Sunday, December 26, 2004

Thank God That's Over With!

Ah, good old Boxing Day, my favorite holiday of the year. I know that it's supposed to be the day for giving gifts to the people who work for you; but since I work for others, it's the day to spend in my pajamas, lolling around the house and eating pie for breakfast (diet be damned... I'm eating chocolates, too, and I don't care if I gain back all the weight it's taken me five weeks to lose). No more work to do, no more presents to wrap, no more pretending to be cheerful.

I didn't have to pretend too hard yesterday, though... once I got the cleaning finished, I did sort of enjoy myself. It occurs to me that it's not Christmas I dislike, it's housework. But we already knew that, didn't we? It also occurred to me that if I kept the house clean all year 'round, getting ready for Christmas wouldn't be such a bloody hateful chore. It's an obvious solution, but I've never been interested in the obvious.

Actually, though, I find myself wondering what it's like to not have such a labor-intensive Christmas. There are people who actually wonder what they're going to do on Christmas. There are people who eat in restaurants on Christmas. There are people who go to the movies on Christmas. There are people who sit around the house and watch football on Christmas. There are people who enjoy Christmas as a day off.

But for me, even before I moved in with Grandmother and became the Apprentice Guardian of All Family Tradition, even when I was just a little kid who shouldn't have to have any responsibilities at Christmastime except to feign sufficient goodness to get on Santa's "Nice List," Christmas was always a horribly draining chore. I was always on the go.


My parents divorced when I was three years old, and Christmases were always shuttled affairs, and I don't remember them clearly. But my typical Christmas from the age of about seven (when my parents formally settled custody of my sister and myself between the Family Court and themselves) until around fifteen (when I stopped dealing with any family other than my father's family) worked out thusly:

  1. The weeks leading up to Christmas were packed with activity, starting officially on the 13th, the day after my stepsister Heidi's birthday, which is in turn the day after Daddy's birthday; actually, we started a little before that, on Thanksgiving to be exact, with the very solemn ritual of Christmas Lists... we were enjoined to make a list of things (within reason) that we wanted for Christmas, which Mom would annotate with our sizes before copying them and distributing them among the relatives on both sides of the family so people would know what to get us.

  2. The first tangible thing to go up on the 13th was the Christmas tree, which was fake and rather ratty, and which for some reason I always got stuck decorating... I mean, all four of us kids supposedly decorated the tree together, but since I was the only child with a penis, I had to put the lights on the tree (apparently the Y chromosome comes with electrical knowledge); and since I was the only child with any taste whatsoever, I always ended up rearranging all of the ornaments and tinsel that my sister Suzie and stepsisters Quinn & Heidi (who actually understood electricity but had no sense of color harmony or objective balance) had thrown on the bottle-brush branches any old whichaway. We also decorated the house with paper Advent Chains, which we usually made in school from construction paper and paste, and ripped off one link for each day until Christmas.

  3. My late stepmother (her name was Pat but I always called her Mom, as apposed to Mother who was my mother... unfortunately, I am the only one who could ever keep that straight, so I always have to explain: Mom = Pat = Stepmother; Mother = Kathy = Birthmother, okay?) Mom always got very involved with The Christmas Spirit, and would play Christmas music nonstop in the twelve days before Christmas (neat, that). We also went shopping a great deal... for though we were poor, Mom had sisters and sisters-in-law and various other Joneses to keep up with, so she'd go into debt for the next year so that she could buy us piles of clothes and toys as well as clothes and toys for everyone else in our rather extensive family. She bought the presents, then would go into her bedroom and box them, and then we kids would wrap the boxes (Santa had elves, Mom had four kids)... elaborate precautions were taken to prevent us knowing what we were getting for Christmas; it was an incredibly laborious undertaking.

  4. Then Mom started baking. Her first task was a gross of Tollhouse cookies, half of which would have walnuts and half would not (if you've never seen one hundred and forty-four cookies produced in a kitchen the size of a phone-booth, you just haven't lived). Then there were three kinds of fudge: chocolate with walnuts, chocolate without walnuts, and peanut-butter. I remember the walnuts particularly because we kids were the ones cracking the walnuts open for hours at a time, and if we didn't pull our weight with the walnuts, we wouldn't get to eat any cookies or fudge (the story of The Little Red Hen was always trotted out on such occasions; the argument that I didn't like walnuts and never ate the cookies or fudge with nuts in them didn't hold any water). Some years there were also loaves and loaves of zucchini bread made from the giant mutant zucchinis Mom's mother grew in her backyard.

  5. Christmas Eve was spent with Mom's huge family (her two parents, three sisters, a brother-in-law, a niece and nephew, with a few stray cousins and/or the occasional visitng aunt or uncle from far away) and their huge family tradition, with this vast and largely unpalatable meal that always featured the biggest, dryest turkey you ever saw, green-bean casserole with those nasty canned onion fries on top, and that peculiar Midwestern dish that doesn't have a name but is made from pistachio pudding, lime gelatin, walnuts, and marshmallow; there were a lot of presents involved, and Christmas stockings for adults as well as kids, and just enough beer to put everyone's emotions just under the surface where they could blow up over any tiny little thing.

