Category Archives: Christmas

Holiday Mash-Up

Quick quiz: What do Jesus and the poop emoji have in common? They both are associated with Easter, silly!

Don’t believe me? Just go to the Easter display in your local store. There you can find cross-shaped tins of candy with the saying “Jesus Saves” and the offer “Jesus Jelly Bean Prayer Inside.” Then there’s the ever-so-seasonal pastel plastic poop emoji that, well, poops candy. (It also has whimsical bunny ears. As you can see.)

Now I don’t mind the mash-up of Christian Easter with its pagan roots. That practice has been around long enough to make it into a tradition. The pagan symbols of Easter are relatively easily adapted from their earlier symbolism of fertility and renewal to their Christian identification with resurrection. New life, and all of that. Eggs. Lambs. Chicks. Even bunnies, that most suggestive of symbols for burgeoning life.

But lately, there’s something … odd about the merchandise that’s offered for consumption on Easter. It’s not just that the pagan roots are showing. It’s more like Easter is getting confused with Christmas. Or maybe Halloween. Easter is getting to be yet another occasion for retailers to make a buck in the name of wretched excess. 

Look at the Easter displays in your local supermarket or department store. You’ll find baskets, all right, but many of them look more like trick-or-treat pails than things a seasonal rabbit would deliver. Now you can find them shaped like a Troll head or Mickey Mouse, and adorned with Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman, Despicable Me Minions, Spiderman, and other characters more often associated with Halloween costumes. There are even felt “baskets” adorned with pictures of dinosaurs and volcanos.

(Dinosaurs have theological implications, of course, as reminders of evolution. When pressed, some Christians will claim that dinosaur bones were put into rocks by Satan, to test the belief of the faithful. But I digress.)

Obviously, these assorted characters are meant to appeal to media-obsessed kids, and so are the trinkets the Easter baskets are loaded with. Barbies. Water guns. Chocolate soccer eggs. Posters and stickers and PJ Masks toys. Any gimcrack fancy that can pull in a few bucks, whether or not it’s related to Jesus or Oestre.

When did superhero, sports, and other fashionable toys become symbols of Easter? Back in the day, we got plush rabbits. Of course, we also had a limited choice of sweets – jelly beans, gum drops, and chocolate bunnies (which occasioned the eternal question of whether to bite off the ears or the tail first). Christmas candy consisted largely of candy canes and “books” of Life-Savers. Halloween candy was much more varied. 

Halloween has already surrendered its place as a Christian celebration (the eve of All Saints’ Day) to being a childhood ritual of door-to-door sugar-laden extortion. Sugar skulls for Día de Los Muertos may be gaining on fun-size Snickers.

Now both the commercialism of Christmas and the pop culture iconography of Halloween have made their way into children’s Easter baskets. The hell of it (sorry not sorry) is that it’s most likely too late to turn back now.

Mash-ups of Christian and pagan holidays are par for the course. We get the Druidic Christmas trees and the Coke-ified Santa (originally a Christian Saint Nicholas) and the exchange of gifts on Saturnalia melded with of the celebration of a quiet birth.

I’m not saying that cultural mash-ups aren’t fun or happy or festive. I’m just saying it’s all gotten a little out of hand. We now have the ubiquitous image of Santa kneeling at the manger. How long until we have Mickey Mouse rolling away the stone?

 

Kiffles and Kugel, Facebook and Google

Dan was trying to remember the name of the holiday cookies he and his mother liked so much, but neither of them could recall it. “We used to have them at Uncle Rudy’s house,” Dan said. But no bells rang. Uncle Rudy was no longer available to provide any suggestions.

“What were they like?” I asked.

“They were rolled up and had walnuts in them.”

“Sounds a lot like rugelach,” I said. Strictly speaking, rugelach don’t have to be made with walnuts. They can have jam or other fillings inside. Along with hamentaschen, they’re a staple of Jewish baked goods. Dan had some Jewish relatives, so it seemed a good place to start the search.

“I think it began with a ‘k,'” he said.  “Maybe kugels?”

“No,” I said. “Kugel is a baked noodle dish. It’s not remotely like a cookie.”

So, as with most modern problems, we turned to Google. (At least it rhymes with kugel.) In fairly short order we found that the cookies in question were kiffles, and their origin was Hungarian. We found a recipe that sounded reasonably simple on Allrecipes.com.

