Christmas Eve, 1988.
I was nine years old.
Our whole giant family spent most of the day in the dining room, like we always did on Christmas Eve.
Actually, it wasn’t just the dining room. That dining room wouldn’t have fit even half of us. Instead, our regular table was joined by two folding tables, effectively spreading the disease that was us to the entire living room. Even then, a few people had to eat in the kitchen.
The tables are what I remember most about those parties. They were such glorious messes!
Even with the three tables lined up to form one Super Table, you could still identify the components by their tablecloths. In 1988, one was white, one was red, and the third was green.
The main table was reserved for my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. It was always covered in strange liqueurs and burnt walnut shells. If you wanted cigarettes or punchlines you’d never get, you visited Table 1.
The middle table was for my older siblings and cousins, plus their significant others. There were never enough seats for everyone who had the arguable right to sit there. It was first come, first serve, and extremely competitive. If you left the table for too long, you lost your seat. Table 2 always felt the most alive.
The third table, not shown in this photo, was where I would’ve been. That was the table for kids, and for the people who didn’t have enough fight in them to make it to Table 2.
Even though we were all technically sitting at one big THING, the different tablecloths created a clear caste system. If you were at Table 3 and someone from Table 2 talked to you, it was only because they had Christmas pity.
Fortunately, I was nine, so none of this really concerned me.
I didn’t care about where I sat, or if there would be any crab legs left by the time the big foil platter hit Table 3.
All I cared about was midnight.
Sweet, glorious midnight.
Midnight was when we opened our presents. Christmas Day was only moments old.
That year, we opened them downstairs. What you see under the tree isn’t even a third of them. Everybody gave everybody presents. I can’t handle the math, but it was something like 8 x 2 + 6 x 2 + 3. That many presents.
By 1988, even I was probably in on the fun. This may have been the year that I gave all of my brothers and sisters $5 glassware sets from Bradlees.
Absolutely none of them needed glasses, but those sets came in big heavy boxes. If you didn’t know better, you’d have sworn I paid four times as much. Basically, I gave everybody glasses because it made my Lincolns wear Jackson costumes.
I love seeing old photos of my family opening their gifts. It was such chaos! I never fully appreciated it as a kid, since I was too busy staring at MY new things.
The photos spark other memories, too. Wow, there’s our old pool table! The one with the expensive stained glass light over it. Over the years, I must have cracked that thing in a hundred different places with my careless cue action. By the end of its run, half of it was covered in masking tape.
And ooh, there are those weird wooden shelves. My father built those, and apparently without much reason to. We kept the worst shit on those shelves. Thirty-year-old trophies belonging to God knows who. Incomplete board games that nobody would ever play again. Bottles of liquor so old and crusted that you would only dare to drink from them if the goal was immediate death.
All that, and a shoebox full of oily spark plugs.
To this day, I have no idea how we accumulated so many spark plugs.
To this day, I have no idea what one does with a spark plug, outside of using it as an acceptable stand-in for an action figure scale Matrix of Leadership.
And there I am, making an asshole face. When you’re nine and someone tells you to say cheese, that’s what you do. Act spiteful and think nothing of it.
The hell is with that shirt? I can say with near-total certainty that this was the first and last time I wore anything lemon yellow. I looked like an Easter egg.
Let’s see what I got!
Hell yes, the Cobra BUGG! I’ll never forget that one. It overachieved!
I got it from my aunt and uncle. Their gifts were always crapshoots, but this may have been their finest hour. The BUGG was a giant vehicle covered in guns and bubble windows, and as the name suggested, the whole thing kinda looked like an insect. As if a grasshopper made a baby with a tank.
It even came with a figure. My beloved “Secto-Viper.” Only now do I notice that on the day I got my Secto-Viper, I was pretty much dressed like one.
The thing I remember most about Finders Keepers is how it appeared from nowhere and just as suddenly replaced Double Dare as the in-thing kiddy game show. Everything else is hazy. I remember a house, and I remember a host who sort of looked like Tony Schiavone.
I hated getting board games for Christmas. It’s not that they were so bad, but I only had so many shots at serious Christmas glory. How can I put this? It was like getting the “free soda” piece during the McDonald’s Monopoly game. Neither a real win nor a real loss.
You know that midpoint between “yeah” and “meh?” It sounds sort of like “nyyyOH.” It’s when you catch yourself making a negative grunt and try to correct it midway through. I learned “nyyyOH” by getting board games for Christmas.
Of course, in this case, I should’ve been more excited. Finders Keepers was a great game. I mean, I never once played it, but that three-dimensional model home was like the poor man’s version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Suddenly my Secto-Viper had more interesting dwellings than a bug-themed tank.
Two board games? Yeah, now I understand why I made a jerky face in every picture. I couldn’t say “YOU HAVE ALL FAILED ME” with words, but I sure could say it with exaggerated grimaces.
And hey, here’s another one!
This time, you can’t blame me. There is indisputable evidence that I’d just received the very worst of Christmas gifts.
An ugly sweater.
Looking over my gifts, it occurs to me that even the good ones generally weren’t things I would’ve asked for.
I must have been lazy that December! This is exactly why writing up wish lists is so important. Without a list, people think that they can slide by with Battleship, even if they’re only buying it because it’s somehow stocked at the supermarket, and goddamn is that convenient. Worse yet, people think they can get away with dressing you like Theo Huxtable.
Look closer and you’ll spot a candy cane. If memory serves, that would’ve been taped to an envelope that had two ten dollar bills inside. Thanks, Grandma!
On top of the candy cane is my Secto-Viper. (I really loved that guy.)
There’s only one thing that I very clearly remember about Christmas in 1988.
That was when I got Super Mario Bros. 2.
It’s on top of my stupid sweater, there. Note how I’m nowhere to be seen.
Even before I started tearing away the wrapping paper, I knew it was going to be a Nintendo game. Those boxes had a distinct weight, shape and feel. Once I saw that bright blue sky peering out from under the tacky paper, I knew I’d struck gold.
Loud enough for families five houses away to hear, I screamed out a play-by-play.
“It could be…”
“IT’S SUPER MARIO BROTHERS 2!”
I grabbed the cartridge and ran straight up to my bedroom. (Hence why you see no cartridge – nor nine-year-old Matt – in the photo.) That game was already the stuff of legend, having been the cover story in the very first issue of Nintendo Power.
It was one of those gifts that made everything right with the world.
If you’ll recall, SMB 2 let you choose between four characters, each with unique speeds and jumping ability. Mario was Joe Average, best at nothing and worst at nothing. Toad was a strong motherfucker, but he jumped like ass. Princess Toadstool couldn’t yank a turnip out of the ground to save her life (literally), but that girl could FLY.
Last but not least was Luigi. He was one of the weaker characters, but when he jumped, he was like a rapidly deflating balloon. It was hard to control his landings, but the sight of silly Luigi flying through the air with his feet flopping around was just SO AWESOME.
The first time I played SMB 2 (likely as this photo was being taken), I chose Luigi. I was in heaven.
Super Mario Bros. 2 was that year’s defining Christmas present.
You can tell how much I loved it, too. What else could’ve gotten me to release my iron grip on that Secto-Viper?