Thursday, November 18, 2004

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

While I get a great kick out of the way Staples uses that song in its commercial, the one where the father is joyfully skipping and trotting his way through the store collecting school supplies for his less than enthusiastic children, that’s not the rendition of the song that is on my mind tonight. No, tonight I am thinking about the Christmas season. When I was a child, one of my favorite Christmas traditions was when we would take a Christmas Eve drive into distant areas of Brooklyn and even out onto Long Island where a home would be transformed into a wonderland of lights, figurines, musical statues, and passersby would stand at the fence and marvel at the ingenuity, sparkle, and colossal waste of electricity and money. There is a town an hour or so away from Charlotte that is known for its holiday display of epic proportions. It’s not unusual for eager voyeurs to wait hours in traffic to drive the streets of that otherwise sleepy town during the weeks leading up to the day when we are supposed to celebrate a silent and holy night. Well, there is nothing silent or holy about the way we ramp up for the Christmas spectacle in this country. By the time November 1st rolls around, the lights are already being strung, the wreaths are being hoisted up lamp posts, and stores are stocking garland and foil icicles. At Target and WalMart, Halloween candy is on the shelf directly across from gaudy ornaments and Christmas stockings. Thanksgiving gets hopelessly lost in the shuffle, forgotten, except for poorly designed paper goods and frozen turkeys that seem to be bigger every year. Who really needs a 23 pound turkey? Or a stuffing mix that feeds 15? Just how many turkey sandwiches and turkey soups can one family stand? But more on turkey another day. Tonight my mind is on Christmas. Just the other day, I was at the mall with the kids looking for a cool cover for me cool new phone – which almost never rings. But when it does ring, I almost never get to it on time because I am so unaccustomed to the sound of it. I actually had it in my skirt pocket the other day and my son pointed out to me that it was ringing. It was in my right hip pocket! On the rare occasion that a call comes through, the thing rings, vibrates, and lights up – but I was completely oblivious. Sometimes I’m genuinely surprised that my husband leaves these two amazing human beings I gave birth to in my care and trusts that I won’t leave them somewhere in one of my cloud-gazing stupors. But back to Christmas – I was at the mall the other day, and there they were. Those stands, those carts, those kiosks that appear only at Christmas. The ones that sell odd assortments of odd meats for oddly high prices. I actually heard one woman express what appeared to be genuine excitement because of one of those meat trays. They appear at the mall in November. They remain there all day and all night until the middle of January. Who eats that stuff? What happens to the ones that don’t get sold? Are they returned to the warehouse where they wait for the next year? How long can meat retain its edibility when it’s not refrigerated for weeks at a time? I guess I ought to be asking a different question: is it, in fact, meat? Then there are the tins of cookies, fruit cake, and Christmas wines that people seem to buy by the ton and gallon, respectively. The ham in cans, the candied fruit in jars, and the candles that smell like candy canes, pine trees, and sugar cookies – all these things baffle me. Candles? Why not bake real cookies, put real flowers in a vase, and eat the candy canes? Ham in a can? Whose idea was that? And who was the first person who saw fresh ham next to ham in a can and thought that the latter was a good idea? Then there are those expensive, finely painted – some even from the inside, fragile tree ornaments. I must admit that many of them are exquisitely rendered. Whoever has a steady enough hand and a clear enough mind to paint an ornament on the inside without crushing it to bits in the other hand is undeniably talented. But who’s kidding who? How many of those $35 baubles survive more than one Christmas? I will say that we have received some amazing ornaments as presents down through the years, and they have all survived three or four Christmases. I would never and I will never buy such an ornament for us myself. Nor do I buy those balls that are made of that whisper thin, razor sharp glass. They are more fragile than light bulbs. They are held together by a wire that could pass between dry paint and drywall. They come off in your hand if you blink while you are hold them. And they sell in packages of 25 for $1.49. They are perfectly priced but terribly made. Isn’t it amazing how those things seem to turn into powdery shards when they inevitably fall from the tree onto the floor? It doesn’t matter how fine or thick or padded your carpeting, those things splinter into at least 155 pieces upon impact. They are impossible to pick up with bare fingers and under the pressure of the vacuum cleaner’s bristles, they fragment even further. But the tree decorating rules in our house are clear: the children help put up the plastic ones, the wooden ones they painted as toddlers, and then they back away from the tree for the rest of the season. I wire the expensive ones on to the top of the tree, and then I turn to them and remind them of their relationship to the tree for the remainder of the holiday festivities with all the Brooklyn bravado I can muster. “Stay away from this tree. Don’t even breathe on it. Don’t even look at it too hard. If I catch either one of you with your hand extended in the direction of this tree and your body happens to be within 15 feet of it, you will pull back a stump.” Or something along those lines, but couched in far more Christian and motherly terminology. But the single most inexplicable holiday phenomenon is the Chia pet. Sold only at Christmas time, shaped like animals, cartoon characters, plants, and assorted unidentifiable objects, those thingamabobs boggle my mind. I try to imagine the scene: it has been 365 days since last Christmas. The anticipation builds. The family rushes downstairs to the tree. Mom bellows from the top of the staircase: “Don’t anyone touch that tree or else. I will hand out the presents when I get down there.” Wrapping paper flies in every direction. New slippers. Diamond earrings. "Ooh." The latest Grisham bestseller. A scarf. "Aah." Luggage. A new tie. "Just the one I was hoping for." Barbie dolls. Nintendo. A Chia pet? Who ever asks for a Chia pet for Christmas? Somebody must be buying them, or they wouldn’t appear on the shelves of our finest establishments year after year. The commercials make it look so easy: Mix the seeds with water, spread the mix on the Chia, and keep it moist. Watch the weeds grow out of the holes through the top of the head. How does one follow such grand creativity and generosity? One goes to eat the ham from the can, the canned sweet potatoes with marshmallows (what are they made from?), the green beans topped with canned onion crisps, wash it down with the wine from the box, and follow all that fine festive fare up with the cookies from the tin and the shrink wrapped fruit cake. “What? This holiday is about the birth of a special baby over 2,000 years ago? What baby? Listen, can somebody pass the water pitcher? The Chia pet is looking a little dry.” For the record; my Christmas shopping is done. I’ll be sleeping till noon on the day after Thanksgiving! Happy Holidays.

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