Thursday, December 4, 2008

'Tis the season....

One of the great things about having a blog is that you can say whatever you please. This will be one of those days, cathartic for me. Since I started writing here in January, I never had reason to go into this subject. I will now, just to get it out of the way: it's not that I dislike Christmas. I do like the idea of it. I just make it my business to get through December with as little of it as possible.

In this space you'll find a few Christmas songs maybe sometime during the week before Christmas Day. But not before. I just can't get into the frenzied merrymaking. Life is pretty much the same during the month of December as it is at any other time of the year; Christmas is merely a day in the month. The lead-up to that day is typically filled with activities I can't stand, mainly shopping at malls and an endless round of crowded standup parties where I can't hear what's being said by all the short people around me, and everybody eats and drinks too much. In this consumerist society of ours, where we were exhorted, "Be patriotic! Go shopping!" after 9/11, the winter holidays represent the pinnacle of that lucre-larded way of life.

This jaded attitude comes, of course, from Christmases past in my own life. The season seemed to bring out the most unpleasant traits in my family, and it only progressed from bad to worse. First, it was just seeing my parents drink too much at parties I was too young to be at but were too far away for me to be left at home alone. Then my brother-in-law (my sister's ex-husband) entered the family. He is Eastern European, a refugee from the bad old Iron Curtain days, who bought the American way of conspicuous consumption hook, line and sinker. Along the way, he enabled the worst qualities in my parents, entering their lives when they were transiting from their 40s to their 50s and only too happy to resume the party-hearty life they had enjoyed in their own youth. He lived mortgaged to the hilt, a true believer in "using other peoples' money." My sister and her family always traveled to our Falls Church house for Christmas, no matter where they were living, so the holiday became, for me, an inescapable orgy of toys, cardboard and wrapping paper that only grew along with the family. By the time all four of the kids were born, you literally could not see the Christmas tree. It was buried beneath presents not just under it, but climbing up it, leaning against it.

Of course, that was once we even got a tree. My father, ever thrifty, never bought one until close to midnight on Christmas Eve, the better a bargain to find. So the fabled "Night Before Christmas" in our house had anything but the sense of peace and awe described in the poem. It was an alcohol-fueled late-night frenzy of putting up and trimming some poor, picked-over tree, and the last-minute wrapping of those hundreds of presents. Add to that the record player blaring and voices yelling over it, and you have a perfect storm of insanity. (The question does occur to me: why was I constitutionally unable sit back and just enjoy it all? It probably had something to do with being a repressed, closet-case gay teenager. But all I knew at the time was that I hated everything about Christmas in my parents' house.)

My natural reaction to all this is to make Christmas as low-key as possible in my own life. Steve is from a family tradition the complete opposite of mine: they lived so much to themselves that they never entertained at all; his mother wasn't much of a cook, so their idea of a festive meal was something different, to say the least, than what I may imagine. She was a master craftswoman, though. Their tree may have been aluminum, but it was hung with ornaments she made herself. And her house was always neat and beautifully decorated. There was that sense of order that was so lacking in my own experience.

As far as the observation of Christmas is concerned, then, Steve and I complement each other perfectly. I bring a bit of festivity and good food, and Steve brings his quiet and that inherited sense of decorative beauty. In our earlier years we were known for the big Christmas party we threw. We catered all the food ourselves, with pat├ęs, a turkey, a Virginia ham, hundreds of hors d'oeuvres we served from silver salvers as we circulated in the crowd, cheeses, fruits, cookies, nuts, home-made egg nog--a true groaning board. We stopped that blowout after about a dozen years because we got tired of the cleanup, but we still try to have a festive dinner with our good friends. Once that dinner is over, so, for us, is Christmas, for all intents and purposes. On Christmas day we quietly exchange presents, and then we gird ourselves for the onslaught at my sister's house, where the tradition of insanity reigns, driven by her, her kids, her kids' kids and their various husbands/partners. There are more of 'em than there ever were in Falls Church.

God love 'em. If that's Christmas, great. As long as you can leave it at somebody else's house.


Linda - SE PA said...

And I am glad you wrote of this topic! I've had good Christmas(s), so-so and some disappointing ones.

