Thursday, December 23, 2010
Deconstructing Christmas, Part 2:
This is part 2 of my annual Christmas essay; read part 1 here.
It's December 23 now, at 6:30 a.m. I'm sitting in a mostly-dark living room listening to "Music For A Found Harmonium."
It still doesn't really feel like Christmas, even though it almost is, even though I'm officially on my Christmas vacation and don't have to work until next week, even though the tree decorated with candy canes and all-new white lights is right behind me and even though last night I again devoted my time to charity and went bell-ringing for two hours, just like last year.
Sweetie, meanwhile, is upstairs dozing and watching The Closer's Christmas episode -- a TV show featuring several murdered refugees from the Kosovo war... and Christmas.
And it's all got me thinking: If a television show about homicide can have annual Christmas traditions -- if we feel that strongly about society that everyone and everything has Christmas traditions, even This American Life which this week was about Christmas comedy and featured kids telling lame Christmas jokes and stories from comedians about Christmas -- did I mess up Christmas by reducing the traditions, the ceremonies, and rituals around it and other holidays?
This year was the first year, after all, that I haven't decorated outside at all (which makes it seem ironic that today's newspaper has a front-page AP story about the psychological benefits societies get from putting up external Christmas decorations), and decorating outside for me isn't even that troublesome: we have our inflatable decorations, so they just need to be plugged in and let to stand there. All I have to do is drag Giant Rudolph and the Three Drunken Reindeer and Pete The Patriotic And Now Christmas-y Parrot out there, plug them in, and I'm done.
And I haven't even done that.
A few years back, I wrote an essay called "My Christmas Tree Rules" (you can find it here), the point of which was that all the rules I'd learned about decorating Christmas trees as a kid -- all the ornaments can't touch branches and how to hang lights and the like -- had been thrown out of my life, resulting in a gloriously fun and easy and personal Christmas tree that was not a big hit with my parents but which I loved because it symbolized my life now and the freedom with which I'd found I could live my life.
And over the years, I've picked apart Christmas music, and listened to non-Christmas music while doing Christmas-y things, like when I played The BoDeans first album and decorated the tree, and I've often made note of the fact that as a family we've traditionally watched a movie on Christmas and traditionally that movie has been one that seems more or less inappropriate for the holiday -- the first such movie, ever, resulted in this exchange with my Mom, who we hadn't seen on Christmas Eve because of snowfall:
Mom: So what did you end up doing with the kids?
Me: We made everyone whatever dinner they wanted, went sledding, and then watched a movie as a family.
Mom: What movie did you watch?
It gets worse -- for three years running, our movie has been a horror movie, including, one year, Halloween.
And then, last year, our Christmas tree took a turn for the decidely less traditional: we didn't even get out the ornaments last year, because the Babies! were too big to wall out with Fort Christmas but weren't communicating well and were at the stage of development, more or less, where we could all too easily picture them simply tearing down the tree over and over, so we opted to dispense with Christmas ornaments, per se, and instead, we bought colored paper and printed up a hundred or so family photos, which we then all cut into holiday-esque shapes like stars and, really, just circles, because how many holiday shapes are there, after all? Most shapes are pretty generic: squares and circles and diamonds that are basically squares standing on their toes, and those shapes that aren't generic -- moons and stars and horseshoes -- inevitably make every modern human being think of Lucky Charms -- and then we hung the pictures on the tree with yarn, and lit it, and the effect was very nice in a couple of ways -- first, it was colorful and very personalized and looked rather nice, like a home version of the tree that was on the teacher's desk in third grade, and, second, it didn't matter what the Babies! did to it, because if they pulled the tree over (and they did) we'd stand it back up and if they pulled the ornaments off (and they did) we'd print up more, so our tree made it through the Christmas season in fine form.
This year, I decided we'd do something similar but not the same: We decorated, as I said, with candy canes, and this year Mr Bunches got excited about the tree, and helped out with it, hanging not just candy canes on the tree but also his own personal Christmas ornaments, those being a baton he'd gotten at the Dollar Store, some vacuum cleaner attachments he likes to play with, and a piece of a cardboard tag from one of his toys.
