Silly smiles in footie pajamas. Gleeful grins beneath mad scientist hair. There’s me holding up Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots and pointing at G.I. Joe with Kung Fu Grip. The camera did not record for posterity a feverish Donnie stuck in his sick bed, or Grandma Knight’s dachshund felling her tree amidst a ruckus of crashing ornaments and tinsel.
Here in our own Oak Park bungalow many decades later, I tried to bring that elation to my own son’s sugared-up holiday morning, and felt personally responsible for the tiniest details, down to the weather. During one of those getting-close December mornings, I looked at a landscape I’d heard described as white, but saw instead snow that had been trampled, dirtied and violated in a thousand ways.
We instinctively want to bring joy, but the standards to do so are impossibly high, as life swirls around us, oblivious to the calendar.
The title story, “An Off-White Christmas,” came first, and it was not intended to be part of anything larger. The war story came next — it, too, was a one-off, coincidentally set around Christmas. Then there was the Vegas story, in which snow globes were objects that had figurative relevance. A theme had assembled itself, and I envisioned a larger arc for the stories, one in which I would be able to roam the country peeking into houses where various people tried in various ways to make this one day matter.
I tried to infuse the stories with a certain Christmas spirit, but not the idealized inventions of a world insistently trying to sell to us. These stories were written over years, not months, and during that time I thought of my family, as well as friends as varied as a jumbo Crayola box. The spirit I found myself pursuing had to do with laughter, reflection, hope and a kind of perspective on the life we have versus the one we always thought we wanted.
When I started thinking of the stories collectively as a book, I brainstormed about what that should look like. Mostly, I wanted what every writer wants, appreciative readers. Beyond that, I wanted the publication to be an occasion, like Christmas itself, and the book to be one of those gifts you hold up for the camera.
Hannah Jennings, a fellow Oak Parker and a woman whose abundant talents I’d come to know first through work, then friendship, agreed to do the illustrations. When Hannah consulted me about style and preferences, I mostly deferred to her own artistic vision, wanting, like everyone else, to be pleasantly surprised at how her interpretations might enhance the reading experience. Hannah’s illustrations surprised and delighted me. Her work on the book showed keen attention to detail, making, I don’t even know how, snowflakes sparkle and snow globes pop.
I no longer believe in God, but I still believe in Christmas. For me, it’s an excuse. A reason. An occasion. We all, regardless of our beliefs, need excuses to carve out time to be our best as friends, parents, siblings, neighbors, even as strangers, willing to help where help is needed. Christmas does that for me. What higher calling do I have than to somehow precipitate my son’s ginormous grin, or my wife’s sparkling smile, or my mom’s peppy approval or my sister’s contented cluck?
To think there is a moment each year when we all agree to do this for each other makes me more optimistic than many of my highly skeptical characters.
Donald G. Evans is the founding executive director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, a recipient of the Chicago Writers Association’s lifetime achievement award and a four-time honoree in Newcity’s Lit 50 section. Previous works include “Good Money After Bad” and “Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year.”
See Evans and Jennings at a reading and discussion of “An Off-White Christmas,” Saturday, Dec. 1, from 2 to 3 p.m., Veterans Room, Main Library, 834 Lake St., Oak Park. On Sunday, Dec. 2 at 4 p.m., Hamburger Mary’s, Oak Park Festival Theatre will read two stories from the collection. Doors open 3 p.m. 155 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park. Books available for purchase and signing at both events. More: donaldgevans.com/appearances, eckhartzpress.com/shop/an-off-white-christmas.