I have long envied the Christian-less at Christmas. Even the holiest of Hanukkah celebrants are able to handle December with far less stress, anxiety, and financial discord than this holiday-hostile heathen. As Thanksgiving dinner comes to an end with my stomach grumbling and my heart groaning, I know my discomfort is not due to the fourth helping of mashed potatoes or the sickeningly sweet chocolate pudding pie, but rather the fear of what’s to come. And what’s to come is a month of buying, wrapping, decorating, cooking, cleaning, drinking, eating, and angsting. I find little joy in the season as I try to conquer the chaos, seek solace, and find micro-manage everything from the angel on top of the tree to the presents beneath it.
Ironically, two of my favorite Jews made me see the light this Christmas.
Madge, my bosom buddy of nearly 50 years, planted the mind-altering seed. She and I met in the middle this summer to take my mother out for lunch. As is customary, I commenced my ranting four months early about the ridiculousness of the nonsense looming ahead.
“I always loved your house at Christmas time,” Madge said to my mother, shutting me down in the midst of my grousing over obligatory gifts, given and received just because long, long ago, three Wise Men came bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the birthday boy.
“Oh, I miss decorating!” my 94 year-old mother responded. “Now I just put out a few little things and call it a day.”
“I can’t wait for that day!” I piped in.
“Enjoy it while you can,” she said.
“Yes, Betsy,” Madge said. “Enjoy it.”
I do love my house when its dressed up for Christmas. Once the work is done, that is. For he is a charming old guy with hardwood floors and trim around the doorways and windows. Garlands of greens spotted with red jingle bells and that old painted glass Santa Claus adorn the mantle; multi-colored Christmas ball gather in glass bowls on shelves next to the stained-glass nativity scene, bought at a craft fair the year we got married. Flying pig ornaments from my friend Ann Packles dangle with glee from a wrought iron tree. Three Santa mugs, one for each offspring, house candy canes, at least until they’re all devoured. A wooden Nutcracker, pink for the breast cancer I outlived, gifted from my next door neighbor Kerri, stands tall and strong. And, every year I smile when I pull out the little plaque Susan Shanno gave me that reads:
I love to give homemade gifts.
Which one of the kids would you like?
“For some reason, I thought of you,” she said.
And, when I decorate the dreaded tree, I have to say, I get pangs in the heart as I unearth the battered and bruised ornaments. The metal measuring spoons, mangled from multiple garbage disposal mishaps, tied up with green ribbons and given to me by my sister as a reminder of my carelessness when we lived together. There’s a Lenox Christmas ornament my mother re-gifted back to me when she stopped getting her own tree. A not-very-attractive 35 year-old mouse from Dave Roeder that transports me back to my days at TV Guide. A food truck, an old minivan, and a cardinal for the dearly departed. There’s a football, a baseball, a cheerleader, a soccer ball, a basketball, and a “Middle Child: Mom’s Favorite” ornament. There’s a macramé snowflake from Patty, a hand-knitted Christmas tree from Gail, a dove from Donald and Theresa’s wedding, a wooden rocking horse from Anne Hare, a shimmery glass icicle from Gayle Squire, a bunch of funny looking clowns from Jack Hogencamp, a black lab for dead Chester, a yellow lab for living Griffey, and a monkey that moves around, hiding in the branches.
But, I hate Christmas.
Admittedly, my aversion to the holiday is all self-imposed and intensified with each child I put forth. From the get-go, Santa Claus brought all three kids ten presents, each pile marked by its own distinct wrapping paper. To keep the illusion alive, the spouse had to get ten gifts as well, wrapped in his own paper. There are also the stockings with toothbrushes, underwear, Swedish fish, and AA batteries painstakingly wrapped in different paper than the big present pile. Bags of gifts wrapped and ready for the in-laws, the sisters, and the niece and nephew would sit in the basement as a reminder that the gift-giving will never be confined to one two-hour period. And, then there’s the mess and the subsequent stuff to deal with and find a place for. Meanwhile, I’d martyr out on Christmas morning explaining that Santa never brings mothers nearly as much as everyone else.
Christmas evokes all kinds of feelings in all kinds of people. My lonely friends feel lonelier, my poor friends feel poorer. My greedy friends feel greedier. My happy friends feel happier. My holy friends feel holier. And, I just feel bitterer. And, guiltier. Because I know that my anti-Christmasism can be caustic, and that’s just not fair.
Which brings me to Jew Number Two.
Every night, I receive an email with a subject line of Your Daily Dose of Magic, from my friend Rob. In the Daily Dose, Rob composes and captures slices of life — soulful, funny, bemusing, thought-provoking sentiments that on occasion appear to be written with me, and only me, in mind. Which, no doubt, is the magic of it all.
This one popped up in my inbox last month:
As the holiday season kicks into gear,
it is up to you whether you greet it
with an attitude of Bah Humbug
or one of good cheer.
I let that one sit for a bit. But, I kept thinking about it. Until I came to the conclusion that attitude is a choice.
The day after Thanksgiving, I got to it. I donned my holly-trimmed earrings, and long-lost Christmas spirit and trooped up to the attic. I pulled out the many, many boxes of decorations and dragged them down the stairs. I put on some Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer-style holiday tunes, began draping garlands, jingling bells, and hanging the red and silver over-sized Christmas balls on the porch.
I went to Holly’s tree-trimming party with holiday cheer and Gretchen’s cookie exchange with fresh-baked cranberry cookies. I momentarily lamented the decision not to have a party of our own, but barreled through it. We bought the tree two weeks earlier than usual and Leo and I set it up without a hitch. Though it leans a little to the left and its branches are a little more than uneven, I stood back and smiled, wondering what exactly it was that I hated so much about having a tree.
I’ve been professing my distaste of Christmas for so many years that perhaps it’s become more of my shtick than an actual thing. Maybe I don’t really mind hunting down, wrapping, and presenting the ultimate electronic device for the boys, the acceptable accessories for the daughter, and the perfect sweat socks for my spouse. Maybe I don’t really mind getting a few surprises myself. Maybe I don’t really mind all the cheery Christmas greetings, leaving the garbage collectors a case of Bud, and eating a plethora of cookies and candy. And, maybe I don’t really mind all the commotion that comes with a week or two of jockeying for position for food, bathrooms, and televisions with three adult children returning to their childhood beds.
So, I did all my shopping online. All of it. Gave up the color-coded wrapping. Cut the gift-giving down by half, with the threat that every subsequent year will yield one less present under the tree until we’re down to one a piece. I turn on the Christmas tree lights without having to be prodded. And I bellow Merry Christmas to passersby. Adjusting my attitude to be more in tune with normal people has made all the difference.
Now, I’m not foolhardy enough to think that I’ll get through the season unscathed. But, when I feel myself slipping back into old habits, I just have to remind myself that it’s only money. It’s only time. It’s only work.
I remind myself that I’m one of the lucky ones who the downtrodden envy at this time of year. After all, I’ve got the ever-loving spouse, three marvelous minions, a drafty old house, and a yellow lab. What more could you ask for?
And so, if I continue to count my blessings, spread good cheer, and drink lots of bourbon, I think that I just might find that missing magic, and manage to have a very Merry Christmas.