We left each of those on the tree, as you'd expect. In the past, Mr F and Mr Bunches noted the tree only insofar as they could topple it. This year, not only did Mr F pay attention to the tree (mostly to remove the candy canes Mr Bunches put on; Mr F is, like me, a deconstructionist and prefers taking things apart; he cannot abide to see things put together and if you put him in front of, say, a perfectly-assembled Mr Potato Head he has trouble sitting still until he is given a chance to remove all the parts and lay them on the floor.)(Make of that what you will, geneticists.)
Which is all maybe part of the point - -it's not, I guess, that I've totally taken apart Christmas and left it in shambles. There are still traditions, such as they are, that I and Sweetie and the kids and the Babies! take part in. Sweetie and the girls baked cookies and cupcakes for Christmas the other day, the return of an old tradition that took root when Sweetie and I were dating and I was poor and for Christmas presents for my family I baked cookies and made home-made snowman ornaments, the cookie-baking taking place in my tiny cramped apartment with the half-sized stove, Sweetie working by balancing one of the two cookie trays on a kitchen chair while I took the 2-square foot kitchen counter.
As is the tradition, too, we haven't actually been allowed to eat the Christmas cookies, because they're being saved to take to her sister's tomorrow on Christmas Eve, and that's just like when we were kids and Mom would bake all kinds of goodies for Christmas Eve and then store them in Tupperware in the garage for weeks before we ate them, and just thinking about that makes me amazed at how different I am now than I was then, because nowadays I would never store any food in my garage, no matter how well-wrapped and well-preserved it is; I once threw out a coffee cup that had sat on a shelf in the garage for a few months, because I didn't think that there was any level of washing that cup which would make me want to drink out of it again. Garages have become part of the outside for me -- and the outside is dirty and full of raccoons that want to eat a hole in my roof and take up residence in my storage shed.
So I have traditions, of a sort-- of the nontraditional sort because they're subject to change on a moment's notice. This year, for example, we're not watching a horror movie on Christmas Eve, we're planning on watching a comedy -- The Other Guys -- and I kind of miss the fun of a good horror movie on Christmas Eve. And Middle won't be here on Christmas Eve because she's going to her boyfriend's, and on Christmas Day, Sweetie and I won't be going to a movie the way we used to always in the afternoon, because I'm going to stay home and watch Mr F and Mr Bunches while she and Oldest and The Boy go to a movie.
We still go Christmas shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, and there's still the day that the Babies! and I go get Sweetie's presents, and Sweetie and I will probably still exchange our secret presents that we save for each other to open after the kids are all done opening their presents and are off doing whatever it is the kids do when we stop paying attention to them and Sweetie and I head upstairs to our bedroom to give, privately, a rare moment of privacy, the last few gifts that we saved for each other.
We do all that, but this year, it seems devoid of Christmas. It seems like it's nothing more than life as usual, as though life as usual somehow involved decorating trees and shopping and Christmas songs sung by Billy Squier; the lack of special, year-after-year-after-year-we've-always-done-it-this-way traditions has done something to Christmas, to holidays, to tradition itself...
...and what I think it's done is this: It's made my entire life have that Christmas feeling, so that Christmas is no longer so special -- but not because Christmas has devolved or been torn down or has dropped back into the muck of everyday life, but instead, because I've brought the rest of my life up to the Christmas level.
Everyday is like Christmas for me, now -- in a very good way.
That's what struck me as I wrote the first part of this and then thought about how to finish it up for 9 days or so and that's what struck me as I came downstairs this morning in the quiet to write the ending to this as I sat in the near-dark lit only by the glow of my laptop, listening to DePeche Mode and William Shatner instead of Christmas music. I've made my whole life Christmas.
By tearing apart the rituals and routines of the holidays, by looking at them and deciding what I liked and didn't like and how I could change them and what I could do or not do, I haven't destroyed anything, because through it all, there was one constant focus: what works the best for me and my family? There were at every birthday party without candles or singing, at every Easter without baskets, at Cheeseburger Salad Thanksgiving and at Christmas Without Pete The Patriotic and Now Christmas-Y Parrot, some things that were the same: There were Sweetie and the older kids and then the Babies! and there was a feeling that we're all in this together, that we're making our own way as a family and having fun doing it and creating our lives as we go along...
