Monday, December 21, 2009

What I'm Doing For Christmas (Thinking The Lions/Essays About Stuff.)

This is the time of year that people ask other people, "So, what are your [fill-in-the-holiday] plans?"

That's kind of an awkward question for me, because the first thing I think when people say So, what are your plans? is Why, what do you want me to do? I have to be constantly on my guard against people inviting me to do something, or people inviting themselves to do something with me; if I'm not careful, people will make me go to a holiday party, or they'll have a holiday party at my house and I'll be forced to be there for it, hoping that my clever/desperate choice of serving "Black Licorice in a Decorative Glass Mug" will be seen as funny or neat, rather than the move of someone who not only forget to buy hors d'ouevres but also never had anything to put the appetizers on in the first place.

The second thing I think of when people ask me So, what are your plans is this: Why do I have to have plans?

And the third thing I think of is: At present, my plans are to continue to monitor the slow but fun deterioration of our Christmas tree.

This is our Christmas Tree, as it exists right now, in a picture I took moments ago:

There are lights on the tree, but they're not on as it's only 3:30 in the afternoon and I don't put the Christmas tree lights on until later on in the day, unless we have company over, which I desperately try never to do. So the lights aren't on yet.

Sharp-eyed and long-memoried readers will note that this year's tree not only violates every single Christmas Tree rule I was raised to adhere to strictly, but also that it is more or less entirely home-made. This tree has ornaments that touch the branches, it has ornaments that violate the tough-but-fair guidlines on what is, or is not, an appropriate color for Christmas (appropriate: Red, green, gold, silver, but only in timeless, classy shades. Inappropriate: Blue, pink, orange.) It also has yarn, something that would never have passed muster on a tree supervised and implemented by either my mom or my dad.

This is not my mom and my dad's tree. It is, though, the tree of a person who doesn't like decorating trees, and it is the tree of a person who lives in a house where Mr Bunches and Mr F also reside.

Mr Bunches and Mr F aren't really classified as "3-year-olds" or "twins" anymore. They've moved beyond those into "Forces of Nature." Soon, I worry, pediatricians and babysitters and other professionals will begin describing them using those hurricane codes, and the Babies! will be tracked on SuperDoppler radar with little warning bands across the bottom of the screen: If you live in the following counties, Mr Bunches is heading your way and he's upset because he wanted to play with the spray hose at the sink, but he did NOT want Mr F to also play with it, too, so when Daddy said that Mr F got to also play with the spray hose, that was good cause for Mr Bunches to get off the counter and to take Mr F's Astro Boy figure and run into the living room, causing Mr F to forget that he wanted to play with the spray hose and get mad, mad enough to go to the downstairs play room and tip over the empty rack that usually holds DVDs but we got smart and finally moved the DVDs, because that way when Mr F tips it over, at least we don't have to pick up the DVDs, which is good because there's no time to stop Mr F since Mr Bunches is trying to go upstairs and throw his mattress around because he's still mad, remember?

That warning would take a while to scroll past, but you'd better heed it.

Last year, we dealt with the Babies! near-total lack of civilization by building what I referred to as "Fort Christmas" :

But that wasn't a permanent solution to the problem, and couldn't have been because it required a lot of work, and also because the Babies! can climb right over the fences now. It's a terrible thing when you can no longer corral your three-year-olds and have to start treating them like actual people, but that's the phase we've reached in our lives.

(While the Babies! can climb over the fences, The Boy cannot; we had a gate that we used in the upstairs hallway to keep the Babies! out of the bathroom and our room. It was more symbolic than practical, as either Mr F or Mr Bunches could get over it without much trouble, when they bothered to try. But it slowed them down and gave us that critical extra half-second necessary to keep toys and heads out of the toilet, so we used it, until The Boy couldn't get over the gate one day and crashed down onto it. Even repairing it with electrical tape [we were out of duct tape] didn't help, and after a couple of weeks of that, we gave up on the gates and resorted to locking the doors we don't want the Babies! to get into. The result of that, I'm sure, is that one morning Mr F or Mr Bunches will spontaneously figure out how to pick locks. Or they'll just tear the door down. Either way.)

Because I didn't want to go to the effort of building Fort Christmas again, I began, about a week ago, pondering what to do this year for the Christmas tree. I'd long ago abandoned my family's strict rules on that subject, anyway, and each year that I got further and further away from those ideas, I felt more and more freedom to just do what I wanted to do. By this year, I was free enough to know that I could wait to put up the tree until the week before Christmas (unforgivably late, in my family's honor code), and I thought perhaps I could tinker even more with the whole concept of a Christmas tree.

