On this Christmastide morning, when the sun and December's green have melted out from behind the snow, I fondly remember my Uncle Scrooge: that is, my Uncle Don V. Becker, the man who personified Christmas in my life.
Yes, that is actually him; he worked in the photography department for an ad agency called Horn & Griner, and every so often would be called upon as a "character" model. He posed as a reformed and joyous Scrooge for several accounts, including a memorable Newsweek billboard ("Raise a little Dickens, Read Newsweek") and this Hennessy Scotch ad.
But the characterization was uncannily apt; you would be hard pressed to find a man who would more perfectly "honor Christmas in his heart and try to keep it all the year." He and my bohemian Aunt Louie would show up with, literally, a Santa sack each Christmas, the coolest presents in the world: stuff from their travels in India and Mexico, wind chimes, incense burners, and once, a can of turtle soup. Everything would be tucked into Ektachrome tins and boxes and wrapped in photo background paper, even Louie's Rice Krispie treats. For their little niece growing up sheltered in suburban Queens, their visits were no less amazing than that of the three Christmas spirits.
But it was Don's childlike delight in life, more than any present, that made him the soul of our Christmas. That delight expressed itself in his photography; in a family that otherwise contented itself with Instamatic snapshots lit by flash-cubes, his Pentax opened up a world of wonder. In off hours at Horn & Griner, he would create hand-tinted "Victorian" portraits of us, or elegant black and white vignettes that made us all look slightly glamorous and exotic. He'd always bring a sheaf of his latest exquisite nature shots taken out at their country house, macro studies of glistening moss, icicles, ferns or snow. And he would just hand me that Pentax to experiment with, complete with monster telephoto, when my hands were barely big enough to hold it. Then he'd develop and mat my best shot like it was a pro's, and present it back to me—a gift of trust and celebration in a child's vision and creativity.
Don lived to be almost 94, as did his equally vivacious and great-hearted twin sister Valeska, and he never stopped loving Christmas. We got him sprung from a nursing "home" just in time to spend his last Christmas in his real home—his beloved Manhattan apartment—where he left this life three years ago this day. His last word to me, spoken with deep concentration as if to himself, was "Peace."
"I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to every-body! A happy New Year to all the world!" —Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol