Category Archives: holidays

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.

Is Today a Pants Day?

Believe it or not, there is a holiday on which people walk around with no pants. (This year it’s celebrated on May 4 – the first Friday in May.) There are no official rules, other than not wearing pants and pretending that nothing is out of the ordinary. For the shy men, skirts or kilts may be worn. The traditional way to celebrate No-Pants Day is to ride the subway, but we don’t have one around here, so the idea hasn’t really caught on.

(It is a day, I suppose, to work out those dreams you have when you show up at work with no pants on. My problem is that I dream about showing up naked AND NO ONE NOTICES.)

Having a day to celebrate no pants is all well and wonderful. But what about people who wear no pants year-round? People like me.

As a freelance writer and editor, whose only commute is from upstairs to downstairs, I don’t really have to worry about pants. Other writers I know like to wear pants (or skirts) because it gives them a feeling of being at work officially, even if they’re doing that work in the privacy of their own home.

Not me. I relish the freedom of being a work-from-home person and I almost never wear pants while I work. Oh, in the winter I break out the Sheldon-esque plaid flannel jammies and work wearing those. But when the weather is warmer, I settle for a nightshirt or a t-shirt, sans pants.

Really, I could work in even less, except my study is on the ground floor and there’s a window. There’s a shrub in front of it, but still, I find it best not to encourage the neighbor boys.

I find nightshirts soothing and relaxing and completely conducive to work. They also make it easier for me to take naps in the middle of the day, which is one of the other perks of being a freelancer.

But there’s another aspect of the pants vs. no pants dilemma to be considered. A friend of mine and I refer to days when we actually have the energy to go outside and run errands or be social as “pants days,” because we have to put on pants to do so. He’s a writer too and has as much right to work in his bathrobe as I do.

Plus, both of us are given to spells of depression when we can scarcely get out of bed, much less out-of-doors. So we report, “I’ve had three pants days this week” or “I finally had a pants day yesterday,” and congratulate ourselves and each other for having the stamina to insert legs and zip.

I suppose I could wear a skirt or a dress and call it a pants day, but if I do go out, I almost always wear jeans – unless I’m going to a job interview or a meeting with the IRS. I’d be much more relaxed in pajama pants, but there you are. Society has dumb rules. And please don’t tell me that there are things called pajama jeans. That’s cheating.

And by the way, in case you wondered, for me, no-pants days are also no-bra days – but that’s a subject for another time. (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-c8)

 

 

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.

 

 

Getaway: Creepy to Castle to Country

“How far away is Massachusetts?”

“About 12 hours, maybe more.” My husband has less than a keen grasp on geography. Also, he asks questions out of order. When he asks me about Massachusetts, I know there’s a question behind the question.

“How would you like to sleep in Lizzie Borden’s house?” Ah, the real question. Dan had read that the Borden residence was now a bed and breakfast and he was pretty sure I’d be interested. After all, he’s met me. When we went to London I insisted on taking the Jack the Ripper Walk, the one led by Donald Rumbelow, author of The Complete Jack the Ripper, so I could get him to autograph my copy.

I’m not saying that I would want to do the Assassination Vacation thing like Sarah Vowell, but true crime interests me and we had been talking about a long weekend getaway.

But there was a problem. Two, actually. Apart from the fact that Massachusetts was too far to drive for a three-day weekend, there was the ambience of the Borden b-n-b, as I learned online. Far from true crime, it was being billed as paranormal. Psychic readings. Ghost cams. All that ooga-booga shit I have no use for. I was glad to abandon the idea and search for less hokey, and closer, accommodations.

The next thing Dan suggested was a castle. I had told him about the wonderful castle tours in Ireland, and he thought he remembered that there were castles – or at least replica castle hotels – within our state. So back to the Internet I went.

There are indeed castles in Ohio. None authentic, as we’ve never had an Earl of Chillicothe or Baron of Akron, but several nonetheless. Some sounded very interesting, with little, attached taverns or pubs or assorted square and round towers. The problem here was that they were out of our price range. We could afford one night. Driving somewhere, spending one night, and driving back isn’t my idea of relaxation, unless we have an interesting relative within driving distance, which we mostly don’t.

(We’re keeping some of the non-hotel castles in mind as day trips. A tour and a meal sound like a fine one-day getaway.)

By chance, the next day I got an email from a travel discounting service (all right, it was TravelZoo), advertising a 60% off rate on a stay at a working farm in Kentucky. Not an old farm, but one built in the 90s, recent enough to have Jacuzzis in some rooms and Wifi throughout.

If that sounds a lot like glamping, well it is. But the place also offers opportunities to milk cows or goats; gather eggs for breakfast; learn canning, gardening, and other farm-type activities, plus take tours of a thoroughbred horse park or bourbon distilleries and vinyards.

Two discounted nights at the farm were only a few dollars more than one night in a castle, and only three hours or so away. And it seemed a pleasant combination of rest and recreation. I emailed, got a speedy answer to my question, and booked right away, in the middle of the night, from my tablet. Now we have a voucher and just have to pick a date, perhaps around our anniversary.

There’s no crime connection, and no pseudo-castle, but there is fresh air in different surroundings, plus activities that will take me back to my childhood stays at Uncle Sam’s farm. (Yes, I had an actual Uncle Sam. I also had an actual Aunt Jemima. Yes, I know it’s funny.)

In one day our travel plans had ricocheted from creepy to medieval to rustic. We’re flexible like that.

 

 

The Great Thanksgiving Ratatouille

One Thanksgiving, the thing I was most grateful for was my husband’s only friend. John became Dan’s only friend when Dan was on his way to ultimate burn-out at work. John was there to listen, which he did exceedingly well. He was my friend as well because we shared similar tastes in books and music.

John was a welcome addition to our small family holiday gatherings. Often the guest list was me, my mother, Dan, and John. All of us lacked other family in the area, so we’d gather at my mother’s and order in Mr. Kroger’s holiday fixin’s.

Occasionally, one of us would cook. That year I felt ambitious. Not Martha-Stewart-huge-turkey ambitious, but I thought I could manage a one-pot meal – ratatouille. I was in the habit of preparing non-traditional holiday meals because they annoyed my sister, who was old-school in her thinking: Thanksgiving and Christmas must feature turkey, Easter is for ham, Fourth of July is for hamburgers and hot dogs, and Earth Day is for, I don’t know, mud pies? She wasn’t present that year, but it’s the principle of the thing.

So I chopped eggplant and onions and zucchini and yellow squash and mushrooms and tomatoes and put them in a large pot, along with stock and garlic and assorted herbs and spices, and left it to simmer until all the ingredients got acquainted and agreed to play nicely together. Because John was a committed carnivore, I added some kielbasa as well. I like to think the kielbasa would have added a level of outrage had my sister been there, but really, the ratatouille would have been enough to set her off.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so my Mom and John and I gathered in the living room for chat and shrimp cocktail. So far, so good.

Eventually we moved into the kitchen and I dished up heaping bowls of fragrant, chunky ratatouille. I watched in anticipation as John dipped his spoon in and lifted it to his lips.

He swallowed. Then he raised his hands to his throat and started making hacking noises.

Now, most cooks would be alarmed by this sort of thing. And I was.

I rushed around the table and attempted the Heimlich Maneuver, but discovered my arms were too short to Maneuver properly. “Do you want us to call an ambulance?” I asked.

“Yes,” John croaked. (This actually calmed me an infinitesimal fraction. A person who can talk under those circumstances is not going to die right then.)

Shortly a fire truck, an ambulance, and two police cars pulled up in front of the house. It must have been a slow Thanksgiving. Emergency personnel trooped in as each vehicle arrived, decided that John was unlikely to die in the next few minutes, and turned their attention to the aromas wafting from the kitchen.

“Wow! That smells good! What is it?” each asked.

“Ratatouille,” I would reply.

“What’s that?”

“A Mediterranean vegetable stew made with eggplant.”

“Maybe he’s choking on a bone.”

“An eggplant doesn’t have bones,” I would explain. This entire conversation was repeated, verbatim, each time another would-be rescuer walked in.

John was hauled off to the emergency room and I followed. Medical-type events ensued. John was asked to cough, substances were sprayed into his throat, and an x-ray was taken. It took a while.

