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What to get yourself for Christmas

picardchristmas

A cynic has no easier target than Christmas.  As November wanes and December waxes, garlands rise incrementally around the malls, Fox renews its annual War on Christmas™ coverage and the radio stations shuffle over to endless repeats of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” the holiday season reboots with all the originality and fervor of the latest superhero remake.  As the ornamented train shambles into the station, it brings with it the usual trappings of tinsel, spiked eggnog, impossible toy wish lists tailored by marketers and advertisers, hour-long quests for parking spots and harried photographers trying to capture the split second between tantrums as the toddler squirms on the lap of the weird bearded guy in the fuzzy red suit.  Movie studios roll out their usual December double act of just-in-time-for-awards-consideration artsy pieces and cheaply-cobbled- usually-starring-someone-from-a-failed-sitcom holiday fare for our consumption along with the millions of slain turkeys, pigs and tofu sloths we will burn for five hours and set amidst the plastic paraphernalia of our impeccably adorned dining room tables.  We will then gather the clan of people we’d ignore on the street if they weren’t related to us and consume our approximate body weight in shortbread and stuffing while hoping we don’t have to be subjected to yet another lecture about kids these days from the annoying uncle who dips too deeply into the punch bowl.

I nearly succumbed to this attitude the other night, while propelling our otherwise efficient and modestly economic vehicle at a funereal pace over gray sludge-strewn streets behind a throng of other roving metal boxes bent on the same destination.  Patience burned away to embers, and if not for the presence of my son in the back seat I have no doubt a few choice profanities would have splattered across the inside of my windshield.  Other than the exhaustion brought on by the end of the work day fused with sub-zero temperature and the (excuse the hyperbole) sheer inhumanity of total darkness at 5 p.m., there was no reason for it.  But for that brief moment, my Christmas spirit was absent, as though I’d left it in my other pants.  It is, I realized, a challenge to keep it.  No wonder Scrooge needed three scary-ass poltergeists to get him back into shape.

Christmas, as we’ve come to know it now, practically dares you to hate it.  It dares you to throw your hands up in resignation at the consumerism, the kitsch, the frequently awful music, the endless toys demanded from Santa that will be forgotten by February and the obsessive desire of some to recreate a neo-Dickensian display of forced family unity.  The pursuit of the “perfect Christmas” can be more of an exercise in stagecraft, as in designing the ideal movie set to permit the spontaneous eruption of merriment.  The “spirit” of Christmas is codified in a series of boxes to be ticked off:  tree, lights, cards, food, brown paper packages tied up with string.  I’m an atheist as you well know, but I sympathize sometimes with the Christians who put the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs up out on their lawns alongside the backlit nativity scenes.  What are we celebrating, really?  The desperation of retailers to make up for months-long dry spells with one orgiastic year-end blow-out?  The ritual removal of millions of trees from the ecosystem to spend a few weeks inside living rooms before they are ground up for mulch?  Nerves frayed to the point of splitting in ensuring that everything goes exactly as planned and the turkey doesn’t catch fire?

To me, Christmas is best enjoyed broken down into small moments that form a series of triggers of positive emotions, both in connections to Christmases past and the forging of new memories to be cherished in the future.  The indelible scent of pine caught in the faintest whiff as you stroll into the kitchen for breakfast.  The adorable hand-crafted googly-eyed gingerbread man ornament smiling with a red felt mouth from within the branches.  The glow of candles and garland lights saturating the house with warmth as banks of frozen white pile up outside the windows.  The glint of those lights reflecting off the shiny wrap of the piles of gifts crowding the base of the tree.  Snowmen standing valiant guard outside.  The taste of cranberry, of red wine, of orange and of chocolate, popped into one’s mouth when no one is looking.  The scratches and pops on an old vinyl recording of a favorite holiday tune performed by a long-deceased crooner.  The telltale rattle of Lego in an unopened gift.  Fighting drowsy eyes to watch the 1951 A Christmas Carol for the thirtieth time while clad snug in brand new pj’s.  The silence of a house asleep, waiting for the arrival of Mr. Claus.  The face of the exuberant child beholding the bounty for the first time as cracks of sunlight spill through the windows and yawns escape lips.  The hug exchanged following the reveal of that most treasured item on the list that justifies in a heartbeat the hours spent combing the stores to find it.  And at the end of everything, sitting back on the couch, hot cocoa in hand, spouse curled up alongside, reflecting on a year of significant ups and dreary downs and thinking about the promise of new days to come.  Your mileage may vary, of course, but like the song says, these are a few of my favorite things.