Childhood was good - even though I didn't ever receive the asked for (and much wanted) brother or sister. Toys, clothes - you name it until I was thirteen. Then money in an envelope. This may of been one of those life lessons, parents try to teach although I sense this is my rationale. However, it did teach me how, seemingly, in a blink of an eye,things can change drastically.

Then adulthood - good times, etc. etc. When I relo'd here, there was a woman who did Open Houses/Pot Luck dinners for the holidays. Our first Christmas event was a surprise to everyone. It was an invite by word of mouth and we had company coming all day and evening. Party lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Some people spent the day, some came after visiting, some came because they said "they would rather". Life Lesson again - Invite folks because they rarely will say that they are lonley during the holidays or that they have no plans.

Malls - I stay away from them all year long. Too expensive - too many boutiques and the anchor stores here are not the top tier ones (meaning we have a department store that carry say what the City stores do). Who knew stores were A grade etc?

Anyways, I close my comments.

Ralph said...

Glad I didn't offend you, Linda. Everybody's so hellbent on being HAPPY around now that the merest note of realism can come off as bah-humbug.

That all-day party sounds really great!

Peewit said...

The thing I really hate about Christmas is that it is starting earlier and earlier. Our local Costco had Christmas decorations in since the beginning of September and Tesco started stocking Christmas foods on November 1 (i.e. the day after Halloween)(Never mind the fact that most of the expiry dates are well before 25/12 (sorry you prefer 12/25 don't you, never could get the hang of that!))

Add into the mix that we have 3 kids' productions to attend plus my wife's carol concert, my eldest's orchestra christmas performance, office meals and our traditional Xmas pubcrawl (been going every year since 1993 and still going strong!) I am already sick of Christmas.

I heard a Monk interviewed on the radio on Sunday suggesting "we should pray now, shop later". I think I'm with him. I prefer your dad's idea of only decorating on Christmas Eve. After all the feast is supposed to be the Twelve days of Christmas that STARTS with December 25th not the forty days of Christmas that ends with it!

The verification word is "unscoagy" ; Douglas Adams once wrote a small book called "the meaning of Liff" where he invented words (or reused place names) for common conditions that were un-named. I hereby decree the despising of christmas to be described as Unscoagy from now on!

Cuidado said...

I hope this works from this IE which I'm not used to:
Get Me Through December - Alison Krauss & Natalie MacMaster:

Heck I can't get it to work. Page two of my music pages, Ralph. The perfect song for you and me. I'm just like you about Christmas.

Ralph said...

Thanks for another Alison Krauss, Cuidado. It's a beautiful song, although thank goodness I'm not THAT depressed!

Kat said...

Christmas at our house was so much fun that I still carry that with me as do my sisters.

I can't even tell you the last time I was at a mall, but I've finished my shopping without ever stepping into one. I love poking in little stores and antique shops for fun, different gifts.

During the season, my friends and I get together, drink delicious egg nog, laugh, play games and have fun. I've never been invited to the parties you've described. We must travel in far different circles.

I thank my parents for instilling in all of us a love for this season, and I wish I could share some with you.

Ralph said...

Kat, there's no question that your upbringing in a smaller community (despite the fact that you were in Boston's shadow) gave you a leg up on the idyllic holidays you describe and I know you experience. I actually have memories of a few of them myself on Meadow Lane, before my family went through so many changes. I'm sure it was those simpler and quieter Christmases that I was longing for when all the havoc started.

I normally avoid standup cocktail parties like the plague, but when they take place at work, that's just about impossible. Remember, this was the Peace Corps. You know what crowd that is. Literally every day of some week leading up to Christmas there was at least one office party it was politic to attend. If it wasn't booze and nibblies it was desserts--the Medical Office, of all places, was famous for its dessert parties. I get a toothache just remembering it!

If you re-read the post you'll see that all is not bleak. We're in a position now to pick and choose what we want to do and can enjoy the holiday in our own way, which is a mix of my big-city experience and Steve's (and my) quiet family memories. But we don't do nearly as much as many people we know do. And this year especially, with the house constantly "in process," neither of us has much inclination to add one more thing that needs to be picked up later. We're kind of hoping somebody else will do a party just a bit bigger than the one we're doing tonight.