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/235921/hungarian-kiffles/

I decided to check it out with a Hungarian friend to see if the recipe was authentic.  He said he didn’t remember them from childhood, but he added, “You had me at ‘a pound of butter.'” (Actually, they had me at “a pound of cream cheese.” The recipe made 36 cookies. It was clear that this was not a heart-healthy recipe, but what holiday baked goods are, really?)

Well, I suppose you can write the ending to this one. There is now half a batch of kiffle dough resting overnight in our fridge. Tomorrow we bake! And evaluate. And tweak if necessary for a second batch.

But the kiffle saga had me thinking. What other cookies or treats did people have in their childhood or from their heritage that they could no longer get or could barely remember? Naturally, this time I turned to Facebook. A quick post brought some interesting answers. And a lot of warm memories.

Jean remembered a cookie called Springerlies and thought they were Italian. “Mom’s friend made them. They were a real treat when we got them.”  Gwen replied that Springerlies are German, though most likely multicultural. “A friend spends days making them and other German cookies every year,” she said. “Awesome cookies!”

So here for you, Jean and Gwen, is a recipe:

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/9922/springerle-i/

Trish voted for Spritz cookies. “My mom used to make them, I think my Nana did too. I don’t have a recipe….” Well Trish, now you do! The recipe comes straight from Gold Medal Flour, so it ought to be authentic.

http://www.goldmedalflour.com/recipes/classic-spritz-cookies/ccd9d7f3-6075-4593-be61-7b0aeb02bc88

Lisa remembered, “My mom used to make these cookies called Spice of Life. They were a soft, dark molasses cookie, rolled in sugar. She’s lost the recipe, unfortunately, and I haven’t been able to recreate it.” Here you go, Lisa. This recipe actually appeared in a murder mystery by Diane Mott Davidson. It sounds fantastic! You had me at molasses and spices.

http://recipecircus.com/recipes/Stella/COOKIES/Spice-of-Life_Cookies.html

Jane’s favorite was date nut cookies.  They involved sweet dough, covered with dates and nuts, rolled like a jelly roll, sliced, and baked. “People are not into dates anymore, although about five years ago I saw the very same recipe in a magazine, and couldn’t believe it.” She also mentioned pizelles, very thin butter cookies, covered in powdered sugar. “They sell them in fancy shops, but you can make them pretty easily,” she added. They do require a special machine to make, which I’m guessing costs a packet at Williams Sonoma.

Melissa, whose background is Swiss-German, mentioned Mailänderli, Spitzbuebe, Basler Läckerli, and Züri Tirggel. “No one is ever going to make them like my grandmother did, and no place is ever going to be as comfortable as the chair in the tiny spot between the radiator and the kitchen table.” She’s been experimenting with recreating two of the cookies, but says she hasn’t got the texture quite right yet. Here’s a recipe for the Basler Läckerli:

https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/basler-leckerli-566387f7424bb12207dbef07

Gwen also told about a holiday cake – makowiac, or poppyseed roll, with filling 1/2″ thick. She says she has her grandmom’s recipe, but that it’s labor intensive. (I looked at a recipe and is she ever right!) Gwen ordered one from a specialty bakery and is hoping it lives up to the legendary dessert of memory.

Peggy said that her mom didn’t make cookies, instead making fudge and peanut butter balls for teacher gifts. Robbin makes rum balls that can knock you on your ass.

Other friends fondly remembered treats that are not uncommon nowadays but don’t always live up to memories. Michael mentioned Toll House cookies – the chewy kind. (I’m with him on that.) And Wendy was fond of Scooter Pies – Moon Pies, readily available, just aren’t the same, she says.

It was fun hearing the stories and chasing down recipes. To all my friends I wish fond memories and a lovely, treat-filled holiday! You’ve made mine a little bit sweeter.

Off-Duty Santa

My husband looks a lot like Jerry Garcia, at least in his “Touch of Grey” phase. Someone once said that if he were darker, he would look like Frederick Douglass. But most of the time, he gets mistaken for Santa Claus – even if it’s summer and he’s wearing his tie-dye shirt. Kids these days don’t know from Jerry Garcia.

