A little church, a little chili

The FULL MOON IS COMING up over the mountains like a big bowl of milk, and friends and neighbors are all entering church for Christmas Eve services. As the baby sits on my lap, I try to re-crease his cotton collar with my thumb and forefinger. Lots of luck.

“You look good in church,” I tell him.

“Who doesn’t?” he answers.

Of course, everybody looks good in church. The soft light. The stained glass. If I owned a nightclub, I’d copy this flattering look, invite the masses and collect my fortune.

“Please reach into your pocket ... " the pastor says.

“Already?” I think to myself.

“And pull out your keys ... " he says.

“Great, now they want my car,” I tell my wife.

“Nobody would want your car,” she whispers.

“And shake your keys as we all sing ‘Jingle Bells,’ ” the pastor urges.

Hundreds strong, we rise to sing “Jingle Bells.” Admittedly, I never really believed in the concept of a one-horse open sleigh. To pull a sleigh properly, you need at least two horses, young and strong. But I play along. It’s Christmas.

Bells on bob-tail ring,

making spirits bright,

What fun it is to ride and sing

a sleighing song tonight ...

I carry the congregation in song for a while, till I get short of breath, then just lip-sync. In my arms, the baby is jingling his older sister’s car keys. A little cylinder of Mace, attached to the key chain, dangles in front of my eyes.


It occurs to me that this could easily turn out to be a very memorable Christmas Eve: the one when I got Maced in church.

WE ARE A CATHOLIC- Lutheran-Presbyterian-Irish-Italian-Ukrainian clan, with a splash of German blood thrown on top, like vermouth.

Belonging to this many factions -- at one time or another -- is a little like having too many credit cards in your wallet. For now, though, we have settled on this beautiful Presbyterian church. On Christmas Eve, they offer five services.

“Which service?” my wife asked earlier in the day.

“The Packers won’t be done till 3,” I warned.

“We’ll go at 4,” she said with a sigh.

Tone-deaf but loud, I now sit on the end of the row so as not to poison the beautiful carols. I seem to be surrounded by well-dressed men who always seem to have $100 bills in their pockets.

How liberating that must be to always have an extra hundred handy for a good haircut or a round of golf. I make a mental note to work harder next year.

“This is such a nice church,” says a visitor.

“We really like it,” I say.

The Christmas Eve service moves swiftly. It is mostly music, mostly performed by kids. It is a party atmosphere, free of guilt, blame, shame, abashment and other wicked tools some faiths seem to rely upon.

Gentle as lambs, we end one portion of the service by singing happy birthday, dear Jesus. Happy birthday to you.

LIKE YOU, I COULD DO without all the holiday hype. The overspending. The traffic. But Lord I love Christmas Eve. The best buzz in town.

Speaking of alcohol, I remember my father putting together toys for my younger sisters, the tremble in his fingers that urbane men get when they try to do something with their hands.

He could pour a martini without a flinch, but you’d dread the moment he picked up a screwdriver. Big Irish face, like Charles Durning, down on the carpet grunting and cursing the poor saps who wrote the directions.

As a kid, I remember friends coming by. The phone ringing. Dogs jumping at the door. To this day, I believe a good Christmas Eve is part magic, part turmoil.

So at home later, my wife and I have a few co-workers over to tip a glass and enjoy chili and turmoil.

Oh, and of course Christmas tamales. With a spoon of chili over them, tamales are among our finer local delicacies, and one of the best meals you can find. Outside of a ballpark, anyway.

“I wonder if they eat chili in Chile,” someone wonders, giving you a sample of the level of our party rhetoric.

“Anybody seen ‘Spanglish’?” I ask. “Anybody?”

“I’m still looking for one person who’s seen ‘Joey,’ ” my buddy Tom says. “Just one person.”

As is usually the case, Christmas Eve goes by too quickly. Good song. Spicy food. Fast company. At one point, the baby drops his trousers and parades around the living room clucking like a duck and hugging people he barely knows. His eyes collect the candlelight. Everybody laughs.

“How much did he drink?” I ask my wife.

“Have you seen the cat?” she asks.

Cluck-cluck, the baby says, then smooches my buddy Vic hard on the lips. Last spotted, the baby was shimmying up the Christmas tree, hunting for grouse.

Each December, we hurl ourselves at Christmas, wagering that God has a sense of humor ... a wry eye ... a tolerance for human foible.

Lord help us if we’re wrong.


Chris Erskine can be reached at