Fifty million Elvis fans can’t be wrong, Daddy.”
His father laughed.
“All right. You win this round.”
His mother came back into the room with the babysitter, Jennifer. She must have walked over from her house a few blocks away because she smelled like fresh snow.
Jennifer was seventeen with short blonde hair and a look of boredom on her face all the time. She dressed like she had just come from cutting down trees in a worn-out red plaid jacket and jeans with an old army green backpack slung over one shoulder. On the backpack in black pen were drawn several band names and logos Ricky didn’t know.
Ricky had asked his mom why Jennifer always dressed the way she did. Some kind of teenaged rebellion, was the answer he got, whatever that was.
When his mother was young only farmers wore jeans. That’s why she always dressed him in cords or dress pants and button up shirts, so he looked like a proper young man. He liked the clothing his mother picked out for him but decided there was something exciting about the things his babysitter wore. Maybe someday he’d have his own teenaged rebellion.
“Hi Jen!” said Ricky, smiling shyly.
“Hey, Little Man.” She smiled back at him. He liked that nickname much more than Skipper.
His father straightened up a bit in his suit when Jennifer and his mom entered.
“How’s school going, Jennifer?”, he asked.
She looked up at him with glazed eyes.
“It’s there,” she said, “whether I like it or not.”
His dad seemed to laugh a little too hard at this.
“We’ve all been there.”, he said.
“I enjoyed school.”, his mother added.
His mother, father and Jen stood awkwardly together for a moment, almost hovering over where Ricky still sat on the floor.
Jennifer broke the silence.
“So William and I will be late tonight.” His mother smiled down at him as she spoke. ”They’ve both eaten. Ricky has his usual bedtime, which is very soon, and Wendy spends most of her time in her room now and goes to bed when she wants.”
“Which isn’t really fair.”, Ricky piped in.
His father bent down to him again.
“Hey. You just promised, you’d be good tonight. Don’t start that.”
His mother leaned down to him with a softer approach.
“You know we talked about this, Ricky. Your sister is older and has some privileges you don’t, but she also has more responsibilities. Fair is fair.”
Ricky huffed a bit at this.
“I wish I was older.”
Jennifer stepped back from the group and set her backpack down on the coffee table.
“Trust me Little Man, you don’t want to get older. It’s all homework and chores and jobs. Stay a kid as long as you can.”
“She’s right.” His mother smiled.
His father laughed again.
“When I was your age, I already had a job. Not the worst thing in the world.”, he added.
“You had a paper route.” , scolded his mother.
“I had to get up on Saturdays and deliver them and I got paid. That’s a job. Kids these days don’t know how easy they have it.”
“They still have paper routes, Mr. Stevenson.” Jennifer smirked.
“But now you have to be twelve to get a route.”
His mother laughed out loud at this.
“That’s because it’s not safe or fair to expect that sort of commitment out of a seven-year-old.”
His father shook his head. “I did it and I did a good job too.”
His mother was still laughing.
“You told me you threw half the papers in the ravine.”
His father smiled sheepishly.
“Only on the rainy days when I wanted to go home, get dry and watch cartoons.”
Jennifer sat down on the couch looking down at Ricky.
“See, what I’m saying Rick? Don’t grow up. Stay young.”
Randy looked up at his parents and Jennifer.
Read on for the rest of the story, and for more info on RJ Downes...
“I just want to have my own apartment so I can stay up as late as I want and play whatever records I want.”
His mother turned from him to Jennifer.
“He’s a bit obsessed with Christmas records right now. It’s been driving us all a bit crazy.”
“I am not.” Realising the record was still playing on low volume, he reached out and turned the knob so the needle lifted off. Elvis,6y7 who was in the middle of asking Santa to bring his baby back to him, went silent.
His dad stood up again without groaning this time. He moved to the rack of coats on the wall and lifted off the black overcoat he always wore with suits.
“We better get going.”
Ricky pictured himself wearing suits and coats like that when he was older. Going to the office, sitting at a desk and doing whatever job he would have as an adult.
“Right. Can’t keep the party waiting.”
His mother sighed slightly, just enough for Ricky to notice but not his father.
“I don’t know if Mommy should go.” Ricky tried to be as subtle as all his seven years would allow. “I don’t feel very good.”
“You’re just fine, buddy.”, said his father.
His mother looked at him and moved her head back and forth slightly signalling him to stop. Unfortunately, his father caught the gesture.
“Wait, did you put him up to this? Do you not want to go?”
“Of course, I do!”, his mother’s voice changed ever so slightly. “He just doesn’t want us to leave.”
His father looked dejected.
“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. It’s just I was on the planning committee and…”
“I know. This means a lot to you.”, she smiled. “Of course, I want to go.” She shot a wide-eyed glance at Ricky.
“I think I feel better, Mommy.”
She reached out her arms towards Ricky.
“Good. Give me a hug, hon. We’ve got to get going.”
Ricky got up off the floor and went to her. She kissed him on the cheek and left a waxy set of lip prints. She licked the end of her thumb and rubbed off the leftover lipstick.
“Just trying to get it off.”
Satisfied, she stood up and took her coat from his father who now stood holding it out to her. As she put it on, his father was still looking at her suspiciously. She chose to ignore it. She called up the stairs.
“Wendy, we’re going! Jennifer is down here if you need her!”
A muffled affirmation was all that came back from behind the closed bedroom door.
“You probably won’t even see her tonight, we rarely do.”, said his father.
“How do we look? , his mother asked.
“Like fancy people going out for a fancy evening.”, said Jennifer.
“That’s the illusion we’re going for.”, said his father.
“You look amazing, Mommy”, said Ricky. “Daddy always wears a suit, so he looks the same.”
“Hey, I don’t usually wear one in the evening and I got my haircut for this.” His father winked at him.
His mother picked up her purse. Like her dress, Ricky had never seen it before.
“I don’t know exactly when we’ll be home, but we’ll try not to be too late, Jen.”
“You kids have fun.” Jennifer said in a flat tone.
Moments later his parents were gone and he was alone in the living room with his babysitter.
Jennifer slouched into the couch and pulled one of her textbooks from her backpack.
“I like school. I’m sorry that you don’t.” said Ricky.
Jennifer sighed, absently flipping through the book.
“I guess I like parts of it. It’s the homework, I can’t stand.”
“We don’t have homework yet.”
“You will.” She emphasised the point by pulling out a pencil, eraser and a sharpener from her backpack.
“So, you excited about Christmas?”, she asked absently.
“Yeah, but Wendy doesn’t even seem interested.”
“Well, she’s at that age.”
“That’s what my parents always say.”
Jennifer was spinning the pencil in her fingers and looking intently at a particular page in the textbook now. When she spoke, she was only half paying attention.
“You get older and you stop being interested in toys and you realise your parents were lying to you. It changes how you see the world.”
“What would my parents be lying about?”
Jennifer’s face twisted up like his father’s did when Ricky asked him a question about where babies came from. She looked up from the book and at him, eyes wide.
“Nothing. Forget I said anything.
“What would they be lying about?”
“Is it about Santa?”, he asked.
Wendy had tried to tell him earlier in the year that Santa was not real.
How does he get down the chimney?
In their house the chimney ended in a meshed tube in the basement.
Magic is not real.
I saw a magician on Real People. Magic is real.
It’s just Mom and Dad getting you presents.
Then why does it say From Santa on the tag and why does mom help me write a letter to him every year?
She wants you to believe he’s real.
Why would she do that?
His sister hadn’t said anything else. She just shook her head, went back into her room and shut the door.
Randy did not believe her in the slightest.
Jennifer was still looking at him. She looked sort of pale.
“Wendy told me he’s not real.”
His babysitter looked slightly relieved.
“Yeah, but I know that’s not true. She’s just having her teenaged rebellion.”
Jennifer laughed at this.
“She’s a little young for that yet but maybe that’s it.”
“Yeah,”, said Randy laughing with her.
“Why would my parents lie to me about Santa?”
Jennifer stopped and looked serious for a moment.
“Yeah, exactly. Why would they lie?”
They were both silent for a moment.
“Hey Little Man, I’ve got a lot of homework to do and I think it’s almost your bedtime.”
Randy looked up at the clock. It was five minutes to seven.
He didn’t like the idea of going upstairs and climbing into his bed alone. Their house was old and creaky and he was still rather scared of the dark. But his mother had gotten him a nightlight and he didn’t want Jennifer to know he was afraid. He was a big boy now.
“Can I just listen to my favorite song one more time?”
“I thought you weren’t obsessed with Christmas songs.
