Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Deconstructing Christmas, Part One (Thinking The Lions.)

This is part one of my annual Christmas essay; at the end you'll find links to two others that are still on line.

What is it that makes Christmas?

I've been thinking about that for the past few days, ever since Saturday night, in fact, when Sweetie put some music on the computer to play while we cleaned up.

It's rare that Sweetie puts music on. Generally speaking, Sweetie is not a "background noise" kind of person, not the way I am, at least. I always have something going on in the background, no matter what I'm doing. Take the very moment I'm writing this, for example: I'm sitting in a hotel lobby, a hotel where I am a lecturer at a seminar. My portions of the seminar included one morning session, and one afternoon session, with three hours between them -- and I've deemed that three hours to be too short a time to go back to the office to work (even though the office is only about 15 minutes away), so I'm spending the interim time in the lobby, 'puting.

In the background, as I do that, are not only people walking by -- people I secretly suspect of trying to look over my shoulder and see what I'm up to, because I'm suspicious of everyone in the world, and if they're not trying to serial kill me or steal my wallet, they must at least be over-the-shoulder-privacy invaders -- but also the TV in the hotel lobby, which I can just barely hear over the Christmas music in my headphones.

That level of background noise seems to me to be necessary, something I've grown so accustomed to having that I now need it, a reverse adaptation that my body has undergone, becoming dependent on the additional noise and input I get from constantly having music or TV (or both) on as I do whatever I'm doing. I put the radio on while I shower, I have the TV playing while I read in bed at night, I have the radio on whenever I drive, and I do it because if I don't do those things, I feel like I'm going a little crazy, drowning in my thoughts.

Or, as I put it to Sweetie recently in explaining why I no longer go swimming as exercise: "I can't listen to music while I swim, and I don't want to be alone with my thoughts for that long."

Sweetie didn't think that was healthy -- but it is. The background noise and distraction serves to focus me, somehow. It makes it so that I can concentrate, perhaps by drowning out the background noise of my own thoughts: my mind is always so awhirl with activity that I have to blot some of it out. At any given moment, my mind is throwing up into the ether, like a mad juggler, innumerable thoughts, some important, some not. A transcript of my unedited mental process at any given moment might read like this:

my feet are cold it's only two weeks until Christmas I wonder if those cases I downloaded got emailed to work I didn't ever forward that email to the client did I lock the car door why does my iPod keep shutting off I sure liked this week's episode of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me I wonder if it's just out of power is that a mustard stain...

And so on. But those thoughts don't come in serial one-after-the-other format, like they read: They come all at once, a deluge of thoughts.

So the background noise helps drown out all but the most persistent of those ideas, a little noise managing to quiet the tumult, which is why I listen to music or have the TV on almost all the time unless someone (like Sweetie) is forcing me not to have them on, which, honestly, makes it harder for me to pay attention to whatever it is I'm supposed to be paying attention to -- it's more difficult for me to focus when the room is quiet, which puts me in quite a bind, because how can I say that to Sweetie? Imagine:

Sweetie: Let's just sit and talk. Me: Sure. Let me just turn on the TV. Sweetie: Why? Me: Because I can't really follow what you're saying unless two other people are talking at the same time.

Instead, I mostly just sit and talk with her and really really try to focus on what she's saying, which is hard because after a few minutes I begin instead focusing on how hard I'm trying to focus -- which in turn makes me think what a good husband I am, that I'm so attentive to Sweetie that I'm focusing on her every word, which then makes me think about how long it is that we've been married, which then makes me remember our wedding ceremony and the way she looked that day, at which point I feel bad because the first dress Sweetie had picked out to get married in I'd said I didn't like, although in my defense I (a) didn't know it was the dress she wanted to wear and (b) once I found that out, I said that she should get it anyway and that she'd be beautiful in it because she's beautiful, and (c) I really didn't like the dress...

... and after all that I have to try to figure out what Sweetie just said.

It'd be easier, then, if Sweetie would just let me play music when we talk. It'd make me a better husband, or at least a less-distracted husband.

