Barney and May O'Sullivan would never be confused with Mary and Joseph. Yet after a childhood of midnight Masses, nativity scenes and Christmas pageants (my first acting gig was playing a wise man's donkey) they are what I most fondly remember when I harken back to the holidays of my youth.
Much of the attraction of our yearly visit was their "agnostic" Christmas tree. The Sunday before Christmas, eight of us would pile into the family car and make our yearly pilgrimage to their Rhode Island home.
Along with their unusual tree they also had a one-armed bandit (slot machine) for which they gave each of my five siblings and me a roll of nickels. To be clear, this wasn't a toy, this was a real slot machine that Barney picked up from one of the unsavory characters he regularly dealt with.
They were wealthy by our standards, colorful by anybody's. I once heard my uncle described as an "Irish hooligan who hit it big."
Barney was a short, loud and stocky man with huge hands with a diamond ring on his little finger.
They weren't really related to my family. My father and Barney did some business together and since they had no children we adopted them as our own.
The drive seemed to take forever. I would often be scolded by my mother for trying to get out of the still-moving car.
We would file in, Aunt May would kiss us all; Uncle Barney would kiss my sisters and (and after faking a punch to the midsection) shake my brothers and my hands. Hidden in the gorilla sized mitt of my uncle's handshake, was a roll of coins for the bandit. I remember my brother Mark cautioning me to pretend I didn't notice the roll; he said that's how tough guys did it.
After our greetings we would file into the living room where cocktails would be served. My parents would have highballs, the kids would get cokes with a cherry. We would be cautioned to never spill anything, "They don't have kids so they aren't used to messes," my Mum would warn.
It was while gulping down our soft drinks that my siblings and I were able to gaze on the "agnostic tree."
Unlike all other families I knew growing up, my uncle and aunt didn't have a real Christmas tree in their home. There was one Jewish family in my neighborhood and even they had a real tree. Barney and May had a futuristic tree that looked to be made of aluminum foil. And unlike every other tree I had seen with lights and ornaments, their tree had only a spotlight placed behind a multi-colored wheel that turned and caused the tree to change colors. In front of the tree on a low easel would be a portrait illuminated by small spotlight. The subject of the portrait changed from year to year to year - Jesus, JFK, RFK, the Pope, even a racehorse.
When I first saw that tree I thought it was the greatest thing in the world; it seemed so modern and expensive; something you might see at the Jetson's house. My siblings were not impressed. My oldest sister Calista called it "tacky" and refereed to it as an "agnostic" tree. At the time I didn't know what an agnostic was. My mother corrected her by saying that our faux relatives did, in fact, believe in God (they even had their name on a plate glass window at their church) they just didn't believe in pine needles on their carpet.
When I look back on the festivities at the O'Sullivan's, it wasn't very Christmas like. We were never the only family there but usually the only one with kids. Along with us, there would be hard-looking men with names like Lefty and Rocco and their loud and gaudy wives; my mother looked unadorned yet beautiful compared to those garish women.
After enjoying drinks around the tree, the men would saunter to the card room (the walls adorned with pictures of dogs playing poker) and gamble. The ladies would venture to the kitchen, smoke cigarettes, drink highballs and gossip. The kids in the meantime would play with the toys and games that were already presented while taking turns feeding the one armed bandit. We were never allowed past the threshold of the kitchen nor anywhere near the card room, though we could smell cigars throughout the house.
There is little arguing that, for many, the meaning of the holidays have been largely diluted. It is easy to blame commerce; but in truth though most Americans (92 percent) believe in a higher power, less than half regularly participate in organized religious services. In other words, most of us believe in a God yet don't want to be told how to worship him/her.
Despite the commercialism blurring the origins of the holiday, a prevailing sense of compassion, mystery and optimism bleeds through.
Whether it is Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza or Festivus, the holidays should be a time of personal tradition, celebration, kindness and gratitude. My Uncle Barney and Aunt May provided that, year after year, with gambling thrown in as a bonus.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.