I briefly considered "Not having a tree this year," something I would be glad to do, but which I didn't think, in good conscience, I could actually let happen.

I'd be glad to not have a tree because the tree has never been a big part of the holiday for me. As a kid, the tree was scary. We spent hours walking around Christmas tree lots up by the A&W and Red Owl, watching Dad hold up trees and shake them, and Mom frown them off. We watched Dad saw the trunk and saw off branches and wire them into different places in the tree. We went through tense moments getting the tree into our stand, and making it stand level. We tested lights, and unwrapped six big boxes of fragile ornaments, each of which had to hang a certain distance from all other ornaments, and from all other branches. We hung tinsel, strand by tremulous strand, and then we spent the remainder of the Christmas season forbidden to go near the tree at all.

Then, as a young adult, my Christmas trees posed different problems: Raised to believe that only a "real" tree is a good tree, I snuck real trees into my apartments, then worried that landlords would find them and I'd be evicted just for following the rules of Christmas trees. Alongside that I worried that the real trees would catch fire and burn down the entire building, including me. I'd never worried that the trees would catch fire at home, but it seemed more dangerous in an apartment: Why else would they have rules against having trees in an apartment, if it wasn't because "real" trees were that much more likely to ignite like matches on a hot day once placed in an apartment?

Then, once married, Christmas trees became my own battle, first with Sweetie and the kids, who preferred all-white lights to colored lights. We were never allowed "all-white" lights on a tree as a kid, and I'd grown to associate doing that with lower-class, distasteful displays that the neighbors might look down on. But Sweetie liked the all-white look, and I eventually caved to that. I had a few years of my own battles with the kids, trying to get them to understand the importance of hanging ornaments the right way, and such, before I abandoned that, too.

That history of Christmas tree problems meant that I didn't care, much, whether we had a tree or not; it had always been a source of work, or worry, or trouble, for me, and I could easily not have one, except that not having a tree made me worry that things would fall apart the way they had when I'd stopped using birthday cards.

A few years back, I opted to stop buying birthday cards, except under two very limited circumstance: One, if I didn't get you a gift at all, I might get you a card -- or maybe not; if I didn't care enough to get a gift, the odds are I wouldn't bother picking out a card, either. Two, if I sent you a gift card or check, I'd send it in a card because an envelope with just a check in it seemed a little cold (and invited thieves to steal it, and one big part of my upbringing that I've never forgotten is that everyone, everywhere, is a potential thief and serial killer, so why ask for trouble?)

It didn't make sense, to me, to give Sweetie a card with her gift. She'd have to open and read the card (sometimes a long process, because for a wife or grandmother, you have to get a card that's heavy on text and roses) before opening the card, and the card always said something like "Happy Birthday, I love you," which is what I'd be telling her, anyway, over dinner.

"Don't forget to open the card!" people are always saying at gift-giving occasions, and I began to wonder why? What's the big deal with the card? Why can't you just say "Happy Birthday" when you give me the gift?

So I stopped buying cards. I just bought gifts, and gave them to people, and that had two results.

For most people, it perplexed them. They would pick up the gift I gave them and I could see them look around, nervously, waiting for someone to say "Don't forget to open the card!" Some people even asked "Is there a card?" When I'd say No, they seemed confused, and a little disappointed, but I stuck by my guns.

That was the result outside of our house. Inside of our house, the result was to completely break down the bounds of society, devolving us to near chaos.

My simple decision not to buy cards any more was welcomed by the kids and by Sweetie, who agreed that it was dumb to buy a card and that we'd just as soon not waste the two or three or four bucks cards cost now. I was proud of myself, until I saw what came next as we descended into the maelstrom.

It's not my fault, really; I couldn't have known that greeting cards were the fragile thread that held up the safety net preventing my family from descending into savagery, but they were.

Before long, we also didn't light candles on birthday cakes. Nobody in our house smoked, making it dicey to find a lighter or match (and our stove doesn't work that way.) So we'd put the candles on the cake but not light them, and then the candles dropped away because why have candles if you're not going to light them?

Once the candles were gone, the singing faded out, too. No more quavery versions of Happy Birthday To You, with guys trying not to sing on key so they didn't seem lame, no more slight hesitation while the kids try to figure out if they should sing Mom or her name, none of that. If we weren't going to light the candles that weren't on the cake, there wasn't much point of singing, right?

