By Tim Hayes

Every year, like clockwork, the three brothers got the nod. Grandma’s basement, in front of the washtubs.  Showtime.

Down the stairs they came, three cousins of mine, bathrobes cinched tight, aluminum foil crowns perched atop their close-shaven heads, each carrying a decorated shoebox – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and singing “We Three Kings” to the rest of our extended family, sitting piled onto good Catholic wooden church folding chairs.  The annual Christmas Grandchildren Talent Show had begun.

I typically had to drag out a drum and do a few basic flourishes with my sticks.  Another cousin performed a jazz dance routine.  Others told stories or jokes, or showed us a particularly impressive school art project, or recited a poem that had been memorized, or sang other Christmas carols.

To a non-family observer, the whole thing probably would have reeked of a bunch of marginally talented city kids being coerced into doing their limited repertoire in front of parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents – with the irresistible lure of heaping mounds of homemade spaghetti and juicy, sauce-laden meatballs to follow as a reward.  Middle class Italian heritage bribery at its finest.

But to the adults crammed into that little basement theater, the ones whose kids got trotted in front for their five minutes of family fame, this is what made the holiday so special.  So unforgettable.  So ingrained into the fabric and DNA of our clan.  They loved every young performer, because they loved every one of us kids.

One year, some cousins brought cousins from the other side of their family to Grandma’s.  When the Three Kings kicked off the extravaganza, these other kids didn’t know what hit them.  Act after act, like a pint-sized Ed Sullivan Show knockoff, they’d never seen anything like it, you could tell.  When it was all over, and all the applause and hugs had been distributed, they looked shell-shocked.  We had rocked their little Christmas world.

They never came around to Grandma’s on Christmas Day again, though, now that I think of it.  Rookies.

In time, naturally, my cousins grew up, got married, started their own families, just like I did.  When my kids were little, we had them join their cousins at their Grandma’s house each Christmas, just like we did.  And you bet they put on a talent show, just like we did.  You can’t fight genetics, I guess.

But that kind of family-only tradition is what makes Christmas unlike any other day of the year, don’t you think?  Sure, there’s the excitement, anticipation, and magic of Christmas Eve.  Then the mad rush and euphoria of Christmas morning, opening presents and enjoying your new toys.  But when all of that’s over, and it’s time to gather together – just because you want to be together – and enjoy each other’s company, get a kick out of a little kid’s jokes, and realize how very, very blessed you truly are?  That’s when it all gets real.  As real as it can get.

My favorite part of the holiday movie, “A Christmas Story,” isn’t when Ralphie gets his Red Ryder rifle, or when his friend gets his tongue frozen to the flagpole.  It’s near the end of the film, where his Mom and Dad sit quietly on Christmas night, watching the snowfall outside the window.  Showered in love and contentment.  Peace on Earth, indeed.

I’d love to get my three cousins together again right now and recreate their classic “We Three Kings” routine, just for old time’s sake.  You bring the bathrobes and shoeboxes, fellows, I’ll bring the aluminum foil, and we’ll get together downstairs in front of the washtubs one last time.  What do you say?

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes