Breaking Tradition

I love Christmas. I love Christmas so freaking much. It surprises people because I am loudly atheist and I guess that seems like a big disconnect. I don’t notice because I always forget that Christmas is about Jesus. I get excited about finding memorable gifts and knitting scarves and baking pies. I had to make a rule that I couldn’t start Christmas shopping until after Labor Day (a rule I have frequently broken in the past) but to make up for it I am allowed to MAKE gifts all year round. (Not pies, obviously.)

The sad this is that I love Christmas so much I usually ruin it. I realized some time ago that I have this habit of trying to recreate the perfect Christmas, which doesn’t exist. Or rather, in my mind, is actually a combination of memories from several Christmases from my 43 years with all the bad parts snipped out. Nothing could ever live up to my expectations. My family would come and I would be waiting for the magic to start, but their excitement didn’t match mine. Which made me anxious. They aren’t having fun! I’m doing it wrong! So then I’d open up some wine to try to “fix” it. After an hour or so I’d be drunk and go to bed, and then next morning I would realize I had ruined it yet again.

This year, my 43rd Christmas, was supposed to be one of the *good* Christmases. Those are the ones where my sister and her husband and their two children come out from Seattle and we have a big Christmas with our entire family all together in one house. But this is not going to be one of the *good* Christmases. This is going to be a COVID Christmas (hopefully it will be “The” COVID Christmas), and no one is going to gather, much less travel from Washington. I’m feeling cheated and sad about the whole thing. But maybe it is a good thing? I can’t ruin anyone’s Christmas this year but my own. And Matt’s. Sorry, Matt!

I can’t say I’ve been dreading this weekend. I’ve just been pretending it’s not coming up. And then, when I couldn’t do that anymore, I’ve been pretending it isn’t a big deal. I’ve been feeling this pull to do the complete opposite of ruining Christmas with my insane enthusiasm. I’ve been wanting to ruin it in a new way, by skipping Christmas altogether and stay in bed with a book. Like a readathon in grade school! Those were the only times I felt safe as a bullied kid in public elementary school: double-insulated by hiding inside a book, under a metal legged desk. I grew up in the 80s when they still did they occasional “hide under your desk, it might save you from having your cells liquified by an atomic weapon!” drill. I didn’t worry about that so much. That was just a faint possibility. Other children were my Cold War, and they showed up every goddamned day.

I was thinking about this great episode of This American Life from many years ago, where they tackle the issue of the repetitive side of the holidays, where people do the same twelve things every year because they are traditions and because it brings up those memories of years past. It’s a fraught enterprise, I have decided. It’s comfortable, sure. Like settling in to your own well worn butt grove in your favorite chair. But it is also a high pressure delusion. You HAVE to get it just right, or you BLEW IT! And if you DO get it just right, you will never truly be sure which Christmas you are remembering when looking back on it, because you went to the same performance of The Nutcracker for 35 years in row.

With that in mind, this year, I’m blowing off the traditions and trying to do some new things. We can’t do the traditions, anyway, so why not? Matt and I sat down and planned the Christmas Eve and Christmas morning menus, choosing new recipes we have never made before. We drove to the Salt Flats, west of Salt Lake City, to see “the great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, which cannot be repeated for another 60 years, so no traditions there!

The hope is that it will help me to miss everyone less, because I’m not eating our family’s traditional Christmas oyster stew and looking around my table at all the people who aren’t there. Which, frankly, is a bonus because I don’t like oysters. I usually just eat the potatoes and the bacon and fling the little oyster bits into potted plants or dog’s mouths when no one is looking.

Besides going to see “The Christmas Star,” as people are calling it (I suppose because it has a more romantic ring than “The Planetary Alignment Which Happened to Occur on Earth’s Winter Solstice”), I also made my first Yule log. I’ve been doing some research on Pagan traditions and I read that the old custom was to throw a large log on the fire to celebrate the return of the longer days and the sunshine. In the 19th century, it became a cake that looks like a log. I’ve seen pictures before but it always looked too difficult and time consuming. This year, I decided to make one to celebrate solstice, and because what the hell else am I going to do?

It was easier than I thought it would be. There is this great recipe online that has videos showing the rolling part, which was great, because I couldn’t picture it at all. (Don’t skimp on the powdered sugar on that step! It will save you and your dishtowel some stress!) More than that, it was fun! Something completely new. And, if I do say so myself, it was damn yummy.

This is my strategy for the next week. Don’t try to make it perfect. Don’t try to make it terrible in revenge for the fact that it won’t be perfect. Just let it be what it is and find some adventure as a distraction from the fact that I won’t get to see my sisters or hug their kids.

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope they are either perfectly mediocre or memorable in a good way.

R

Does Your Christmas Need Some Krampus?

Mine did, but I didn’t know it! Not until I took a shortcut through a little neighborhood trying to avoid shopping traffic last weekend and saw this:

Do you see it?

One of these things is not like the others, right?

What? The? Holy? Fuck?!

It has plastic hands but that is fur of some kind. I took a friend by the next day in the rain and it looked even crazier when it was soaked.

It reminds me of Ethan’s books on extinct Ice Age animals, so I’ve been calling it a sloth.

But my friend Gina was like, “That’s a Krampus!”

Neither is quite right. I’m just going to call it the Christmas Beast and thank my lucky stars that I turned left on that street!