Then presents were not wrapped any more. They were put in their boxes, or into a gift bag, perhaps, but there wasn't even tissue covering them up if they were in a gift bag. That, too, made sense, in the long slow slide down; we're just going to tear the paper off, and it costs money, so why waste that extra funding?

I put the brakes on when we had a birthday where Sweetie was given her gifts by the kids, still in the bag from the store, with the tags on. The cake was on the table, people were milling around, and Sweetie was surrounded by what looked like the results of a recent shopping trip. We were, figuratively speaking, one rung above ruin, "ruin" being the kids just saying "Here's a couple bucks, buy yourself something nice."

So I re-imposed some rules: Presents must be wrapped -- nicely, I had to add, one year -- and tags removed. Cards were optional but the present must be purchased and made to look nice. Even with that, I'm still fighting: Oldest had me in the extended family gift-drawing this year, and we exchanged presents at my in-laws yesterday for that. Oldest "exchanged" with me by tossing me some of my asked-for dress socks, unwrapped and still tagged. "Sorry I didn't wrap them," she said, and wandered away.

If all that could come from not giving birthday cards, I could only imagine what the result of We're not going to have a Christmas tree would be; the kids would stop wearing pants, I figured, or would take up arson. Whatever it would be, I didn't want to find out.

But we still had the problem of the Babies!, the problem being that somehow we've never really instilled in them an understanding of the dichotomy between "things that are okay to pick up, touch, and throw at your brother"and "things that are just for looking at."

We try to teach them that. But it's tough, and sometimes at the end of a long day when the Babies! are crabby and it's 8:15 and I've got a cold and I still need to help The Boy with his homework and Sweetie's cleaning up the kitchen, sometimes then I decide that maybe my cell phone is okay to play with.

And then I try to figure out the best way to get chocolate off a cell phone.

Faced with the need to have a Christmas tree in order to stave off the older kids' transformation into Visigoths, and the need to not put out a collection of glass balls that would soon be ground into the floor and tiny feet, I came up with the solution of having a Christmas tree that celebrated all the great things of the season, the great things being paper, and yarn.

I'm not kidding -- paper and yarn are two household things we can have without worries, but I didn't sell it that way, of course. I sold it to Sweetie like this:

"We could take colored paper, and print up pictures of the kids and us and the family, and cut them into shapes, and hang those on the tree with yarn as a kind of family-photo Christmas tree."

Sweetie was sold on the sentiment and celebration of family that represented. Or, as she put it:

"That way, the Babies! can't pull it down and break everything."

So that's what we did. Saturday, I got out the basics of Christmas: The tree, the lights, the singing, dancing Cookie Monster who plays "Blue Christmas" when you press a button, but with these lyrics:

Me'll have a blue Christmas
Without me cookies

To those, we also added a Santa, and a rudimentary Nativity scene. I assembled the tree and began putting on the white lights while Sweetie and the Babies! and The Boy ran some errands. I got halfway up the tree when I realized that we were going to be short of lights, as many of the strands from last year were no longer working. (You'd think that when you pay a whole dollar for lights on the clearance shelf at the drug store, they'd last longer than one season, but there you go. That's our country for you.)

I called Sweetie and told her to pick up more lights. "About 400," I said.

Then I put together the rest of the tree and began printing the pictures to cut out. Sweetie and the kids got home with the lights.

"You win the battle," she said. "Finally."

I met her in the kitchen and said "What do you mean?" She held up 8 boxes of 50-light sets, multicolored.

"You finally get your colored lights," she said.

I took her out to the half-finished tree, wired from the ground to midway up with white lights.

"They didn't have any white lights," she said, so I began unstringing the white lights and then restringing them, intermingled with colored lights, while Sweetie and The Boy began cutting the pictures into Christmas-y shapes.

"What's a Christmas shape?" The Boy had asked. I pondered, and said:

"Stars, and circles, and diamonds."

"What's Christmas-y about a diamond?" The Boy asked.

"What's Christmas-y about a circle?" I fired back. I don't give in to his terrorism.

They went back to cutting, and I only had to intervene once, when I noticed that there were a lot of circles (sort of) and not a lot of stars -- and what I'd really wanted, most of all, was stars.

Then I had to give some guidance on the pictures that didn't lend themselves to Christmas shapes, pictures where the subjects were far apart, or obscured by things The Boy didn't think should be in the picture, like milk cartons or alligators. We decided that additional shapes could be used, shapes like oblong and I did the best I could.