  6. Then came Christmas morning with my sister, two step-sisters, Daddy, and Mom. In the days before Heidi, the youngest, declared that she didn't believe in Santa Claus, the toy-presents were laid out, elaborately unwrapped, around the tree, as if Santa had put them there because we'd been so good, and the clothes-presents were wrapped and credited to Mom & Dad (personally, I never believed in Santa Claus, but I played along to keep the toys coming). Mom always had an emotional breakdown of some sort during the morning, typical Christmas let-down for someone who worked like the devil for weeks to make Christmas morning this special magical time, and then all she had to show for it was a pile of ripped wrapping paper and some lame child-chosen gifts (the poor woman was a martyr to her own expectations). Then we ate an enormous pancake breakfast.

  7. Next we put on our brand-new clothes (Christmas presents always included one snazzy new outfit meant to be worn on Christmas day) and got into the car for the drive to Grandmother's house (where I now live) for Christmas with my father's family (an aunt, an uncle, their two spouses, three cousins, and of course the grandparents). Grandmother and Grandfather had another set of stockings for us and my cousins, as if Santa had considered us all so extra-specially good that he made two trips (you can see why I didn't believe in Santa... I knew perfectly well that I hadn't been as good as all that, what with the lying and not doing my homework and all). Then there was another vast meal, called "dinner" but served at lunchtime, with another monumental and bone-dry turkey, but no white-trash salads or questionable casseroles, and no alcohol in any form whatsoever so that we could all keep our feelings tidily bottled up inside, followed by more presents.

  8. Then Mother would come pick Suzie and me up, and off we'd go to her sister's house in Livermore for even more Christmas with her parents and nephews. Aunt Margaret's & Uncle Tom's Christmas was interesting because Mother's family didn't have any real traditions to follow, so Margaret was always trying something new: one year it was a ham studded with so many cloves that nobody could eat it; another year it was real candles on the tree, which made everyone so nervous that they couldn't think of anything all night except the terror of dying in a Christmas Conflagration. The only thing that happened every year is that Aunt Margaret would make rum balls, little cocoa-dusted chocolate spheres placed just so on a beautiful tiered silver tray (Godinger Baroque pattern) which looked so delicious that you couldn't help but try one, but which tasted so awful that you spent the rest of the night haunted by the memory of it; but every year you were tempted ("Maybe this time...") and every year you got that ghastly taste in your mouth that no amount of candy or soda-pop could wash away. There were no stockings at Aunt Margaret's... nobody in that family believed that children could be good, so they just didn't bother with the fiction of Santa Claus's reward system.

  9. The next morning we would have Christmas Morning again, at Mother's house with my stepfather "BB" (his name is Robert Lee, but for some reason this has evolved into a name spelled BB and pronounced Beeb) and, later on, my baby half-sister and half-brothers (Becky, LeRoy, and Nathan respectively). This was a rather more casual affair than Mom's Christmas; sometimes the tree (always live, usually a sugar pine) was picked up for free on Christmas afternoon, and we decorated it together on Boxing Day, then opened the presents; sometimes, on the few occasions that my sister and I spent the week before Christmas Eve with Mother (our custody arrangement was weird), we would get the tree beforehand and we would open one present a day, and save the biggest and best present for when we came back on Boxing Day.

  10. After that we would go over to BB's mother's house and have another Christmas celebration, by far the most boring of all of the Christmas celebrations we'd been to so far... BB's mother, the sweet and colorless widow of a retired rear admiral, was the worst cook I've ever known. Well, no, not the worst... just the blandest. She always served a baked ham that had been simply thrown into the oven with no coating of any kind, with mashed potatoes and boiled squash (the memory of which still makes me shiver) and a salad consisting solely of iceberg lettuce with cream dressing. For dessert, there was always mince pie, and only mince pie, and the mince pie contained all the flavors that should have gone into the dinner, and then some, and was absolutely impossible for a child's palate (actually, I still hate mince pie). She was a lovely old lady, though: her name was Laura, and she was pretty and quiet and frozen in time, her white hair and stylish wardrobe and elegant house perfectly preserved and entirely unchanged since her husband retired in 1965, and her milk was delivered in glass bottles and tasted better than milk that comes in plastic or paper cartons.

  11. Then it was my birthday, and Mother would make me a cake "to order"... it is one of the happiest memories of my childhood, this business of birthday cakes. Mother would promise whatever kind of cake we wanted, and my sister and I would spend days trying to stump her creativity with impossible birthday-cake themes. Without the benefit of fancy-ass Wilton kits or clever little patterns cut out of Woman's Day magazines, Mother made us birthday cakes shaped like train engines and butterflies and ponies and castles, frosted with bizarre colors to match a favorite stuffed animal or a special outfit or, once, our eyes (Suzie and I have Mother's eyes, a peculiar shade of grayish blue that does not exist anywhere else in nature). And our birthdays were always collaborative efforts, it was never just my birthday or just Suzie's birthday (which is in June), we both got to choose a cake and we both got presents, twice a year.