Even without the red suit, Dan is perfectly Claus-esque. He has the white hair and beard, the red cheeks, the girth. I won’t compare it to a bowl of jelly, but it would shake when he laughs if he weren’t holding in his stomach.

Children recognize him everywhere he goes and react accordingly. Just yesterday we were sitting in a doctor’s waiting room and were facing the glass-paneled door to the hallway. Suddenly a little boy’s face with saucer-sized eyes appeared in one of the panes. He darted away and came back with his older brother. While they were staring and ducking, a younger sister appeared. Brave and uninhibited, she waved and blew kisses and tried to work the latch that opened the door. She banged on the glass panel and waved for all she was worth, while her brothers were content to play peek-and-hide. Everyone in the waiting room was enchanted, including us.

However, with great power comes great responsibility and Dan always uses his Santa powers for good. Once at a highway rest stop, he saw – and heard – a toddler screaming incessantly at the top of his small but surprisingly energetic lungs. He walked over to the child and said, “If you don’t calm down, I’ll have to put you on the naughty list.” The screaming stopped immediately and the mother silently mouthed “Thank you.” A job well done.

Although when it first happened Dan was annoyed, he has since become used to and often enjoys his year-round Christmas magic. Upon meeting two young boys in a restaurant (their mother asked permission first) the kids came up to him to verify that he was, indeed, Mr. Claus, who was apparently slumming at a diner during his off hours.

The boys asserted that they had been very good all year. Dan turned a stern if twinkling eye on them. “You could be a bit nicer to your little brother,” he told the elder. “And you could try a little harder in school,” he advised the younger. “We will, Santa! We will,” they promised. “Okay,” he said. “Now both of you do what your mother says!” as he strolled out of sight.

Being a random Santa actually suits Dan better than being a professional Santa. I understand that the gig pays well, but you can’t get one at a large store or mall without the proper credentials. Those red velvet suits are expensive. And so is professional Santa school, if you can find one in your area. Besides, all the fun might be taken out of it if it were a regular though seasonal job. There would be tragic kids – bring my father back, make my mother well. Dan’s an old softie, but there isn’t much to say to that. And there’d still be the everyday difficulties of dealing with terrified children, peeing children, and children who ask for a Lamborghini. A real one, not a model.

Besides, I’d make a terrible Mrs. Claus. I look ghastly in red.

 

The Grinch-Hating Grinch

Don’t get me wrong. I love Dr. Seuss. But I think the latest adaptation of the Grinch makes two too many.

I used to check out his works from the Bookmobile until my mother insisted that I get at least one book by another author at every visit. Although my all-time favorite was Green Eggs and Ham, I had a soft spot in my heart for How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

I was young enough to be thrilled when the book was made into a cartoon that was shown every Christmas from 1966 on. Who could possibly be better than Boris Karloff to narrate and voice the Grinch? And the uncredited Thurl Ravenscroft to sing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” (Trivia note: You may know Ravenscroft as the voice of Tony the Tiger in all those cereal commercials.) It was perfect just the way it was.

Since then there have been two other versions, both big-screen adaptations, a live-action version in 2000 starring Jim Carrey, and the other this year, a CGI animated movie with the main character voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. I have not been to see either one and have no intention of seeing them when they are shown on TV. I am a total Grinch about any version except the real Grinch.

There were difficulties in making the 1966 version. The original Grinch was a poem of only 32 lines. To make it into a cartoon that would run 30 minutes (or however long it was without commercials) required some creative stretches. The Ravenscroft song was added, of course, plus a lot of comic bits featuring the dog Max, the Whos singing around the tree, and extended visualizations of the Grinch preparing his Santa suit and maneuvering down Mt. Crumpet. They all fit neatly into the narrative. Not one moment seemed out of place.

The Jim Carrey live-action version ran 105 minutes and Benedict Cumberbatch’s, 86 minutes. No matter how clever their additions to the basic plot, they could only serve to clutter Seuss’s simple plot and spot-on characterizations. At over an hour each, that’s a lot of stretching.

That’s the problem with remakes or reboots or reloads or whatever they want to call them. They almost never live up to the original. Bedazzled, for example, was a perfect little gem starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I didn’t mind the gender-swapping of having Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil (with Brendan Fraser as her hapless foil), but the broader style of humor, including throwing away one of the best gags in the original, was in no way better.

