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When his wife’s away, Christmas elf he’ll play

Confessions of a stealth holiday decorator.

(Gracia Lam)

At Christmastime, my wife, Ellen, and I decorate the house as a team. Well, sort of.

"That doesn't go there," she tells me as I make space for the manger in the bay window.

"Yeah, I know. But it looks good, doesn't it?"

"That's where the carolers go."

"We can put the carolers over there." I point to the top of the china cabinet. Ellen scrunches her nose. "They'll look good there!" I protest. Ellen responds with a vigorous head shake.

"I don't like it."

"Then how about we put them —"

"I don't like it."

"I didn't even say where I thought — "

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"No."

So every year the manger, the carolers, the army of Santas, and everything else go pretty much where Ellen wants. And every year the decorating takes days; the debates are very time-consuming.

One year, though, the pattern changes. Ellen gets a new teaching job. She toils in her home office planning lessons and grading tests. She stays after school to help struggling students. Then there is the endless parade of meetings that take place either very early or very late: staff meetings, supervisor meetings, union meetings, parent meetings.

I miss her.

But when Christmas rolls around, I smell an opportunity. One night, when Ellen is at a meeting, I pry our son, Alex, away from his Legos.

"We're gonna surprise Mommy!" I exclaim. "We're decorating the house."

Alex decorates the way I ask him to decorate. When he isn't decorating — which, frankly, is often — he is shooting caroler figurines with the ray gun that came with his Stormtrooper Halloween costume. This isn't exactly helpful, but it is also not an obstacle, so I allow it.

It's the Daddy Decorating Show. And the results are, if I may say so, perfect. I admire my handiwork with the smugness only found in an anal-retentive who finally gets everything just so.

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My triumph, however, is soon interrupted by an uneasy tingle in my brainstem. What did you just do? Christmas decorating is a "together" thing!

I scan the betinseled room with a fresh pair of eyes.

You selfishly forced your decorating will upon the house! Is that the spirit of Christmas? Did Joseph decorate the stable without Mary's input?

Then my brain asks, What will Ellen say?

I hear a key turn in the front door. I brace myself.

What I get  is unexpected: a dazzled gasp of joy.

"You decorated!" Ellen cries. "It's beautiful!" She turns in a slow circle, taking in the entirety of the winter wonderland before her. "I have been dreading this. I've been too tired to even think about decorating."

Somehow my opportunistic instincts have perfectly synched with Ellen's increased levels of holiday stress. It's a Christmas miracle.

"This usually takes us days!" she marvels. "How did you decorate so quickly?" My brain wants to say, Because I don't argue with myself over where the stupid carolers should go.

Instead I say, "Because I don't argue with myself over where the stupid carolers should go."

Gah! I hate my brain.

But Ellen laughs. This is clearly my lucky day.

We hug. As Ellen's chin nestles into my shoulder, I feel her look around the room. "Oh! You put the carolers in a different spot this year."

"They look good there, don't they?" I say.

"No," she says. "But we'll let it slide."

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Mike Allegra is a children's book author in New Jersey. Send comments to connections@globe.com.


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