“LISTEN, ARE YOU kids willing to stick together and pull yourselves out of a hole?” Mickey asked, rallying the gang. “I’ve got an idea! “I’m gonna write a show for us and put it on right here in Seaport. … How ’bout it, kids? We’ll get every kid in this town on our side, and we’ll start right now! What d’ya say?”
As Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and the kids marched through town for the title number of 1939’s Babes in Arms, I was still awake on my pallet on the floor of my brother and sister’s room, the three of us having decided it would be a good idea to all sleep in the same bedroom until Santa arrived. A couple of songs later, the movie was over. The gang had put on a show, just as they said they would, and managed to save the day.
As the credits rolled, I waited and listened. It wasn’t sleigh bells I was listening for, though. A few seconds passed, and I was starting to think we were in the clear. Then I heard it: “Do you think Santa’s come yet?” my brother asked.
I sighed. “No, Wade. It’s not even midnight yet. Try to get some sleep.”
“But I’m not tired. Maybe we should just go check.”
“He wouldn’t even have had time to come yet, Wade,” my sister chimed in, clearly still awake as well. “Just try to go to sleep.”
Knowing we were probably in for a bit more watch duty, I sat up and reached over to the VCR to eject the tape and replace it with the logical follow-up: Babes on Broadway.
Now, it might seem like Wade was just overly excited about Christmas (read: presents), but the truth lies a little closer to the fact that when my brother was 4 years old, my parents got the news about his diagnosis: Wade has autism. Though the medical community and the general public both know a lot more about autism now than they did then (though awareness and understanding still need to be majorly increased as far as the public is concerned), when Wade was first diagnosed back in 1995, my parents were told he would never be able to be able to cook for himself or live alone. He’d never be able to dress himself or tie his own shoes.
But Wade, now 25, is just a few credits away from earning his bachelor’s degree in digital filmmaking from the University of Central Arkansas. Though he’s technically on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum, that doesn’t mean he’s immune from challenges. He still has trouble conducting himself in social situations, he gets overwhelmingly frustrated when things don’t go as expected, and he has an extremely difficult time making friends. He also has finds it challenging to maintain regular sleeping habits, often staying awake all night long and sleeping well into the afternoon if left to his own devices, a problem that has persisted since his youth.
This, combined with the barely containable excitement that most of you probably remember from the Christmas Eves of your childhood, often resulted in Wade visiting the living room after lying in bed for what he thought was an appropriate amount of time for Santa to do his job (approximately 2 or 3 hours after bedtime, if that), then waking my parents up when he saw the living room empty. So it quickly became my and my sister’s job to entertain him and keep him sequestered away from the Christmas tree for the duration of the night.
Initially, we took on the role as interested parties (we didn’t want him to see the spoil of presents before us), and later we continued the job as Santa’s little helpers. Eager to grow up, my sister and I eventually rejected the sense of wonder and innocence of childhood, though my brother hung onto the idea of Santa Claus for a couple more years. But even still, year in and year out, we found ourselves right where we’d been before—all three of us in the same bedroom on Christmas Eve, trying to decide what to watch as we fell asleep. Maybe it was simply because it was familiar, and familiarity was a coveted comfort for my brother, but we ended up watching those two Busby Berkeley–directed “backyard musicals” every year for the next several Christmases, even though they weren’t necessarily “Christmas” films. (Clearly, my dad’s love of classic cinema rubbed off on the three of us.)
A year or two back, when I was home for the holidays, my siblings and I dusted off those two old VHS tapes. Rather than making a pallet on the floor like I used to, I took the guest room at my sister’s house while my brother claimed the couch so he could watch movies all night without disturbing anybody. Some things never change.
Others do, though. That same Christmas, my sister was playing Santa for her young son. I was still Santa’s little helper, this time helping to put out my nephew’s presents from Saint Nick or fill a stocking (perhaps even nibble a cookie or take a swig of milk to assure the little guy Santa had really come). And what better way to while away the anxious hours before Christmas morning than with Judy, Mickey and the gang …
Wyndham Wyeth is an associate editor of this magazine. He spent his early childhood roaming the aisles of his father’s Goodtime Video store formerly on Highway 10 and grew up watching the black-and-white classics from the ’30s and ’40s.