Christmas may not be until the end of this week, Constant Reader, but I needed to get my decorating done by last Tuesday. The annual Twistmas holiday installment of the Tuesdays at Nine reading series, which I co-host, took place on the fifteenth, as we continue to figure out how to make remote theater happen during these Quarantimes. For many of us in this blessedly-soon-to-expire year of 2020, the only holiday decorations and celebrations we’re going to get to experience are the ones we see in the backgrounds of other people’s zoom screens. And so, while I might ordinarily make do with a simple wreath or two, this year I went all out. I masked up, trudged off to my local store, and picked up a nice six-foot tree to adorn my living room. I had to think of my audience, after all.
As with most folks, my Christmas ornaments are mostly a combination of sentimental trinkets from childhood, gotten from grandparents and created in elementary school projects, and basic glass ornaments, procured from dollar stores and clearance bins. There are two ornaments on the tree, however – one red and one green, covered with glitter-embossed stars – that are different. They were purchased from no Christmas store, or any other conventional source of Yuletide supplies.
They came from a van on the Jersey turnpike.
In 2003, I was in the cast of New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of The Sound of Music (playing, as I’m fond of describing on my resume, “assorted Nazis”). Most of the cast traveled to the theater from New York City; vans leaving from midtown Manhattan, each driven by a designated company member, were earmarked for the purpose. Our van featured a particularly raucous group – all of the “assorted Nazis” and a fair number of the excess nuns, all bursting with more creative energy and high spirits than the show had room for. It was a good long run of nine weeks, during which time we burned through as many iPod and mixtape singalongs as we could. And since Sound of Music was Paper Mill’s fall show that year, the last weeks of the run fell in December before Christmas.
We, as a group, decided that the best way for us to demonstrate our Yuletide cheer was to decorate the van, in as ridiculously ostentatious a manner as possible. We affixed a wreath to the grill of the van, with “Merry Christmas” written in its center. We lined the front windows with garland. We lined the side windows with Christmas lights and found a battery pack to light them. We toyed briefly with the idea of fake spray-on snow for the windows as well, until we realized it would represent a traffic hazard. And from the coathooks and window guards of that van – a van we christened “Blitzen” – we hung red and green ornaments.
I didn’t keep any souvenirs from that production – it’s neither easy nor advisable to smuggle swastika armbands, after all. But when all was said and done, and Blitzen had dropped us off by Penn Station for the final time, I kept the ornaments. They’re hanging on my tree now.
And hanging them this year, in this time of plague and quarantine, Blitzen is what I miss the most.
You see, for all the doomsday predictions, live performance still exists. Maybe not in any standard format, maybe not yet in a profitable format, but we’re keeping the creative spirit going even though we can’t be together in person. What we can’t reproduce online, however, are the kind of ridiculous and wonderful side-activities and reactions that come from creative types being in the same space together, even if that space is just a cheesy van on the Jersey Turnpike. And until we’re all vaccinated, we’ll have to make do without those.
My tree will come down, and my Blitzen ornaments will be put away, sometime very early in 2021. Hopefully that will be a better year by far.