Sunday, December 26, 2010

X is for Xmas

When I was a kid, my brothers and I woke up on Christmas Day in darkness, usually around 4:30.  We'd huddle together, experiencing one of the least-explored aspects of relativity, which is that the speed of the passage of time is inversely proportional to how quickly you would like it to pass.  We were forbidden to go downstairs until our parents were up, so we simply seethed in the dark.  An hour or two later it would be 4:45 and we'd be on the verge of insanity.  At five, we'd be jumping up and down on their beds.

Now that I'm no longer a child, I'm amazed that more parents don't simply throttle their children.  Unbeknownst to us, my mother and father had been up all night, putting up the Christmas tree and decorating it, wrapping presents, and nipping from time to time on the bottle of brandy they put out for Santa -- just so they could show it to us to prove that he'd dropped by and had five or eight for the road.  They sometimes got so enthusiastic about proving Santa's existence that they emptied the bottle and had to mix a small amount of instant coffee with water so we wouldn't think Santa had drunk it all.

In any event, they had probably gone to sleep around 4 AM, none the worst for all the celebratory tilts of the brandy bottle.  In the best of all worlds -- for them, anyway -- there wouldn't have been three hyperactive children bouncing on their mattresses at 5:10 in the morning.

But they let all three of us live, and my father would go downstairs in the dark alone, and when he'd plugged in the tree and started some Christmas music, we were allowed to go down the stairs and see our living room transformed into Aladdin's cave.  And then came the frenzy: tearing off the wrappings, the moment of ecstasy (or disappointment), the quick check to see what the brothers were opening, the search for the next one, and repeat.  Over and over until everything was open, we were hip-deep in wrapping paper, it was 7:15 AM, and the remainder of the day yawned, gray, cold, and gift-free, in front of us.

I have to say that I'm not certain that the American Christmas is good for children.  Despite the best efforts of our parents, it was essentially a prolonged paroxysm of greed followed by a long day of letdown.  Spirit, if you don't count the brandy consumed on Christmas Eve, was conspicuously absent.  It was also a useless bit of training, because there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in adult life, that requires the skills a little kid learns on Christmas morning.

And there's also the fact that this personal little family ritual has been multiplied by millions of families and the manipulations of marketing experts into the most materialistic of all holidays, an orgy of brand names, bogus price cuts, mass-media adrenaline, and the pointless squandering of family resources.  All to celebrate the birth of a man who preached the spiritual value of poverty and chased the moneylenders from the Temple.

I'm writing this at 4 PM on Christmas Day, at dusk.  The day is drawing to a close, and although the house isn't hip-deep in wrapping paper and inhabited by sullen, over-sugared kids, I have to say that I'll be glad to see the end of it.  The day after Christmas, since I don't intend to go within a mile of any stores, seems like a bright island of normality to me.

But I hope all of you had a great time.  And it'll be months before we hear "Jingle Bells" again.


  1. Tim,

    You sell your early life experience short. You learned patience, discipline, and the essence of all water torture techniques.

    Happy Holidays.


  2. I agree, Tim. To me, December 26th IS the first day of the new year. I can't speak for all men nor for all women--obviously--but my impression is that, making a WILDLY broad generalization, Christmas is a womens' and childrens' holiday. Women tend to be much more into the TRADITION and NOSTALGIA of Christmas, and the fun of propogating what they remember to their children and grandchildren, whereas men tend to want to avoid the HASSLE of Christmas and get on with life.

    I said it was a wild generalization. But that's why my wife and daughter have already left to go shopping for the day, and I'll be here at home, happily working away at whatever needs working.

    And wearing my traditional Bah-Humbug T-shirt that I wear every Christmas season. Whoever it was that said that men weren't nostalgic and didn't have traditions... well, he was nothing but an old Scrooge...