... and that's the sense that we have all year round. I used to make New Year's Resolutions and send Christmas cards and do all those rituals until I wondered why wait until New Year's Eve to make a change and I just quit smoking one day in July and decided one time in May that I was going to get in shape and mid-August this year I decided to run for judge and Sweetie and I up and decided that next spring, maybe, or summer we were going to move, and we started taking every Saturday to go do something special with the kids, and I began giving Sweetie presents on Tuesdays just because Tuesdays needed some picking up, and all of that was possible because I broke down the barriers that kept Christmas cooped up.
Everyone talks about Christmas creep -- about how earlier and earlier every year we see ads for Christmas and the displays go up at Halloween now and Christmas just keeps spreading and spreading -- and I've commented on that, too -- but at the same time, we say things like Wouldn't it be great if we could spread good will year round and keep this feeling going, and those two feelings are incompatible. We can't complain that Christmas is spreading if we want Christmas spirit to be around all year.
And I've found a way to do that. All the ornaments and gift wrap and Christmas tree rules and holiday rituals are a symbolic and ethereal manifestation of my old Fort Christmas: They keep some things out and some things in and they separate Christmas from our lives. That special holiday feeling that comes around only for a few weeks a year is a great (if sometimes exhausting) way to live, so why do we coop it up to just a few weeks a year? Especially when we don't have to -- especially when we can, as I've done, take a look at the things we like about the holidays, like presents and trips to someplace special, and do those year round, and at the things we don't like about the holidays like elaborate decorations that don't have any special meaning and present a level of concern, and get rid of those?
In past years, I would wait until everyone had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, and I'd come and sit down in the living room with the Christmas tree as the only light. I'd put on Christmas music and sit there quietly, looking at the tree and listening to Christmas music and thinking about the holidays and the past year and the family and the kids and the things that I'd done in the past month, especially, the office parties and Christmas shopping and Egg Nog Milkshakes, until I finally got misty-eyed and went up to bed to sleep a few hours before Oldest, who even at 23 is still the most excited about presents, would wake us up to open gifts.
I did that on Christmas Eve because it was the last possible time before the end of the holiday, it was the last time that Christmas would still be in the future, not the past, the last time that year that I'd still be savoring the yet-to-comeness of everything Christmas stands for and so all the emotions and memories would still feel fresh. By Christmas Day, that feeling would fade as everything fun lay behind us and regular life lay in front of me, long months of winter and spring and summer full of just... life.
I did that because I wanted to savor that pent-up exhilaration and happiness and frosty-windowed specialness that Christmas (and, to a lesser extent, all holidays and birthdays) bring about, before it dissipated.
This year, that feeling never built up -- and because of that, I've been thinking that I didn't feel Christmas, that I, like Sweetie, couldn't find Christmas. But I realized this morning that I've been carrying Christmas around with me all year long, since last year. When I took down the tree and deflated Rudolph and Pete last year, I didn't pack away the Christmas spirit with them. I kept that with me, as The Pogues might say -- and used it throughout the year, so that instead of having to wait for Christmas to come back, I just carried it around with me -- sometimes literally, as when, at one point in September I was jogging at the health club and one of the songs I jogged to was Angels We Have Heard On High, by Brian Setzer, a Christmas song helping me eke a few extra laps out on a humid fall day.
This Christmas has been kind of like when you spend ten, or twenty, or thirty minutes looking for your keys -- retracing your steps and checking the ignition and your dresser and the spot where you usually hang them up and the refrigerator because, remember, you decided to grab a Diet Coke to take to work and maybe you set the keys down there when you did that, and then you do it all again and after all that, they're sitting in your jacket pocket where it turns out you left them last night when you got home because you were going to go back out again right away and thought you'd need them sooner than you did but then you decided not to go back out right away so you didn't use them immediately but they were there, only you just didn't remember because that's not the way things usually work.
I didn't have to look for Christmas. I had it in my pocket all along.
It's not a perfect analogy -- but, then, who cares about perfection? I don't. I don't care if my Christmas decorations include a vacuum cleaner brush and my Christmas soundtrack includes "Candyman" by Christina Aguilera, and my Christmas movie is likely to be the 350th watching of Crash Nebula on NickToons while I eat a slice of cold pizza for breakfast after opening presents.
Christmas can contain all of those things, for me, because I've broken open Christmas, pried it apart and let more of my life into it -- and, in doing so, I let more of Christmas into my life.