There are other examples. Think of The Thomas Crown Affair, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or any of the Inspector Clouseau movies. None of those were necessary. The movies were just fine the way they were. (The only really good update – and it was an adaptation, not a straight remake – was when the ultra-serious Zero Hour was morphed into the uber-comic classic Airplane!)

I do understand the motivations behind these remakes, primarily money. Proven classics should be proven box office hits the second or third or fourth time around, and the producers, directors, and writers don’t even have to think up new plots and characters.

Then there’s the excuse of “introducing a new generation of young people to a classic film using stars they’re familiar with.” Jimmy Stewart and Gene Tierney stand the test of time and so do many others. It’s too bad that most people only see their work if they take a film class in college.

At any rate, I boycotted the Jim Carrey Grinch and will do the same for Benedict Cumberbatch’s. If that makes me a Grinch, so be it. I realize that my singular protest will affect them and their box office prospects not in the slightest. I shall do it anyway.

For the memory of Dr. Seuss, if nothing else.

The Year Our Christmas Presents Changed

Our family Christmases were idyllic, if simple. Each year on Christmas Day, we would all open our presents. My sister and I would get doll clothes (this was when you got outfits, not multiple Barbies) and plush animals, Spirograph and paint-by-numbers, and such.

Then we’d get dressed, jump in the car, and drive to Granny’s house, where we’d open more gifts of clothes and stationery and Avon cologne. We’d wreak havoc on a turkey and trimmings, before the adults went off for naps, after dropping us kids off at the movies.

Then came the year when my sister and I had to grow up fast.

My parents had always tried to keep any bad news away from us and carry on as normal, but there was no hiding this bad news. After being accidentally hit by the garage door, my father’s injured neck turned out to be something much worse than a sprain, strain, or contusion. It wasn’t the garage door that caused it. of course, but that was when my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

It’s a horrible form of cancer that attacks the bones all throughout the body and destroys them. I hope the treatments have gotten better in the decades since, but for my father cancer meant radiation, chemotherapy, and an operation to fuse the bones of his neck using bone from his hip. He lived many years longer than the doctors predicted, which I attribute to his stubbornness. He certainly wasn’t a health aficionado.

Naturally, all those cancer treatments and hospitalizations were expensive. My parents had good insurance, but even that was nowhere near covering the costs. And my father’s illness was not something my parents could keep secret from us kids, much as they would have liked to. It affected every part of our lives.

When Christmas came that year, I was 15 and my sister was 16. My mother explained that because of the family’s medical expenses, we wouldn’t be able to have Christmas as usual. No driving from Ohio to Kentucky to see our relatives. And no Christmas presents.

Except one.

My mother said that all we could afford was a magazine subscription for each of us. Our choice of titles. She hoped we weren’t disappointed.

I wasn’t. To me, a magazine subscription was special, something that grown-ups got, and something that kept giving all year long. I chose Analog, a science fiction magazine, and my sister chose Sixteen. It was exciting to watch the mail for each month’s issue. (As kids, we didn’t usually get much mail, except cards on our birthdays.)

For the Christmases after that, my mother would renew our subscriptions, or let us change to a different title. When I started studying astronomy in high school, I switched to Sky and Telescope. When she turned 17, my sister switched to Seventeen.

Now I subscribe to the electronic versions of three magazines –Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Discover. I still get a little thrill each month when the new cover icon appears on my e-reader screen. It reminds me of the first time I ever got an actual, grown-up present – when I started becoming an adult, whether I wanted to or not.

 

The Not-So-Traditional Cookie Challenge

Make three different cookies – a dozen of each – inspired by your family holiday memories and traditions.

That was the assignment on a recent holiday baking show I watched.

It occurred to me that I would have failed miserably. It’s not that I can’t bake, or that I can’t bake cookies. I just have no family memories or traditions associated with cookies.

My family never baked at the holidays. Occasionally we’d get a tin or box of assorted cookies – chocolate and plain shortbreads, butter cookies, and so forth – that we kids called “kind-a-wanna cookies” because we could each choose the kind we wanted.

My mother’s baking exploits centered around box cake mixes, lemon meringue pies for my father (his favorite dessert), and slice-n-bake chocolate chip cookies. (I notice that now the company that makes these believes even slicing to be too much to task the modern baker with.)