You have to look for these little slices of wonder, be aware when they manifest and relish them before they disappear.  It’s the only way to avoid getting caught up in the pressure cooker that can often be the holiday experience and the overall dread of the inevitable January credit card bill.  But even the most notorious of failed Christmases will have its sublime moments hidden amidst the veil of falling snowflakes.  So grab a few this year and put them in your stocking.  They’re the best gift you can give yourself.

What are yours going to be?

The evolution of Christmas

It seems every year, about this time, a select few on the right-leaning side of the punditocracy get their collective knickers in a knot over a supposed “War on Christmas” being perpetrated by their ideological opponents.  As wars go, this imagined assault has to be one of the least successful campaigns in history, ranking somewhere between Custer at Little Big Horn, and anytime anyone has ever tried to invade Russia in the winter.  We’re not seeing the burned corpses of shopping mall Santa Clauses rotting in the streets.  Bright lights and fake reindeer still color our streetscapes.  Many mainstream FM radio stations still switch their playlists to all Christmas on December 1st – including songs celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.  And December 25th itself is still a statutory holiday.  This is hardly the time for so-called defenders of Christmas to circle the toy wagons and rend the linings of their Santa suits in desperation.  Just knock back an egg nog and chill.  Please.

Honestly, I’m not even sure what it is they’re protesting.  It’s not a return to tradition, as it’s plain that Christmas as we celebrate it and have celebrated it for well over a century has little to do with Jesus.  Customs like the tree, Santa Claus, eating turkey, none of those come from the Bible.  Indeed, what we think of as a proper Christmas owes more to the writings of Charles Dickens and his Cratchit family than it does to Church doctrine.  The date itself was picked by Pope Julius I in the 4th Century, borrowed (or stolen) from the pagan Saturnalia festival.  Even the Bible doesn’t claim that Christ was born in December – Bethlehem around this time of year hits sub-zero temperatures during the night, and shepherds would not be out watching their flocks in the fields, as it says in Luke 2.  And amazingly, Jeremiah 10:2-4 prohibits Christmas trees entirely:

2Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

3For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

4They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

As oppressed as those who lash out against this supposed shock and awe being perpetrated against the twenty-fifth of December by the evil liberal literati may feel nowadays, it used to be a lot worse.  In colonial America, celebrating Christmas would cost you a five-shilling fine – you could thank the humourless Puritans for that one.  The Founding Fathers didn’t think much of Christmas either, holding their first session of Congress on Christmas Day, 1789.  It wasn’t until 1870 that the U.S. government finally declared it a national holiday.

What probably sticks in their craw the most is that Christmas, like life itself, evolves.  Long gone, at least among the majority of those who observe the Yuletide holiday, is the absolute requirement to fast and attend a morose mass, replaced by the sound of little footsteps running down the stairs as soon as dawn breaks to see what Santa and the reindeer have brought.  From year to year, from generation to generation, Christmas is in motion as old traditions are modified, expounded upon, abandoned, as new carols are added to the canon, tastes in decoration (and food) change, new Christmas movies find their way into theaters.  But more importantly, Christmas changes as families themselves combine, separate, expand or contract.  Like a cosmic cornucopia of paint colors ebbing and flowing, blending together to produce new ways of celebrating the one day a year it remains a virtue to be nice to someone else just for the sake of being nice – in a world increasingly given to assigning a perplexing nobility to selfishness.

Santa Claus as we know him – the jolly fat guy in the red suit – was essentially a creation of the Coca-Cola company’s advertising department back at the turn of the 20th Century.  But we have applied that image to the legendary figure of St. Nicholas and crafted something entirely new, a character who now fires the imaginations of millions of children as they await his yearly arrival.  It evolved in our collective consciousness.  Much as Christmas itself will continue to evolve with the coming years and decades.  That isn’t a war on Christmas – it’s a perfectly natural next step.  Like the strongest in nature, Christmas will survive.  And to those trying to hold back the progress of nature, there’s truly only one reply:  Bah humbug.