Christmas with Charlie, Vol. 5

Christmases at my father’s home form a composite picture in my mind, for every one of them was almost identical in style and texture. Even the weather was the same. As far back as I can remember, the Christmas days of my boyhood were sunshiny and mild.

Accompanied by Nana, Syd and I arrived at Dad’s house around eleven–brunch was always at twelve. To walk into his home on that day was like going between the leaves of a Dickens novel, because Christmas for Dad was a typically British institution. As we came in the front door we could see the Christmas tree standing at the far end of the hall. It was always a stately white tree, tall enough just to miss the ceiling. It had been decorated the week before by the Japanese servants under the supervision of Frank [Chaplin’s chauffeur]. Christmas was just as much a day of celebration to them as to us, for Dad never omitted a generous bonus to each.

Though the tree was beautiful, Syd and I seldom gave it more than a quick appraisal. We were far more interested in the stacks of presents underneath it. As we walked down the hall, Dad came forward to greet us, a jovial father, all vexations completely erased from his mind. Christmas represented drama to him, and every year of our boyhood he played that drama with little variation.

“Well, boys,” he would say, seeing our eyes on the packages, “I’m sorry but you don’t have so much this Christmas. Just a few little things. It’s been an expensive year.”

Syd and I would recognize our cue. “That’s all right, Dad,” we would answer, getting just the right tone of disappointment in our voices.

“Well,” Dad would reply philosophically, rubbing his hands together with delight over his unfolding drama but carefully keeping the pleasure out of his voice, “we can’t have a big Christmas every year, can we, boys?”

“Don’t worry about it, Dad,” Syd and I would answer, and as we grew more proficient at playing the game we learned to release an involuntary sigh.

All morning friends and relatives had been gathering for brunch. There was our actor half-uncle Wheeler Dryden, who had by this time followed Dad to California. His son, Spencer, was younger than we and yet he could recite pages of Shakespeare, because his father had pounded it into him. He pounded so hard that when Spencer grew up he chucked the whole thing; the culture went down the drain fast, and Spencer became a jazz musician instead. Today he plays the drums most efficiently….1

L-R: Sydney, Paulette Goddard, Dr. Cecil Reynolds, Charlie, Jr, CC

Uncle Sydney Chaplin was there, too, as was our macabre dinner guest, Dr. Reynolds, and Dad’s oldest friends, Amy and Alf Reeves. Tim Durant, whom Dad had just met that year [1936] through Director King Vidor, came with his daughter, Marjorie. Constance Collier, Anita Loos, King Vidor and, until his death in 1939, Doug Fairbanks and his wife, Lady Sylvia Ashley, were all Christmas Day visitors. Each of the guests brought Syd and me a gift–a sweater, a billfold, a book–depositing it under the tree with the other packages. 

At twelve we sat down at the big table in the dining room. Christmas brunch was a carefree occasion. Gone was Dad’s strict insistance on manners that day. Syd and I might talk as we please, interrupt as we chose, laugh as much as we liked. Every year the menu was the same. It started with roast beef and ended with Yorkshire pudding–a plum pudding with rum on it which was set alight when it was time for dessert–and champagne for everyone. After brunch Dad always gave Syd and me a taste of the holiday champagne. 

Then we gathered around the tree to open our presents, and once again Syd and I found ourselves in the very center of the drama. Assuming resigned expressions, we began looking in the pile for presents marked for us. One by one we sorted them out and opened them. As our piles grew we allowed our faces to put on more and more astonishment. 

“All these for us, Father?” we gasped. 

Dad chuckled at our perplexed delight. 

“Yes, they’re yours, boys.”

“But you said…” we let our words trail off in a bewildered way. We were truly happy about our presents, which were always lavish. But we were almost as happy playing the little drama with Dad.

–Charles Chaplin, Jr., My Father, Charlie Chaplin, 1960


  1. Thanks so much for this story. Please look at the comments (the ads) from December 6th about Falkenburg. There are three posts, I think, they shouldn't belong there. Someone not very nice posted them. Maybe you can remove them.

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