I did have one holiday cookie-baking ritual in my teens, however. I would go over to my friend Peggy’s house and we would make either chocolate chip cookies (from scratch, no slicing involved) or sugar cookies.

The chocolate chip cookies were ones we had learned how to bake in home ec class and Peggy still had the original recipe on the original 3″ x 5″ index card. (I know she recopied the card when it became old and ragged, and I think she may have laminated it.) Actually, Peggy did the baking. I helped with the math (2/3 cup butter times 2 is 4/3 cup is 1-1/3 cups) and ate some of the raw cookie dough, this being back in the days before that was dangerous or if it was, we didn’t know it.

Our other holiday cookie tradition was Christmas sugar cookies. Again, these were from scratch and my assignment was to sprinkle the cut-out Santas and bells and stars with red and green sugar sprinkles. We’d listen to the radio (but not Christmas carols) and tuck the cookies lovingly away in colorful tin boxes with layers of wax paper. After eating just a couple ourselves, of course.

So, were I to be magically transported to a holiday baking contest, what could I make? Chocolate chip and sugar cookies, of course. Though I’d have to think up trendy flavors like bourbon-guava-cinnamon-chip cookies and sugar cookies adorned with fondant and gum paste and decorative isomalt shards.

But what would my third cookie be?

As a young adult, I had a recipe for a spice cake with raisins that I adored. Back in the day my friends and I were always broke, so I made small loaf pans of spice cake and my husband made miniature banana cakes from his Grammy’s recipe. So I suppose I  might have to fudge a little and make banana-spice cookies with raisins. (Fudge! Now there’s an idea!) Not a childhood memory, but sort of a family tradition, of a new family just starting out anyway.

I suppose I could make some kind of peanut butter cookie. That was one my mother did make from scratch, and I loved pressing the fork into the dough to make the criss-cross on top. (I suppose today we would call them “hashtag cookies.”) They’re not very “holiday,” but at least they represent a family memory.

Or, if I was a really accomplished baker, I could invent some kind of lemon-bar cookie with a toasted meringue on top, in honor of my father’s favorite, but non-holiday, pie. My mother would slip the pie into the oven to brown the meringue, but nowadays I see people using blowtorches. I still think of blowtorches as things that belong in the garage, though, not the kitchen.

No, this year I’ll do the same as ever. I don’t have children and Peggy’s son is now grown, but when she comes to town for the holidays, I fully expect we’ll both make time in our schedules for a cookie-baking fest. Chocolate chip cookies and sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles. They won’t win any competitions, but I can honestly say they are holiday traditions.

 

 

Better Than a Flying Toaster

 

tultr copyWhat a long way we’ve come from the days of flying toasters! Now instead of using a prefab screensaver or lock screen, it’s easy to create one of your own – one that has a special meaning for you.

My husband is a talented amateur photographer, specializing in nature photos. He didn’t have confidence in himself, however, dbl orng copyand I wanted to do something that would let him know how much I appreciate his talent and how much I love the results.

When he started taking photos I had assisted by cropping and color-correcting them. But after he stopped using his camera phone and got a small, peppers copyinexpensive, but fairly good quality digital camera, the most his photos needed was a tiny tweak or crop. There was nothing else I could do to the photos that would improve them.

Without telling him, I arranged a dozen or so of his photos into a photo by Dan Reilyslideshow with Ken Burns dissolves and used that as my screensaver. Then I invited him into my study and made conversation until the screensaver
kicked in. “Hey!” he said, “Those are my photos!” He was really touched that I had liked them enough to use them. Crocus copy

Later that year I selected a number of the photos and had them made into a calendar as a surprise for him and Christmas gifts for our friends and family. It was my way of showing how much I thought of his photography and how much I love him. I don’t think I will ever find a better screensaver, though I may add slides to it as he continues to snap his way through nature.

Photos by Dan Reily

Christmas Comes Creeping

It’s that time of year again – the time when we all bitch about Christmas Creepage. You know – how Christmas decorations and other fol-de-rol appear earlier every year, so that now they practically impinge on Halloween.

You get no sympathy from me. Here’s why.

First, it’s not going to change. Some businesses have decided to close on Thanksgiving “to be with family,” despite the fact that the only thing anyone buys on Thanksgiving are the dinner rolls you forgot to pick up when you bought the fried onions and mushroom soup for the traditional, little-beloved green bean casserole. But that’s a different matter.