It took so long that our friends, the ambulance people, brought in another patient, saw us in our little cubicle, and said in amazement, “You’re still here?”

At this point I gave up and went to the hospital cafeteria for a festive Thanksgiving cheeseburger, and thought about my sister while I ate it. When I returned, John was still waiting patiently (no pun intended).

Finally, a truly clever doctor arrived and looked down John’s throat with a scope. “There’s something lying on top of his vocal cords,” he reported. “It looks like … some kind of leaf.”

Instantly I knew what had happened. “It’s the fucking bay leaf,” I said. John had swallowed it with his first spoonful of ratatouille, and it had lodged in his windpipe. The doctor asked John to cough really hard, and the bay leaf came flying out. It was the first time the doctor had ever encountered a bay-leaf-related emergency, he told us. It was our first, too.

We went back to my mother’s house, fed John some ice cream for his poor, abused throat, and he left to go home and lie down. As the door closed behind him, my mother turned to me and said, “I don’t think he’s going to sue us.”

Forever after, the dish was known as my killer ratatouille recipe. Not many people ask for it, for some reason.

This year, I’ll use a bouquet garni! Then I can be thankful that everyone will live through Thanksgiving dinner.

___

This is a revision of a post from a couple of years ago, but I thought it was worth resurrecting.

 

 

The Obligatory Mothers Day Post

Mother’s Day is fine if you have either a mother or children. Otherwise, it’s difficult, confusing, and even annoying. And for some people, worse than that.

Let’s think about this.

Grunge vintage floral backgroundChildless women

According to U.S. Census data, less than half of women are mothers. Yet childless women are ignored on Mothers Day. For childless-by-choice women, this is usually okay, except for reminding them that they are not participating in what society tells us is the greatest experience in life. And on Mothers Day, all women are assumed to have children. Try eating out and see if you aren’t handed a flower just because you are of an age to reproduce (or have ever been at an age when you could have reproduced), whether or not you have children in tow.

But for women who are childless – and not by choice – Mothers Day can be a day of profound sorrow. Infertile women; women who’ve had miscarriages or even some who’ve had abortions; women without partners who believe a child needs a father; women whose children have died from disease, violence, or suicide can find Mothers Day an occasion for mourning rather than cheer.

 

Mandatory Cheer

And let’s talk about how society requires that people be joyous and appreciative on Mothers Day.

First, we know that much hoopla regarding Mothers Day is promoted by the greeting card, florist, jewelry, perfume, beauty products, restaurant and any other industry that can think of a way to get you to buy something “for Mom.” Churches, civic groups, and other organizations are on the bandwagon too. Mothers Day sermons, “Best Mom” contests, and modeling dough handprints abound.

In the midst of all this glowing praise, we seem to forget that not all mothers are good mothers and not all children are good children. Who would want to be reminded that Mom was abusive? That a hoped-for child is a drug addict? That the relationship between mother and child is irretrievably broken for any reason?

 

The Deserving Others

And whom else do we leave out on Mothers Day?

How about single fathers?

How about people whose mothers have recently died?

Do we forget about adoptive parents in the flurry of sentiment over giving birth?

Do we neglect foster parents, too?

And aren’t there teachers and counselors and other caregivers who give as much love and promote a child’s healthy growth by being a mother-figure – sometimes a child’s only one?

In our zeal to celebrate motherhood, do we forget that there are many kinds of families, and that families of the heart are as important as families that share DNA?

And what about mothers-in-law? I had a wonderful mother, whose memories I treasure and whose passing I grieve. She was kind, and giving, and determined to do the best for her family. But now I have a mother-in-law who is devoted, and generous, and someone I can proudly cal “Mom.” Isn’t she worthy of honor and celebration, too?

So what’s the take-away for me? That I have deeply mixed feelings about the holiday and how it’s celebrated? Yes. That I have had good mothers and mother-figures? Yes. That I know not everyone’s experiences of motherhood and raising children are ideal? Yes. That I think society puts too much pressure on women to be mothers? Yes. That I deplore the commercialism and no-thought gifts that get so much emphasis placed on them? Yes.

Am I a mother? No.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to opinions on the subject.

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.