  12. I was generally returned to Daddy, or at least to Grandmother and Grandfather's house, for the rest of my birthday, with another family meal and another birthday cake and more presents. Mother and Daddy would talk desultorily over our heads at the door, unless we were simply dropped off in the driveway, and Mother would usually come pick us up afterward if it were a year that she had us for the week after my birthday; Mother's family and Daddy's family never ever mixed.
When I would describe all this brouhaha to other children, they were aghast with envy: You get five Christmases? And a birthday? they'd goggle at me. But really, the thank-you notes alone were enough to turn any child Muslim... not to mention the epic environmental shifts as one shuttled from one kind of family to another, none of whom were remotely alike... and some of which were rather emotionally draining, requiring displays of gratitude for each present that ranged from "fulsome" to "abject."

And we needn't mention the gastrointestinal trauma of five enormous and entirely different (though usually overcooked) meals on a child's digestive system... I always ended up either constipated or diarrhoeic. And then with my birthday right at the same time, people were so worn out from the holidays that attendance at my birthday parties was pretty spotty and those who could drag themselves out were rather less than enthusiastic (also, with one's birthday during Winter Break, I never got to enjoy the special triumph of celebrating my birthday in school).


As I look over the above (honestly, I didn't intend to write so much when I started out, I'd forgotten just how elaborate my Christmases used to be), I suddenly feel rather blessed that my Christmas has devolved into just one time-consuming and labor-intensive holiday tradition. Is that Gratitude I feel all of a sudden? Hmmm... could be.

This Christmas was rather nice, all things considered. Like I said, once the cleaning work was out of the way, I felt a lot better about things. I spent all of the morning helping Grandmother with the pies and stuffing, and making the yams. People started arriving around two-thirty, I had the baking finished at three, and then I got the table set... we were scheduled to eat at two, but this family is always late, and we ate at five-thirty, exactly as I had planned when I scheduled dinner for two; they fell into my trap exactly as plotted, bwahahahahaha. I was a little irritated with myself for not planning a centerpiece as I usually do, but I turned that over with the realization that nobody really cared whether there was a centerpiece or not, and I think the dinner went better because we had more space for food and drink.

Then there was work getting the food on the table, since Grandmother was too busy visiting and I am the only one who knows where all the servingware is. We got fifteen people around the table and we ate, and ate, and ate some more, and talked and visited and told jokes and laughed. Then we washed up the dishes and I made some coffee and we opened presents. Then we ate pie... lots of pie. Then we talked and visited and told jokes and laughed and looked at each-other's presents and took three hours to say goodbye.

I had a good talk with my sister, and I had a good talk with Daddy when I drove him home, I got some nifty presents (a pair of black-and-silver houndstooth silk pajamas from Aunt Terry that I'd almost bought for myself when Grandmother and I were out shopping last week, a digital voice-recorder from Grandmother so I could remind myself to do things, a box of chocolates from my cousin Kellie, a belt with my initials on it from my nephew Matthew, a terra-cotta silk golf shirt from my cousin Michael in Arizona, a smoke-blue and olive-drab microfleece sweatshirt from my cousin Jamie and Steve, and a new cell-phone from my Aunt Judy and Uncle Ralph), and received appreciation for the gifts I'd given (my sister loved the bed-desk I finally decided to give her; Judy and Jamie loved the gifts of fabulous-smelling chocolate from Scharffen-Berger, Kellie liked the Borghese Facial Spa Trio, Grandmother loved the little jeweled rooster, Jessie and Ariel loved the Nancy Drew books [which rather surprised me], Alex loved the tiny papasan chair, Matthew loved the gift-certificate that came in a CD case, Uncle Ralph loved the cooler/warmer chest for his truck that plugs into the lighter, Steve loved the leather serving tray, and I think that's all the relatives I had yesterday). I write these things down so I can remember them later; sorry to have burdened you with it.

In general, I got to have really quite nice time, despite the fact that my blood-sugar and my depression were cresting and dipping and wrestling all day long, and my feet were killing me, and my back hurt, and my sinuses were acting up a bit, and I was soooo tired.

And now it's all over with. I am not having a birthday party this year, I only bother with them on fifth birthdays anymore. The house is still clean, everyone was very conscientious to help with the dishes and wrapping paper before leaving, and the only mess left is that smelly old tree in the living room spewing spruce-needles all over the place.

Well, I think I've done enough work today... I'd only intended to jot down a few impressions, but instead I've taken a four-hour walk with the Ghost of Christmas Past and written a bloody long article about it. My back still hurts a little, and my feet give me a twinge, and the whole blood-sugar-vs-depression is still a little dizzying... so I'm going to go take a nap. I have to rest up for turning thirty-seven tomorrow (I've been practicing saying "I'm thirty-seven" all week) and for my traditional birthday shopping-trip to take advantage of after-Christmas sales (I still have a little money left).

I hope your Boxing Day is super nice, and I hope you had a Merry Christmas; and I hope that if you have a big holiday mess to clean up, that you also have someone like this to help you:

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