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When Santa Lived Next Door

A childhood spent gazing wistfully at the neighbors’ Christmas display

Elana Rabinowitz
December 24, 2018
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Christmas lights on homes in Brooklyn in December 2010 Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Christmas lights on homes in Brooklyn in December 2010 Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There they were like clockwork every year. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, Blixem and of course Rudolph. All of those life-size plastic reindeer went on full display each winter on the roof of my neighbor’s house. Like a mini amusement park right on Stratford Road in the heart of Brooklyn. They even had a smiling Santa leading the way. And they kept this mammoth display balanced on that roof all the way until the following November when they replaced it with cartoon turkeys in funny little hats for Thanksgiving. If only I could celebrate Christmas. Why couldn’t we be just like everybody else?

My neighbor’s house seemed bigger and better in every way. As if Santa and crew weren’t vast enough, they had live-in grandparents, and uncles and three perfectly quaffed blond kids, like a Norman Rockwell painting to fill their halls. I thought they had everything. And every night when I’d go to bed, I looked out my bedroom window and saw the lighted Santa and all his reindeer crew and wished I could be just like them. What a close family I thought. They were always staying up late and laughing, while my family had their noses in a book. I wanted to be more carefree, I wanted to be just like them.

Our house was vastly different than theirs, most notably for our lack of holiday decorations. But that’s not to say we got away with having an innocuous home; nope not us. My liberal Jewish parents sprinkled enough of their own peculiar decorations to attract notice. The house itself was stoic enough, a purplish maroon color that my father would meticulously maintain. Shimmers of light reflected off of stain-glassed windows—radiated outward while simultaneously not allowing anyone to look in, like our own private tinted windows covering our home. But the shining beacon was not a menorah or a star of David or anything religious, the two staples we had on display were a few chucks of Indian corn and a rusty hanger; a concept I would not understand until much later in life. What I would have given to have Santa Claus; to be like everyone else. Instead, I just felt like Rudolph, the one with the different nose.

Their youngest grandchild next door was my age and he and I and another boy used to be besties. The three of us would run around, weaving in and out of our neighbors’ houses playing tag and hide and go seek. That was the year my mother cut my hair short. Like military short. Payback for never brushing it. As a result, we looked like three boys zipping in out of the yards. I loved playing with them. But one day that all stopped. Someone pulled the plug. Although I will never know for certain why. It had something to do with the fact that they went to Catholic school and we went to public, but it never made any sense to me. Why couldn’t we still be friends? I missed having neighbors to play with and still spent my nights eavesdropping on the Gaughans’ conversation. Still staring down Santa and his helpers.

As the years progressed my hair grew back, and soon the Gaughans’ house began to change as well. One son moved, another one moved in, and all the kids went with them. I would open up the window and no longer was kept up by late night parties. They went to bed earlier, they built a fence around their backyard. The house was changing and yet Santa and his crew would be propped up on that roof. But suddenly I was not so jealous. At closer look you could see Santa had a crack in his face, the reindeer were filthy, and Rudolph’s nose wasn’t even that different. I mean, what was so great about this display anyway? Maybe my house wasn’t so bad. My parents started changing things up depending on the times. They would rotate between a poster for boycotting grapes and moved the Indian corn to the back and eventually took down the hanger. Which I would only later learn was their protest against illegal abortions. As it turns out no one knew what it meant either, so it just seemed like someone forgot to bring the hanger inside. That is what I felt about their Santa. It was time for him to go away too.

By the time I was a teenager I was embarrassed by their decorations. They seemed cheap and decaying, nothing like the full setups in Dyker Heights, no one was coming to see some old reindeer on a dilapidated roof. While their house was slowly falling apart, my father continued to maintain ours. I began to get interested in the few chosen pieces my family had instead. I marched for women’s rights and realized how important a woman’s right to choose was. And then I saw the house next door crumble. One after another fell sick, some moved away. A few died and then they were all gone. No bright red lights lit up the block.

Eventually, their Christmas display came down and it never went back up again. Our house no longer served as a quiet home of peaceful protests. I went away to college and came back for the holidays. I found myself outside talking to a woman a little older than me, one of the newest arrivals. She asked about school and I asked about the family. She began to take an interest in me and we giggled together on our front porches, the barrier had finally been broken. A year later she would pass on and a few years after that the house would be sold. I moved to the larger room upstairs and had a different view of the city that didn’t include their house. I am no longer that kid staring out her bedroom window wanting to be someone else but I am still called back to their display by every sleigh and reindeer I pass.

Elana Rabinowitz is an ESL Teacher and a Freelance Writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @ElanaRabinowitz