Christmas Bites

At some point in the week, a truck (I assume?) came through the neighborhood and collected the discarded Christmas trees. I didn’t see it happen. One day I saw the trees lying in the gutter, a corpse in front of every home, and I thought of the Monte Python line, “bring out your dead!” Then the next afternoon they were gone. One final Christmas magic trick.

My holidays were a whirlwind. As a new step parent, I am learning that Christmas with a child is much more fun, but so much more work! It is possible that we over-do it. The kids don’t need the dozens of elaborate recipes executed to perfection, for instance. They are so focused on Santa and toys and chocolate… and… and… and… But it all feels so important! Who knows what will stick out for them in the decades ahead? What smell, taste, or activity will come to symbolize “Christmas” when they are my age and looking back on it all? That is what we are trying to accomplish here. We simply aren’t baking cookies and roasting turkeys and instigating sword fights with the spent wrapping paper rolls. We are constructing memories! We are making happy childhoods! What could be more important?

I can’t pretend it is only for the kids, I suppose. I always put way too much effort into Christmas. I always expect too much from the day. And I nearly always ruin it for myself by trying too hard and indulging too much. It’s a character flaw of mine, and it burns brightest during the holidays. Do other families have that person, too? The one who goes overboard, wanting everyone to feel her love vibrating through her gifts? The one baking up a storm, wearing light-up earrings, and wearing everyone else out with her enthusiasm? I hope not. I’m exhausting. I wouldn’t wish myself on anyone else’s family, either.

At one point before my family arrived, I started a blog post, but I didn’t finish it in time to post for the holidays. There never seemed to be any TIME! I was too busy putting antlers on things (see below). I’m finishing it now and posting, belatedly. Just in case there was someone else out there who found, once the trees vanished from the street, they weren’t quite ready for Christmas to be over, despite it all.

~~~

Every year, I take note of the holiday honking, but then I quickly forget about it. What is that all about? Most of the year, I will occasionally hear someone honking their horn at another car, usually for truly bad behavior. But between Thanksgiving and Christmas, an epidemic of honking breaks out. People are in a hurry, and they are self-absorbed. Everyone has end-of-year deadlines for work and a shopping list the length of their forearm and no time for your bullshit. Each day it hear multiple people honking at cars for making legal maneuvers too quickly or too slowly, or just for existing in space and time. Someone honks at every light the second it turns green. People honk at jaywalkers and bollixed pedestrians wandering aimlessly though a parking lot as if concussed, trying to make sense of it all. Don’t we all feel a little shell-shocked? Can’t we employ a little compassion?

No. This is not the season for compassion. It is the season for douchebaggery. And for grumbling over the line at the post office, at noon on December 19th, when what in God’s name did you think you would find going there on your lunch break? And it is the season for treating retail workers like foam stress balls to be crushed between the fingers and the palm because we are human and therefore terrible.

I was in line at the grocery store’s post office and the woman in front of me was glaring at a the lady at the scale, who was wearing a name tag that said “Hello! I am in training!” I looked over the shoppers shoulder to read the message she was typing on her phone, which said, something to the effect of “OMG, I’m NEVER getting out of here!”

I quickly saw the problem. They woman was trying to save time by posting a package at the grocery store. No big deal. Same thing I was doing. Only this woman was sending something to Myanmar, or Somesuch. And the poor lady behind the counter (who was in her fifties, at her first week of this new job, thinking she was going to be selling eggs and deodorant), was furiously trying to learn how to fill out the customs form. She was asking for her co-workers to help her, but they didn’t know either. Because this is a grocery store! You take complicated crap to a real post office! Especially two days before Christmas! After the woman sent her text, she looked back at me and rolled her eyes with luxurious indignance, inviting me to join in the shaming of the proletariat in the apron. I declined, gazing behind me, as if to see who she was looking at. The man behind me had a shopping cart full of packages; I counted fifteen. This is another shipping mission that, at least during the holidays, should be saved for the real post office, in my opinion. I tried to tell him so with my eyes, but I don’t think he got the message.

After I mailed my small package to an adjacent US state, I wandered back into the store to pick up some chocolates and eggnog flavored salt water taffy to fill up stockings. I stopped at a table for a free sample of brie and sour cherry preserves on a lemon flavored cracker, and as I licked every microscopic crumb off my thumb and index finger I asked myself, “what is wrong with everyone! It’s Christmas! It doesn’t have to be ‘every man for himself!’ Just don’t be an ass-hole. And take deep breaths. Especially in long lines. Keep your sense of humor and we will all get through it together!”

I was still thinking this as I walked out through the sliding glass doors and out to my car, when I passed a white haired lady and her male companion, probably her husband. “Oh, my!” She said to me, and I stopped. I thought maybe she was going to ask if she knew me. I have one of those faces and I get that a lot. “You have a beautiful, smile!” she exclaimed instead, making my day, my Christmas, and my year.

“Thank you so much for saying that!” I said, deciding at the last second not to hug her. “Merry Christmas!” I said to her and her fellow, and I walked to my car.

Here is my Christmas wish for everyone: be that lady. I know, Christmas is Carnage. It is exhausting, and it will kick your ass. Especially if you are a Mom. (Sorry guys, but that’s what I have witnessed. See this Onion article for reference.) But you can focus on the smiles, and call them out when you see them. And if possible, instead of making cashiers go home in tears, make someone smile.

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Gifted Hands

I ordered a pair of gloves for my nephew for Christmas. They arrived just now. Judging by the description on the tag, I feel that they should have been much more expensive. 

 

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