Christmas creepage is purely a matter of the bottom line. If starting the decorating and selling didn’t make a difference in profits, the stores wouldn’t do it. But they both expect and get the Pavlovian response – reminding people of Christmas reminds people that they haven’t finished (or perhaps even started) shopping yet.

Therefore, creeping Christmas tut-tutting belongs in the same category as “You know as soon as they finish paving this road it’ll just be time to pave it again” and “Why do the hot dogs and buns never come out even?” Ritual plaints with no hope of resolution. So if we stop worrying about when the bells start jingling, we can expend our nerve endings on really important matters like “Forget universal health care. Why is there no universal law about where we can buy booze on Sundays?”

That said, there is another reason that angsting over the continual push-back of Christmas starting dates is an exercise in futility. Just as with starving orphans, there is always someone who is worse off than you are.

Consider the employees who work in those stores that commence holiday frivolities sooner than you would like. The clerks and stockers and servers have to put up with hearing the same Christmas tunes every shift, every hour, every day. Mostly involving the colors red (-nosed reindeer) and silver (bells), or speculations on what Santa may or may not be doing (checking lists, kissing Mommy, delivering hippopotami). Because, let’s face it, there are only so many Christmas songs in existence, especially secular ones appropriate to be associated with commerce.

You may not realize it, but there are professions in which preparations for Christmas start even earlier. Religious publishing, for example. So much lead time is required to put out a monthly magazine that editors must start planning their back-to-school issue before school adjourns for the summer. The Christmas issue has to be in process before Labor Day, at least. By the time Christmas actually arrives, the employees threaten to have a breakdown if one more person says, “the reason for the season” or puts up a display of a kneeling Santa.

Craft stores, I think, have it the worst of all. They not only have to sell kits and supplies for making Christmas decorations, they have to sell them in time for crafters to finish them before Thanksgiving (or earlier). Roughly the Fourth of July.

As for me, I’ve pushed Christmas preparations all the way back to January 1st. I once worked in an office in which all the women wore Christmas sweaters, and non-ironically at that. Some even wore Christmas sweatshirts on Casual Fridays, but that leads us back to the craft store dilemma.

I refused to give in to the price-gouging that ensued in December, not to mention the fact that I felt most of the sweaters fell into the category of Ugly Christmas Sweaters. So I waited till January and bought the leftovers at bargain prices. I thought the leftover sweaters were by far the nicest, since they didn’t feature the gung-ho-ho-ho excess of the more popular ones.

I finally acquired a respectable collection (you need four or five, at least, because of course you can’t wear the same one again and again). Then I left that job to go freelance. The Christmas sweaters now reside on shelves in my closet, longing for the day when I get invited to a holiday party. Which doesn’t happen often, probably because no one trusts me not to show up in a Grinch sweater.

 

 

Gift Giving: The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

Giving gifts is an act fraught with significance and anxiety.(1) How much should I spend? Will the person re-gift this? How the hell do I wrap and ship a live goat?(2)

Never fear. Here are some tips on what to do, what to avoid, and how to make sure your gift is really special.

The Good. My husband, Dan, is the best gift-giver I know. His strategy is to follow me discreetly around a mall or exhibit hall, note what I ooh and ahh over, and sneak back to buy it.(3)

Another good strategy is the one he and my mother cooked up one year. They went through old boxes and closets and found things I had forgotten about that were a bit the worse for wear – a tambourine, a doll, a ceramic Christmas tree I had made – then cleaned, repaired, and refurbished them. Items I had forgotten I owned were especially nice.

I have a hard time getting gifts for my husband. He belongs to the “Here’s what I want; just get me that” school of thinking. That is no fun. But I probably should just go with his requests, because I often end up getting him things he doesn’t want or use, like a yogurt maker or a GPS for his car.(4)

Once, though, I thought of Exactly the Right Thing. He had an old, orange-striped cat, and I had a friend who was a painter. She told me how to take a good natural-light photo of the cat and then turned it into a painting.(5)

The Bad. Rex, a former boyfriend, never knew what to get me for any occasion. He therefore unilaterally decided that I would henceforth collect heart-shaped boxes. I received boxes decorated with ribbons, fashioned from colorful stones, and so forth – none of which I particularly wanted.(6) Something to store in those boxes – say, jewelry – would have been much more welcome.