So when Sweetie sat down last Saturday night to play music on the computer while we picked up, I initially thought "All right. Finally I can concentrate on mopping the floor instead of worrying that I didn't fill up the gas tank and the gas line is going to freeze overnight because it's so cold out, unless cars don't really have gas lines anymore, you know I haven't seen anyone selling those little bottles of stuff to keep gas tanks from freezing, so is that really a problem anymore" and so on, but then I thought this:

Well, that's weird. Why's Sweetie playing music?

The song Sweetie put on was Where Are You Christmas?, a song that Sweetie liked from some movie or other, and I thought that was a little strange, also -- because Sweetie almost never plays Christmas music, either. That's possibly because everytime Christmas music comes up around our house, I immediately put on Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You, by Billy Squier, a song I begin playing on Thanksgiving and don't stop playing until Christmas Day.

But for whatever reason, Sweetie doesn't play much Christmas music. So when she put on Where Are You Christmas? I decided I'd joke around with her a little bit, and I asked her "Did you put that song on because you're searching for Christmas?"

To which Sweetie replied: "Yes."

In a very serious tone.

I didn't say anything, right away, about that -- but it kept bugging me, gnawing at the back of my mind for the rest of the night, as we finished cleaning up and gave the Babies! a bath and went to bed, and as Sweetie slept next to me I watched TV and thought about what she'd said, and I thought to myself: It doesn't really feel like Christmas, yet, does it?

I had to agree with myself, that it didn't feel like Christmas, even though it was already December 11 and we'd had my office Christmas party the night before and we'd pretty much finished up all our Christmas shopping and in a few days Sweetie's sister would be getting to town and even though there was now snow on the ground and I'd even worn a Christmas tie the day before to work.

It didn't feel like Christmas.

And then, I wondered, what does Christmas feel like, anyway?

And I couldn't think of what Christmas felt like -- I couldn't in my mind or in my soul come up with a "Christmas" feeling, couldn't, as I sat there that night in our room with the TV on in the background, put my finger on what, exactly, wasn't there.

It wasn't a sad thought. It wasn't like I was (or am) depressed or sad; in fact, I was (and am) the opposite: I'm in a great mood, and things are generally going very well. I was ahead of the game at work and in my personal life, I felt. Nothing was breaking down at our house; sure, we'd had a little scare when the registers in the lower level hadn't worked and for a day or so we'd thought we were going to have to replace the furnace, but it turned out that Mr F had simply flipped a lever we hadn't known was there and that had turned the registers off, and we hadn't even been charged for the guy to come out to our house and show us the lever and flip it back for us. So while I might still need to paint the living room, it wasn't as though there was anything wrong or sad in my life that was keeping me from feeling Christmas-y.

I just didn't feel that way.

And, really, I still don't, even a few days later, as I'm sitting here in the hotel lobby writing this, listening, now, to "Father Christmas" by The Kinks, on a playlist of nothing but great Christmas songs. I don't feel Christmas, which is taking me back, again, to that question:

What does Christmas feel like?

The reason this is on my mind so strongly isn't just because I want Sweetie to find Christmas, but because I might need to find it, too -- and I began to think over the past few days that maybe I lost it, lost Christmas, because maybe I've dismantled and unpacked a little too much baggage from my life.

Worrying that I've undone too much is something new to me, and something that I only recently began trying to address. It's something I began trying to address when I realized that I might well have destroyed the kids' ability to live in society.

I didn't mean to destroy the kids' ability to live in society, and I'm not totally sure that I have, but I think I might have at least severely damaged their chances by jettisoning many little rituals of everyday life, rituals like "birthday cards" and the like.

That worry -- that I've destroyed the kids' societal chances, and then possibly my own enjoyment of things -- arose when I realized that none of the kids bothered wrapping birthday presents anymore. I noticed that on Sweetie's birthday, when I got her presents that didn't need to be wrapped (like the gift certificate for a massage that came in its own fancy envelope/box) and got her a few small presents that could fit into a nice gift bag, too.

The kids got her presents, too -- but they did so with even less ceremony than I did. Oldest gave her something that wasn't wrapped at all; she just handed it to her, taking it out of the bag, as I recall. Middle was worse: she gave Sweetie her birthday present a few days before Sweetie's birthday, coming over unexpectedly and handing Sweetie the present, still in the bag from the store she'd just bought it in.

