"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I Hate Christmas

Right around November 1st my mood begins to change.  The Holidays are coming, and I’m depressed.  I am not sure why I am in such a black dog mood.  After all, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s are supposed to be happy times – happier than most, I have been led to believe because of the return of family, the exchange of gifts, good cheer, lights and libation, and celebration.  For me they have been deadening, spiritless affairs, full of false and then defeated expectations, fake jollity and merriment, and the endless repetition of rituals I thought had ended in my own childhood.  I love my family, but can see them anytime in neutral, ceremony-free, obligation-less times.  A great shroud lifts from my shoulders come January 2nd.

I am not sure how this happened.  I know I am not alone in my agony – far from it – but it still is a mystery how and why this grouchy, humorless mood overtakes me every year.  I think it must be Perry Como.  How I hated I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, Mantovani, and all the syrupy musical treacle my father played.  It is especially Christmas music – expanded from my day to include the sappy Little Drummer Boy or the idiotic The Chipmunk Song – which tips me into the tar pits.  Every year the Christmas Season comes earlier and earlier, so I become hyper-alert to the first jingle of bells or sappy song on the radio.  This year I first heard Alvin at the end of October and knew that I was in for an especially long haul. 

I live in a residential neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC, a community of lawyers and international consultants, writers, and teachers, none of whom like plastic and fake.  There are few outside lights and God-forbid no inflated Santa’s or Disney-esque Nativity scenes.  There are a lot of Jews in my neighborhood, so that helps a lot. Nevertheless, I can’t escape all of the Christmas cheer.  I am even quicker on the remote to flip out of one sickening Christmas-themed commercial to another channel which is no better.  These days there are more ads than ever, and even with the flipping, I get quickly saturated and have to turn the bloody TV off.

Maybe my hatred of Christmas was because of the forced family harmony.  Ours was by no means a dysfunctional family, just not a closely-knit one.  My father thought he ruled the roost and tried to act like he did, but it was my mother who always got her way.  The tensions between them, fairly well-hidden for most of our growing up – but squeezed out in the open at Christmas - were revealed by my mother after my father died.  Things weren’t exactly hunky-dory between them, she said. 

Or perhaps my funk was a result of my oppressive Catholic upbringing.  I hated church from a very early age, but suffered through it all until I was a young teenager.  Christmas Day was supposed to be a perfect family-religious day.  We all went to Communion, and therefore returned home in A State of Grace, forgiven and anointed.  Whatever secular harmony that blessing was supposed to confer disappeared in an hour, despite my parents’ efforts.  My father would clench his jaw and grind his teeth at something my mother said.  My mother would go into a black silence; and my sister would run off to her room.

The disappointment at presents was the least of it.  Unless you told your parents exactly what to get, you would always be disappointed.  I told my father that I wanted a baseball glove ‘just like Herbie Carlson’s”, a near professional model, pre-seasoned, webbed but flexible, and simply cool-looking.  Instead my father bought me this cheap, lame, flabby version of a baseball mitt.  It wasn’t the thought that mattered.  It was the glove! Not this maroon thing that looked like what Ty Cobb wore, no more than a fat winter glove with splayed fingers, but a real glove.  Then there were the hokey tricolored sweaters, ties, tie-clips, and socks.

At least the meals were good. At my father’s insistence Christmas Eve hewed as closely as possible to the Neapolitan tradition of sette pesce – seven fishes – and my mother reluctantly prepared squid, eel, baccala, and anchovies.  Christmas dinner was usually held at my aunt’s house and she and her sister were absolutely great cooks.  I left their house in the evening stuffed with eggplant parmesan, lasagna, corn fritters, ham pies, and artichokes.

Although she never admitted it, my mother shared my dislike of Christmas.  As soon as it was at all possible (I think when I went away to boarding school), she jettisoned the real tree and replaced it with a small aluminum one.  I was delighted, because somehow it secularized the holiday, took the edge off the expectations and off my funk.  Right after graduate school I headed off to India where I lived for almost five years, blissfully removed from Christmas hoopla; and then to Latin America for another five where Christmas was a big deal, but easily avoided.  When we returned to the States to live and have a family, Christmas became torture, for it now included my sister’s family.  I had nothing against her or her children, but hated her husband as did everyone, so sitting jammed into the small den of my parents house watching him swill Bourbon and listening to his anti-Semitic tirades while presents no one liked were exchanged, was torture.