The Weird. If you know as many weird people as I do, you enter the realm of weird gifts. The world’s ugliest Goodwill tie fitted with a microchip that plays “You Light Up My Life.” A 12 Days of Christmas themed “Three French Hens” – three eggs decked in tiny black lace garter belts. A toy chicken that walks and lays malted milk balls.(7) The Black Widow model slingshot.

If there’s a White Elephant or pick-or-take gift exchange it can get weird quickly, too. Ten dollars worth of toilet paper.(8) A mug that says “I Don’t Have Herpes.” Sea monkeys. An inexplicable purple and orange glass thing. It’s even more strange when the weird gift is the one that people fight over.

There are other considerations besides the appropriate gift. For instance, there’s:

Wrapping. My efforts at wrapping resemble those of a ten-year-old child. But at least I try to be creative. I once wrapped an umbrella to look like a candy cane, if a wrinkled, uneven one. And if I give boring socks (in addition to a more interesting gift), I like to wrap each pair in a different sized and shaped package.(9)

Gift cards. Some feel that receiving them is boring and giving them is a cop-out. Not my friend Michael. He has an entire philosophy of gift cards: “Making sure that the gift doesn’t get squandered on something I was going to (or needed to) purchase anyway.”

He explains, “To me, respecting the gift means using it on something outside the ordinary, or at least something I would have trouble allowing myself to get with family funds. Something that will stay associated with the giver in my mind, at least for a while.” Think of that the next time someone gives you a gift card.

Poverty Christmas. One of the best holidays I remember was when all of my friends and I were broke the same year. Separately, we each had the idea of hand-making or hand-selecting gifts. I cross-stitched potpourri sachets. Meg baked cookies. Phil went to a used book store and found exactly the right book for everyone. Rhonda decorated small baskets of inexpensive treats. That was really an “It’s the thought that counts” kind of year. Since we all did it, it wasn’t even embarrassing.

There you have it: my advice on gift-giving. Go good. Go weird. Go small. But don’t try to make someone collect heart-shaped boxes.

(1) At least it is for me. Once I walked into a store to buy a baby shower gift and instantly got a charlie horse near my collarbone. It felt like a ping-pong ball under my skin. Only painful. Excruciatingly painful.

(2) No, I’ve never actually tried to do this. I use Kiva.com for all my goat-gifting needs.

(3) Sometimes he even pretends the store was out of whatever to make the surprise even more of a roller-coaster of disappointment and delight.

(4) Truthfully, I am the GPS for his car. I suppose I should be glad that he prefers me to electronics, but somehow I’m not.

(5) I also had the painting printed onto a t-shirt so that when he said, “Hey, that looks like my cat!” I could say, “It is!” and give him the painting.

(6) Teapots. Eggcups. Stuffed armadillos. Almost anything would have been more to my taste. I sometimes wonder how many other women he knew suddenly found themselves collecting heart-shaped boxes.

(7) I suppose it was meant to be laying them, but it really looked like it was pooping the candy. And I never liked malted milk balls anyway.

(8) It makes an impressive-sized package, if you get the really cheap kind. People love that.

(9) Yes, I know I’m wasting trees, but at Christmas it hardly seems to matter.

 

Let’s Call a Truce on Christmas

I wrote this over a year ago, but it still seems relevant.

Time to choose sides again, folks. There’s a war on Christmas, says Bill O’Reilly. No there isn’t, says Jon Stewart. Christians are being persecuted. Christians are the ones persecuting. “Merry Christmas” is forbidden. “Merry Christmas” is mandatory. The Constitution forbids manger scenes. The First Amendment protects manger scenes.

I hate war metaphors. There are too many of them and they encourage a martial mindset. War on Terror. War on Poverty. War on Drugs. Cupcake Wars. My least favorite hymn is “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”(1) So let’s dispense with the whole “War on Christmas” thing. Until automatic rifles and tactical nukes are involved. Then I’ll be willing to call it a war.

