Christmas at the tavern

So many holiday memories, most worth forgetting

December 23, 2010

Memories, like frozen water pipes, tend to bubble up at this time of year.

The are plenty of pleasant recollections — including the arrival of our firstborn on Christmas Eve — that come to mind in December. But the memories I can't stifle are the ones that are filled with less than bliss.

Take for instance, the Christmas Day when I almost burned down the dining room. Feeling festive, I had tried to ignite a Yule log in a dormant fireplace. It is what the man of the house was supposed to do. Smoke, rather than joy, filled the room. Instead of herald angels, smoke detectors began to sing. Diners were ordered out of the dining room. The family feast was put on hold as windows were opened, the smoke cleared, and the Yule trash can, a metal number, was hastily retrieved. It served as a vessel to transport the log to the backyard. There it smoldered, all through the night.

Another less than enduring remembrance stems from the Christmas morning that I dumped the Christmas tree in the alley. Our family was leaving town for a week that afternoon, a Sunday, so rather than leaving a pine standing the living room dropping its needles for days, it was determined that the tree had to go. That meant stripping the lights and decorations, removing it from its regal perch and dragging it out the front door. All on Christmas morning. Our sons, who were then maybe 7 and 2, howled with displeasure. I paid little attention. I was doing what the man of the house was supposed to do.

Once the tree was denuded, I pulled it toward the front door of our rowhouse and a peeked up and down the street. A stream of church-goers, dressed in finery, headed up the front sidewalk en route to services. I waited until the coast was clear of joyful striders, then made my move. Feeling like a criminal dumping a stiff, I dragged the tree down the sidewalk and around the corner, almost sprinting as I neared the alley. I stuffed the tree between a telephone pole and brick wall. A week later, when I got back into town, the sky was gray and the tree was gone, but the evidence of my heartless holiday deed — a pile of pine needles — remained.

Finally, there was the Christmas Eve I took my son to a tavern. It was his 21st birthday, so I proposed buying the kid his first legal drink. His mother, busy making chocolate mousse, his traditional birthday dessert, was not crazy about the idea. But late in the fading winter afternoon, my son and I scurried out the back door of our house and headed over to our neighborhood pub, the Mount Royal Tavern, for a celebratory drink. The place was not busy. The nearby Maryland Institute College of Art, provider of many of the tavern's patrons, had emptied out for the holidays. Always dimly lit, the tavern seemed especially dark on Christmas Eve.

The bartender was vigilant if not generous. He checked my son's driver's license and wished him a happy birthday, but unlike in the movies, neither the bartender nor some generous stranger offered him a drink on the house. I had visions of a more grandiose setting for this father-son moment, namely the stag bar in Haussner's restaurant in East Baltimore. There, amid the marble female nudes, would be the ideal place, I thought, for a boy to legally become a man.

But alas, Haussner's had closed a couple of years earlier. So my son and I clinked glasses of beer, sat at the end of a virtually empty bar and made small talk. In a few minutes, we were walking back to a happier place, a house filled with aromas of prime rib, roasted potatoes, chocolate and pine needles.

I congratulated my son on turning 21, but I wanted to tell him that being an adult was overrated — especially at Christmas.

—Rob Kasper

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