December 24, 2004
I sat alone in my room at the Doubletree hotel in Boston and ended a phone call with my family in Orlando. I summoned as much cheer as possible from my aching body to wish them a merry Christmas Eve. I didn’t fool them at all.
For someone realizing a bucket list item, I found my reserve tanks of holiday cheer close to empty. 2004 marked the fourth consecutive year I landed a role as a principal performer in the touring company of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which I fondly refer to as Christmas camp. After weeks of rehearsals in Myrtle Beach and performing close to forty shows in Buffalo, the fifty-member cast, crew, and I hurtled towards the last of our sixty shows slated for Boston. The fatigue from regular post-show explorations of the city’s nightlife and a full-blown case of homesickness finally took their toll.
A knock at the door signaled the arrival of a solution for my blue Christmas.
Upon my arrival in Boston, I decided to treat myself to a weekly massage. A soft-spoken, burly, Greek licensed massage therapist named Deno arrived to once again work out the knots in my muscles. During the session, he asked about my plans for Christmas Day. I mentioned that I intended to stay in bed, watch the Walt Disney World Christmas parade on TV, and maybe have dinner with the cast and crew later that night.
Deno offered a remedy for my cabin fever. He insisted that I get out of my hotel and join him and his friends—all of whom were gay—for their annual Christmas dinner, followed by attending a one-man play written by some guy who had been featured numerous times on NPR. Despite my unfamiliarity with NPR, the playwright, and my massage therapist’s friends, I stepped out of my comfort zone and accepted his invitation.
The next morning, I slept through the parade, ordered room service, and made merry Christmas calls to family and friends.
Later that afternoon at the appointed time, Deno showed up at the hotel and spirited me off to his friend’s two-story triplex in Chelsea. Once upstairs, Deno led me to the kitchen and introduced me to a man assaulting a pork loin with a small cast iron frying pan. The man was the host for the evening; his name, Bob. I presented him with a bottle of wine, and in a manner both skillful and quick, he plied Deno and me with appetizers and cocktails, not necessarily that order.
Next to arrive: Rob, Italian and the youngest and shortest of the group. I didn’t know if the presence of a new person in the mix set him on edge or if he was typically reserved, as he took a fair amount of ribbing from all present. Minutes later, Hank sauntered in and made the best of things despite being plagued by some sort of dark cloud. The gathering became a full-on party with the arrival of the last member of the Chelsea quintet, Rich. Despite the twenty-something-degree weather, the self-professed, full-blooded Scotsman sported a sweater, a bright red Santa hat, and a Stewart tartan kilt.
And then there was me; the four-feet tall Black art director doing an encore stint as a dancing teddy bear, Frosty the Snowman, and elf.
Midway between the assorted fruit and imported cheese course and the appetizers, Rich proudly displayed what he wore under his kilt: a piece of leather and chrome hardware, a collection of piercings, and a shiny red Christmas ornament suspended by a means that made this Santa’s helper blush.
The interior of Bob’s apartment looked like the furnishings were ripped straight from the pages of Architectural Digest’s Christmas in New England edition. Over the years, Bob built an impressive collection of stunning antiques that were suitable for everyday living. He sprinkled in touches of both modern and traditional art that upped his home’s relaxed and eclectic vibe while neutralizing any pretense of stuffiness.
The Chelsea Fab Five’s collective and individual personalities were as impressive as the surroundings. They wasted no time making me feel right at home. The conversation, which covered a wide range of topics, was spirited and the wit razor sharp. I’d been to Boston a number of times for fun and profit in the past and was accustomed to the Bah-stuhn accent, but I had to pay close attention to what the guys said so as not to miss any of the conversation.
Bob deemed the occasion deserving of nothing less than water and wine crystal, place cards, killer flatware, taper candles, and the debut of his antique Minton china. Our host served everyone an Intermezzo course of pomegranate sorbet—except Rich. We all burst into laughter as Bob set Rich’s dish before him: a suggestively plated cucumber, with one end nestled between two scoops of fig sorbet, donning its own tin foil hardware similar to the one the diner it sat before wore.
Each of the guys prepared an elaborate dish. For instance, Rob brought potatoes; but not simple mashed potatoes or potatoes au gratin. He opted for the French classic, Pommes Anna. That was the level of attention these guys were operating on. From the Boston lettuce salad with cream dressinggarnished with prosciutto and quail egg, to the pork loin roast, we ate a meal fit for a king — or queen.
Our sumptuous dinner ran a little later than anticipated, so we quickly made our way to the theater for the Christmas Day presentation of David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries. The one-man show regaled audiences with Sedaris’ hilarious adventures as a misanthropic department store Christmas elf at the retail hell known as Santaland at Macy’s flagship store in New York.
Talk about art imitating life; in particular, my life.
The coincidence of attending a play about a guy who played an elf with a guy who currently played an elf in the most famous Christmas show in town was not wasted on our gang of six. Rich with his kilt (and ornament still intact at that point) and I with my . . . self . . . opted to sit in the front row in hopes of throwing the actor off his game for sport. How could he not notice both of us there? The Scotsman and the elf. I must give credit where credit is due, the actor was the consummate professional and flubbed only one line fairly early in the play. To this day, I’m not sure which one of us gave the player reason to pause.
On the way out of the theatre, we ambled down a staircase, laughing at the zaniness of Sedaris’ trials. The sound of a high-pitched and delicate crash stopped us cold on the stairs. From all the jostling around of descending the steps, Rich’s ornament became detached and lay in tiny red and silver glass shards at the soles of his camp socks and steel-toed work boots. Hearty laughter filled the staircase, but no one was more relieved than Rich that the dislodging had not occurred in his lap.
After the play, we indulged in champagne and Bûche de Noël, then Bob and friends lit candles attached to the tree. Yes, I knew that’s how they did it in the not-so-distant past, but actually watching it happen a few feet away freaked me out a little. I’m no chemist or anything, but we were in an old wood frame house with a relatively flammable tree (it was wood, so of course it was natural to assume it would burn) . . . with candles resting on its limbs . . . lit by matches. The whole thing seemed kind of dicey to me, but I knew exactly where the exits were. Plus, Bob stood nearby cradling a swaddled fire extinguisher in his arms, probably like the way Mary held the little Lord Jesus on that very first Christmas. So I just kicked back and had another glass of bubbly. That wasn’t their first time lighting a tree and not burning down the house in the process.
When the time came for me to say good night, there were hugs and glad tidings all around, and Bob and friends sent me home with gifts and cake.
On the ride home, Deno revealed that despite the levity and splendid camaraderie, his friends’ celebration grew out of less than pleasant experiences they all shared: frustration with making obligatory appearances at family gatherings as the persona non grata, failed attempts at living up to unrealistic expectations, and occasionally spending Christmas alone.
Deno, Bob, Hank, Rich, and Rob supported one another in good times and bad and forged relationships closer than most brothers. Instead of playing reindeer games riddled with mandates of how to spend the day and with whom, these gentlemen took responsibility for their own happiness by celebrating the day in a manner that was most meaningful to them: by being with the people dearest to them. I felt honored to have participated in their Christmas tradition. Their object lesson in choosing to be happy has stuck with me to this day.
Love one another.
Clay Rivers is an author, art director, and actor. He writes about race in America, faith, and personal growth in an effort to foster transformative conversation. He has authored four books—Walking Tall, The Raindancer, 3 Things I Know, and Christmas Is. His writings have been featured in The Mighty, the Medium publication CrossingGenres, and most notably The New York Times.