“Blue Christmas. Just one more time before I go to bed. Please?”
Jennifer rolled her eyes.
“Fine, just make it quick.”
He reached for the player and turned the knob. The record was still spinning from his earlier attempt. The needle lifted up and moved into place.
“I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you…” Elvis began.
Jennifer shifted in her seat on the couch.
“I never got Elvis. I don’t see the appeal," she said
Ew ee ew ee! Ew ee ew ee!
“My mom always liked the Rolling Stones," Jennifer continued talking over the song.
"I’ll be so blue, just thinking about you…”
“And the Beatles.”
Ew ee ew ee! Ew ee ew ee!
“Decorations of red, on a green Christmas tree”
“I don’t like any of them.”
“Won’t be the same, dear, if you’re not here with me”
Ricky kept his mouth shut, willing her silently to be quiet during the song. He wasn’t about to complain. It was after all only three more sleeps until Christmas. He could continue to be good until then.
“And when those blue snowflakes start falling,
That’s when those blue memories start calling.
You’ll be doing all right,
with your Christmas of white.
But I’ll have a blue, blue Christmas!”
“The future is punk rock.”, Jennifer stated with an air of authority.
After the song was over, he turned the stereo off, placed the record back in its paper sleeve and then gingerly back into its cardboard jacket. He placed it in front of the Jose Feliciano record, so it was set for listening to again first thing in the morning.
He said good night to Jennifer.
She smiled at him, unaware that she’d disrupted his ritual and wished him sweet dreams.
He made his way up stairs to the second floor of the house. The stairs creaked, the hallway creaked. There wasn’t one spot he could place his foot that didn’t betray his whereabouts. He went past his sister’s closed door. He could hear some kind of jangly guitar music playing on the little radio cassette player she had in her room. He didn’t understand why she liked the music she liked.
The bathroom was just outside his parent’s bedroom.
After brushing his teeth, he made his way back towards his own bedroom but stopped part way. The closet just inside of his parent’s bedroom was still open and the closet light was still on. A couple dresses hung on the closet door. His mother had been choosing what to wear for the evening. He didn’t recognise either of the two dresses, any more than the one she’d been wearing.
Hanging between them was something he did recognize, however. It was his mother’s everyday purse. The one she always had with her. The one he identified her with. There was something else he recognized sticking slightly out of it. Something gold.
The envelope, the one he had so meticulously made, the one his mother assured him she had mailed, was sticking just slightly out of her purse. He stepped into his parent’s bedroom. The floor groaned. He reached up and slowly pulled out the envelope. On the front, in his own printing were the words:
To Santa, North Pole.
Turning the envelope over in his hands, he saw that the tape had been torn into. The Christmas wish list no longer inside.
Jennifer called from downstairs.
“You still going to bed, Ricky?”
“Yes!” Ricky called back, his voice cracked a little as he did.
“Doesn’t sound like it.”
“I’m going! He called back, cramming the gold paper envelope back into his mother’s purse.
He made his way to his room, turned on the light and then the nightlight. He climbed out of his clothes, put them in the laundry hamper and then climbed into his cowboy pajamas. He then turned off the main light and crawled into bed.
His brain whirled. He lay in the half light staring up at the ceiling.
He could hear the music playing on his sister’s radio in the next bedroom. She got to stay up late. Maybe now that he knew the truth, he would be able to stay up late too.
He turned on his side and stared at the nightlight plugged in at the wall. He wouldn’t be falling asleep anytime soon.
You’ll be doing all right,
With your Christmas of white.
But I’ll have a Blue, Blue Christmas.
RJ Downes has been a playwright, producer, director, stage manager and actor for over 29 years. As a playwright his works have been performed all across the GTA as well as in Hamilton, Stratford, Kingston and Sault Ste. Marie. As a producer, director and stage manager he has worked with a wide and eclectic range of production companies in Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver.
Having relocated with his family to the city of Sault Ste. Marie in the fall of 2020, RJ works at The Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre and is currently writing a number of plays including one about the theory of flight.
Bottle Tree Productions will be producing a full length version of RJ Downes' play, Two Actresses, in February in Kingston, and The Sault Theatre Workshop will be producing his play (which he will also direct) Last Dance of The Dark Cloaked Avenger in April in Sault Ste. Marie. Be sure to check these plays out if you're in the area!