  3. When my oldest daughter decided she was responsible for instilling proper Christmas etiquette in her siblings, she instituted the rotation process of gift opening. The youngest opens a gift which is properly admired by his siblings, then it is the turn of the middle one, and then the oldest. Then the cycle starts again. This means, of course, that everyone has to have the same number of gifts and it is my responsibility to ensure that this happens. This has required me to come up with some creative methods of wrapping things.

    As adults, they maintain the rotation tradition. This means that the gift opening can go on for an extended period of time. Books make up most of each person's wish list and, since their interests are very similar, each book as opened has to be passed around so that another rotation is created: who gets to read it after the recipient. That in turn leads to negotiations about how long each person can hang on to the book before it is passed on. Gift opening is a long process, each one complementing the others on their superb taste.

    This is also the year of the non-exciting but very welcome gift cards for necessities.

    Today is a day for battening down the hatchets (a word introduced when the middle one was about five and misheard hatches). Starting some time this afternoon, into tomorrow evening, we are expecting 18- 20 inches of snow. The wind speed will be high enough, that combined with the duration of the storm and the amount of snow, this storm will be an official blizzard.

    So, we, and just about everyone else on the eastern seaboard, are getting in some extra milk and bread and gas for the snow blower. Since I already have enough food in the house to feed an army for a week, the overall storm prep is less frenetic.

    Since schools are closed for the week, the state and city governments are less pressed and can focus on the roads.

    I have a bigger stack of books than I can realistically expect to finish in a month so I am already.

  4. Hi, Jeffrey, and thanks for the laugh. We also learned envy, when a brother got something we wanted. And that's served me well throughout my adult life.

    Everett, I'm not going to touch that "women's and children's" thing except to note that the majority of shoppers who buy their presents after 7:30 on Christmas Eve are overwhelmingly male, or so it says in one of those "studies" people are always commissioning. I actually love giving presents, but my wife, who's Chinese, had virtually no Christmas tradition in her own family and the presents thing makes her nervous. If she thinks I need anything in, say, August, she goes out and gets it for me, and that's that. So I've stopped the big Christmas deal and we just spend the day alone and largely in silence, and dedicate it to focusing on our trillions of blessings.

    Beth, I'm perfectly willing to believe that your family observed Christmas in a more civilized and less MEEEEEE MEEEEEEE fashion than mine did. You're the kind of person whose kids are most likely to appreciate that the meaning of the holiday isn't hidden somewhere under the gift wrap. Good luck in the snow, and isn't it great to have a big TBR pile? As I grow, ahem, older, I find that three things make me feel rich: A whopping balance of unused frequent flyer miles; a huge pile of good firewood; and enough unread books to get me through a year in the belly of the whale.

  5. Keep in mind, Tim, that the kid patrol is led by a very bossy older sister who decided she was in charge of her siblings since the parents are old and a bit out of touch. Before the younger two were old enough to read, she had the distribution of gifts under control. She hasn't allowed anyone to deviate from the path.

    We live in an area where there are, unfortunately, many who are without most of the things people take for granted. We have a very large homeless shelter that was started in the basement of what was the school. Before it opened it was too small. Over the years it has moved to ever larger quarters and it has become an interfaith shelter, all the churches and synagogues in the area, not just the city I live in, in take responsibility for making sure it is available for those who need it. Over the years, it has had to move to bigger quarters because the need keeps growing. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day all responsibilities for the running of the shelter and the meals are taken by the Jewish organizations and individual volunteers, leaving the Christians free to be with their families.

    All the religious and civic organizations also take responsibility for providing dinner for guests at another shelter that buses people in from Boston. High school students are among the volunteers that keep it open.

    From kindergarten through high school, every school and every religious education program sponsors clothing drives, supports food pantries, organizes older kids as volunteers at the shelters and makes sure kids who have know how lucky they are to be able to help other kids who don't. Kids like getting presents; they love giving them.

    If we were rich we wouldn't live here and my kids would have been the losers for not having been able to give, knowing that so much of it was staying in the community. Children have to learn at home but it has to be fostered by the community and it has to be seen with reference to the community. There but for the grace of God go I doesn't have much impact if it isn't seen in context.