Sweetie pitched in by glittering some of the pictures, and, when he got up from his nap, Mr Bunches pitched in by helping take the leftover yarn, yarn I'd strung on the tree as a sort of garland, and hanging some himself. Mr Bunches wasn't as focused or diligent as I was about making the yarn hang decoratively -- but he was more energetic than I was, and hung a great deal more yarn in a shorter amount of time.

It's easy to be efficient when you're three. Mr F helped out by trying to unstring the yarn, pulling at it as quickly as I could string it back up (but not as quickly as Mr Bunches could clump it onto the branches.) Then, when Mr F finally was dissuaded from that, he opted instead to get behind the tree, standing in between it and the wall (probably so that he could push it down on me when I least suspected it.)

It took the Babies! only a few minute to realize that they could pull the pictures off of the branches to create a good, clean ripping sound, and also to make the adults in the room instinctively yell No before we settled down and remembered that this was the whole point, to create a tree that the Babies! could touch.

"If they pull them all off," I told Sweetie, "We can always print and hang more," and in saying that, I not only created the world's first Disposable Christmas Tree, but also engaged in a little of the fiction of the holidays, the pretending that we would fix the tree. I knew we wouldn't, of course, print more pictures. If the Babies! pulled them all down, we'd never print, glitter, tie, and hang more pictures. We'd just shrug and get on with our lives, the way we already were doing when they pulled yarn down and then threw it back on, creating great loopy tangles that only enhanced the charm, from my perspective.

We wouldn't print more pictures, and we wouldn't straighten out the yarn, and we would probably be slow to stand the tree back up if they pushed it down, because Sweetie and I understand that Christmas isn't about trees and ornaments; it's about not doing stuff. It's about not having plans, about not overloading ourselves with errands and work and tree-trimming and shopping and all the other trappings of the holidays.

Our holidays don't involve days and days of baking Christmas cookies; instead, we tend to stop off at the diner and buy a couple of their perfectly-frosted Christmas cookies the kids and Sweetie like, because we want the cookies, and time to sit and eat them -- not the mess and trouble and hassle of getting the ingredients and baking them.

Our holidays don't involve the massive amounts of outside- and inside decorations that light up everyone's house. We like to look at them, but we don't want to freeze our hands off and spend weeks putting them up and then weeks protecting them from the Babies! and then weeks taking them down. So we blow up the Giant Inflatable Rudolph, hang the pictures and yarn on the tree, and then go dance with the Babies! to the Lady GaGa song they like for some reason, and relax a little.

Our holidays rarely involve having a houseful of guests over, or driving someplace on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. We'll go visit you if you want, or have you over if you insist -- but we probably won't do that on Christmas itself, as that day we'll be lounging around, still in pajamas at eleven as we sit around the kitchen table and tease The Boy and talk and watch the Babies! jumping on the couch, killing time until we make ourselves a dinner of mostly pre-prepared food and then go, as a family, to watch Godzilla or some other movie that, while not holiday-themed, is the movie the kids want to watch and will be enjoyable because of that.

Those are unorthodox choices, I know; they run contrary to the idea that we should have fancy trees with perfect decorations, not trees covered in whorls of yarn and a hodgepodge of lights. They go counter to the image of families gathering around a sumptuous table with a centerpiece of turkey or goose, of moms and kids cutting out cookies and decorating them, of friends and families gathered in Christmas sweaters to talk and joke and laugh and be loud and stay late. The way I spend my holidays now is not the way most people spend their holidays, and not the way I spent my holidays as a kid.

But it's the perfect way to spend the holidays, for me. It's perfect because there's no stress, no trouble, no bickering and late nights and hard drives and excessive clean-up. Instead, I spend days and nights around this time of year sitting and joking with the kids, reading to the Babies!, snuggling up to Sweetie as I watch Bad Santa and she pretends to sleep but is probably secretly watching it, too.

And when you ask me, What are your plans for the holidays?, that's why I hesitate a little: Not because it's hard to explain, and not because I'm embarrassed about those plans. If there's a better way to spend Christmas Eve than sleeping in followed by chasing Mr Bunches around and then playing a game with Mr F, eating lunch and talking football with The Boy, asking the girls what they hope they get most for Christmas, and then sitting in the dark eating pizza rolls and watching horror movies, I can't imagine what that better way might be.

No, I'm not embarrassed or at a loss for words. I hesitate to answer the question What are your plans for the holidays because if I told you what I'm really doing, you'd probably want in, and that'd spoil it.


Hampers said...

Nice blog. Your Christmas tree looks wonderful. Your decorations are really awesome. It was nice going through your blog. Have a wonderful Christmas.

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