My wife grew up in a half-Irish Catholic, half-atheist family; and although her mother was as zealously religious as any Irish on the East Coast in the 60s, her father’s secularism neutralized or at least blunted the worst of her mother’s religious ‘devotion’.  So Christmas was a reasonable affair – a small tree, no presents (“Presents should be given throughout the year”, her mother wisely and sanely said), no insipid music, and good food.

We carried on this tradition in our family.  There were presents for the children when they were young, but as they got older, the exchange was usually one, usually practical gift.  The tree, unfortunately, after over 35 years is still real, green, and unwieldy.  Although I suggest an aluminum tree every year, no one has agreed.  My wife knows enough not to discuss Christmas arrangements or to suggest buying the tree until a few days before; and I wait until the very last minute to break up my regular routine and start cooking.  In other words, Christmas has been streamlined, secularized, and minimized as far as it can be; but I still hate it.

Despite this bad attitude, I am a fierce ‘Merry Christmas’ advocate.  I never resort to the bland and multi-cultural Happy Holidays.  I may hate it, but it is Christmas, after all; and this is still a big-majority Christian country; so I think that Jews (who are used to it by now) and new Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, can get over it without too much difficulty.   I don’t mind crèches on public property, images of Bethlehem and the Nativity in libraries, or Christmas carols sung on the steps of City Hall.  Many people do mind, and, this being America, go to the courts to be sure that every vestige of Christianity is squeezed out of Christmas.

I am in somewhat seedy company when it comes to fighting for the right of Christians to celebrate Christmas. As Diane Roberts writes in the Guardian (12.19.12):

Well, Baby Jesus needn't take these insults lying down, not as long as Fox has an audience of outraged Caucasian Americans convinced that the re-election of the president proves that they are an oppressed minority. On Fox's breakfast program, former Miss America Gretchen Carlson recites a daily litany of anti-Christmas atrocities, including a rumored clampdown on the colors red and green.

Carlson once said, "I'm all for free speech and free rights, just not on 25 December."

Carlson is right, however; and as journalist Roberts suggests, more PC people should take up the more important fight against the commercialization of Christmas.  That, more than anything, is destroying whatever vestiges of religious spirit and devotion that may be left of this eviscerated, increasingly secular holiday.  A nice idea, but it is way too late. As I know all too well, the Christmas season now begins in October and only God himself knows how far back it can be pushed.  There are permanent all-year-round Christmas stores, given shoppers a chance to get a little bid of the Holiday spirit in July and maybe pick up an extra sting of lights.

No, Happy Holidays is here for good.  ‘Nones’ or people who profess no belief are now in two digit percentages in the census.  Evangelicals and devout Catholics – those who can be counted on to keep the faith – are rapidly declining in numbers.  American life, with almost ninety percent of residents living in urban areas, is becoming more cosmopolitan, more secular, and less religiously oriented.  If Christmas falls on Thursday, the season can be a healthy five days long; and that’s increasingly enough for most people.  Office parties are tamer than the drunken grope-fests of Madmen days; but still secular fun.  Bartenders usually wear a Santa hat, and there are a few wreaths on the doors.  Christmas is not yet like MLK’s birthday when it is really treated only as a three-day weekend by most people; or Veterans Day (“Do we get it off or not?”); but if it weren’t for the buying spree, it might just be.

My kids always like Halloween best.  Lots of costumes, acting out fantasies, wandering the streets in outrageous outfits, and of course the candy.  Now into their Thirties, they still dress up.  

Only 14 days until I can breathe easy again.  I’ll make it.  I always have.

1 comment:

  1. Oh I hear you and I too hate Christmas. Maybe for different reasons. I have a ridiculously small family and am most enraged about all this family togetherness. What do you do if you family is too small and you don't much like them anyway< I'm sick of being put on because I'm the only woman who can cook. I'm tired of cooking for all these fat lazy slugs.

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