The King of Christmas Past

elvis-christmasThe pregnancy hadn’t been an easy one. Due to her size and his shake, rattle & roll, the King’s mother thought she would have him around Christmas. But she didn’t go into labor until January 8, 1935. At her bedside were her husband, the midwife, and the doctor whose $15 delivery fee would be paid by the state of Mississippi. Her husband, Vernon, had just finished building their shotgun shack with a $180 loan. He was a carpenter, a moonshiner, and 19 years old. Out in the yard that frosty, starlit, predawn Tupelo morning were the family chickens and their cow. After a long, hard labor, Gladys Presley delivered a stillborn child. A half hour later came his tiny live twin, Elvis. The future King’s favorite day was Christmas, the prelude to his birthday. His parents, on Welfare, gave him their all then. The boy, whose hero was Captain Marvel, wanted to give them back all the riches in the world. "Mama," he’d say to Gladys as she walked him to school, past fancy houses, "I’m gonna give you a place just like that – only a whole lot bigger." She gave her beautiful boy a kiss, already feeling like the richest woman on earth just to have him. "ELVIS A MILLIONAIRE IN ONE YEAR!" read the Memphis headlines in 1957. The teen sensation had bought his mother a pink Cadillac and a mansion called Graceland. That season, he released The Elvis Christmas Album, which included such holiday favorites as "Santa Is back in Town." Recalling the first Presley Christmas at Graceland, Elvis’s cousin, Billy Smith, said, "It was like being in fairyland, and Santa Claus was my first cousin." But then the grinch arrived. On December 20, an Army officer served the 22-year-old King with a draft notice. Determined to rescue the holiday, Elvis bought $1,800 worth of fireworks. "What are you going to do?" the salesman asked as he loaded up the star’s Fleetwood limo. "Start World War II all over again?" Returning home with the ordnance, Elvis staged what was to become a Graceland tradition: Christmas Firework War. He rounded up his kin and handlers, chose up two teams, and marched them down to the cow pasture in helmets and goggles. Here, they spent the rest of day blasting each other with cherry bombs, bottle rockets, and roman candles. Elvis started one other holiday tradition that year too: the Christmas Cash trick. He laid out twelve $1,000 bills on his bed and called in a cousin or an aide. Soon he ducked out of the room on an imaginary emergency, then returned after awhile to see if all the cash was still there. The star was inducted into the Army in the Spring of 1958. His mother, Gladys, was devastated. She began to drink heavily. She died of liver failure late that summer. Elvis spent a mournful Christmas off-base in Germany with his father. He bought a BMW and almost killed himself in a car accident on New Year’s Eve. But The King went on to celebrate a decade of golden holidays. The beautiful ingenue Priscilla – the image of the teenaged Gladys – became the light of his life. After seven years of courtship, he gave her a diamond ring on Christmas day, 1966. Two years later, Priscilla gave the King a daughter, Lisa Marie. 1968 was the greatest Christmas ever in the Graceland Camelot. Elvis, celebrating his musical comeback that year, pulled out all the stops. He dressed Vernon up as Santa and showered his 11-month-old daughter with extravagances. He gave away hundreds of thousands to children’s charities. He doubled his bonuses to his “Guys,” the Memphis Mafia. And his Christmas Firework War lit up Memphis. Then night fell. Somehow the King’s love of firepower overwhelmed him. Not to mention his "Vitamin E"-- his narcotics. During the 1970 holidays, he marched into Kerr’s gunshop in L.A. with his bodyguards and spent $19,792 on thirty-two handguns. On December 21, he gave President Nixon a commemorative Colt .45 in exchange for a federal narcotics badge. Returning to Graceland from the White House, he caught hell from Vernon and Priscilla over his Kerr’s Christmas spurge, plus an $85,000 tab from a Mercedes dealership. The next season was even less cheery. Elvis was hit with a paternity suit, and Priscilla was fed up with his flings in Vegas and L.A. He tried to cajole her with another Christmas Cadillac, but she demanded ten grand and used it to move out of Graceland with the baby. The divorce was finalized two years later. The King doubled up on his Vitamin E. And now his white Christmases truly turned blue. He spent his next to last season holed up in his bedroom. From there, on his surveillance monitors, he watched his relatives drinking downstairs in the living room, impatiently waiting to be elfed by Elvis. On that Christmas Eve, he took his custom jet sleigh, the Lisa Marie, out for a spin above Memphis. With him were his Aunt Delta, his man Marty Lacker, and country singer T.G. Sheppard. After the night flight, while the Lisa Marie was taxiing back to the hangar, Delta told Marty, "I’m gonna shoot yer head off. All you want is Elvis’s damn money!" Marty could see that his boss’s aunt had a head full of Christmas cheer, was clutching a .38 in her purse, and hadn’t yet been paid off herself. Nor had he forgotten how Elvis’s other excitable aunt, Clettes, had pulled a butcher knife on him two seasons before. "Now why would you wanna do a thing like that, Delta?" Marty asked, Elvis looking on saucer-eyed. "I never done nothin' to you." Just as the old woman’s hand jerked out of the purse, Elvis staggered to his feet, hollered to his bodyguards and had her thrown off the plane. Later that evening, he burst into Delta’s bedroom, furiously wielding a cane, demanding she apologize to Marty and everyone else, or else leave Graceland. Suddenly back in the holiday spirit, his aunt – though she had no recollection of the incident now – hurried over to the phone and started making her calls. And surely then the King remembered seasons long past. Those magical Christmases when he and his family felt so much love and joy though they had nothing but their cow and chickens in Tupelo. - David Comfort comfort.jpgMr. Comfort is the author of three popular Simon & Schuster titles, and the recipient of numerous literary awards. His latest title from Citadel/Kensington, The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead, The Fatal Journeys of Rock’s Seven Immortals, is an in-depth study of the traumatic childhoods, tormented relationships, addictions, and tragic ends of Elvis, Lennon, Janis, Morrison, Hendrix, Cobain, and Garcia.