I don't remember what The Boy gave Sweetie. Cash, maybe. Whatever it was, there was no ceremony.

Sweetie's birthday was celebrated this year in the usual way -- Whoppers for everyone, and a cake, as per Sweetie's request -- but the cake, too, was a step back from birthday celebrations: It was an ice cream cake, so there would be no candles on it, and no blowing out candles, for that reason. We hadn't, in fact, had candles on a cake for years, that I could recall -- we'd more or less stopped having candles around the time I'd stopped smoking, because we had no way to light them.

But this year, for Sweetie's birthday, not only did we have a cake without candles, we didn't even sing Happy Birthday to her.

Which may not seem like much, but consider this: What makes a birthday? What separates your birthday from any other day of the week, or year? It's the little trappings, isn't it? It's the cake and candles and singing and wrapped presents that you only get one time a year, and if you don't get a candles and singing and the presents aren't wrapped and they're not even given to you on your birthday, it becomes hard to say it's still a special day, doesn't it?

And I brought this on myself, and our family, because years back I'd begun to rebel against some of the things that didn't make sense to me, things like cards given with presents.

"Why give a card and a present?" I'd ask myself, year after year. I could see, after all, the point of a card if you don't give another present, or if you're giving something like a gift certificate and you need something to put it in. In either case, the card serves a valid purpose: it either holds the gift, or it sends the message "I didn't get you a gift, but here's proof I thought about you."

If I was giving a gift, I reasoned, I don't need to give the card, because the gift is the message.

So I stopped giving cards. They were the first to go.

Candles were probably next; once it became difficult to light them, because I no longer had a lighter and no longer knew anyone who smoked, except Oldest who intermittently takes up and quits smoking, but whom we'd never ask for a lighter because we disapprove of smoking and she'd lie to us anyway and say she doesn't have one and it's not good for a celebration to start a fight with the oldest kid in the family, we didn't use candles anymore. I stopped buying them for birthdays, and instead, we'd just bring the cake out and sing.

But then, by Sweetie's birthday this past year, we didn't even sing anymore. There was just a cake, that we unceremoniously got out of the freezer and ate portions of while Sweetie looked at the gifts that hadn't been wrapped -- only one had even been put in a bag, to present the semblance of opening.

Destroying the kids' ability to actually wrap a gift, or to take part in a birthday celebration that would be recognizable as such, wasn't the only act I took that helped take apart traditions. I've also brought down Thanksgiving, a holiday I now mostly celebrate by making roughly 15 pounds of homemade Chex mix while having a marathon viewing session of an underappreciated sitcom; on past Thanksgivings, we've watched Better Off Ted (this year) and Arrested Development (a few years back), I've sent people to the movies, and, on one particularly nice Thanksgiving that will probably have me consigned to that part of Hell reserved for people who do things like this, I served Rachael Ray's Cheeseburger Salad for dinner.

I've attacked New Year's Eve, which I now refuse adamantly to do anything on: I rarely even try to stay up anymore and won't go to parties on that night, partly because Sweetie agrees with me, partly because I can't stay awake past nine most nights, and mostly because I think New Years' Eve is horrendously overblown and cannot ever live up to the anticipation I used to put into it; most New Years' Eves now find Sweetie and I lightly dozing in front of a TV that's playing Law & Order reruns, which Sweetie likes to watch. I don't go to church on Easter anymore and we don't decorate eggs and haven't in years since the older kids got too old for it and the Babies! haven't yet gotten old enough. There are no Easter baskets at our house; instead, Sweetie gets the kids a present and gives it to them, usually with one type of candy that they like, and I've been instrumental in that move.

And I never gave much thought to what it was I was doing -- never gave much thought to how I was dismantling the holidays, step by step, taking apart special days and making them nothing, until that Saturday night a few days ago when I realized that Sweetie was looking for Christmas, and so was I.

Because I'd deconstructed Christmas...

Read Part Two Here.


My prior Christmas essays:

Merry Guckmas!

Charity begins at home, travels to a grocery store, then heads back home again to fall asleep.

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