What side am I on, I hear you ask? To quote Tolkien’s Treebeard, “I am not altogether on anyone’s side because nobody is altogether on my side….” (If you promise not to say “the reason for the season,” I will admit that crass commercialism and greed are, I believe, the real forces that threaten Christmas.) So, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.(2)

Christians are being persecuted. Yes, they are, and it’s appalling, indecent, and shameful. Christians are being persecuted in Iraq. In North Korea. In India. In China. In other countries around the world. They are being killed or driven out of their homes and towns. They are jailed for preaching and handing out Bibles.

None of that is happening in the U.S., most likely because Christians are in the majority here. Christians are persecuted in places where they are in the minority. If you think you’re being persecuted by being asked to say, “Happy Holidays,” think again.

Christians aren’t allowed to say “Merry Christmas.” Well, sure you can say “Merry Christmas.” Say it to your friends and relatives. Say it to passersby and people in the streets. Say it to Jews and Muslims and Buddhists if you want. The one place saying “Merry Christmas” is frowned on is in the workplace.

Let’s think about this a minute. There are all sorts of things that employers don’t want employees to do in the workplace. Some of them don’t allow facial hair. Some insist that tattoos be covered. No one wants you to come to work with dirt under your fingernails.(3) They don’t allow you to call customers granny or bro or stink face. Why? They want you to show respect, so that customers will keep returning and spending money. Flip it. If every store that Christians went into greeted them with “Happy Hannukah” or “Joyous Eid,” would they feel welcome and respected and want to come back? No?

America is a Christian nation and should follow Christian laws. Here’s where things get sticky. It’s true that many of the founders were Christians.(4) And many of them were getting the hell out of countries that told them what kind of Christians they had to be – Catholics or Protestants. Or Calvinists or Presbyterians. Or nonbelievers.

So it shouldn’t be any surprise that in the U.S. Constitution, the very first Right in the Bill of, it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”(5)
Simply, the government can’t tell you what religion to be – Christian, Baha’i, Sikh, Jewish, or none of the above. And the government can’t stop you from practicing that religion, or none.(6)

And that’s it. The government can’t show preference to ANY religion, because the founders knew personally how easy it is for that to be abused.

My Freedom of Speech means I can say “Merry Christmas” if I want to. Yes, it does. The government can’t tell you not to, or punish you if you do. But the government also can’t forbid people to say “Joyous Kwanzaa” or “Enjoy the holiday of your choice.”(7) But, as noted, while the government can’t do that, many businesses ask employees not to. Blame them or boycott them if such be your inclination. Just don’t drag the government into it.

But we can’t put up manger scenes in public places. Sure you can. Have the biggest one you want in front of your house or your church or your private school or even your restaurant (if you don’t mind driving away non-Christian customers). But, again, the government wants to stay hands-off. No manger scenes in front of public buildings that everyone of every religion gets to use. Yes, all are welcome at the court building, the IRS offices, and the public schools.(8)(9)

So, that’s the story. It’s government places that have to call things “holiday” this-and-that. Many people and businesses think that’s a good idea and do likewise. Others object, and the government can’t tell them not to. It’s got enough headaches.

But it’s also the government that can’t say a thing about how you choose your holiday or celebrate it or decorate for it or speak about it. And if anyone tries to stop you, the government will tell them to cut out that nonsense.

So when former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) decried anti-Christian persecution in America, comparing it to Nazis and the Holocaust, you can just ignore him. No one here is heating the ovens, and he probably just wanted to get his name in the papers, or votes, or something. Besides, whoever mentions Nazis first, loses the argument. That’s a rule.(10)

Peace, everyone. Can we all agree on that?

(1) We’ll leave the Salvation Army out of this. For now. Except I have to say that I like the ones that play saxophones instead of ringing bells.
(2) Two cents. It’s worth exactly two cents. Duh.
(3) Except for mechanics. They can probably get away with it.
(4) Or at least deists.
(5) In this sentence, “respecting” means “about.” No law about establishment of religion.
(6) Unless you break fundamental laws, like about not beheading people. They get kinda cranky about that.
(7) My favorite. It offends either no one or everyone.
(8) You know, the ones that local, state, and federal governments (that aren’t allowed to mess with religion) let you send your children to for free.
(9) A personal plea: If you do set up a manger scene somewhere, PLEASE don’t do the kneeling Santa thing. It was thought-provoking the first 7,000 times, but now it’s merely provoking.
(10) Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies. It’s in the Third OED, which is authority enough for me.