Thursday, December 29, 2005

Merry Christ-mess

A toy store has exploded in our living room, or rather, where the living room used to be. Now only a wasteland remains, littered with torn plastic, wrapping paper and other holiday debris. Every few yards a toy peeks out, tossed aside by its elfin master for a newer, better one.

Only the brave dare wade through the knee-high bog of Christmas past. At any moment you could be seriously maimed by stepping into a hidden Lego minefield. It’s rumored that two skateboards also lurk beneath the rubble. A misstep onto one of those could send you flying into shards of thick, ragged plastic, or impale you on an army of tiny Viking warriors, the pain of which would only be surpassed by the giggles of the emergency room nurse as she removes their wee little Norse spears from your backside. Truly no place for faint hearts or sensitive feet.

This is a holiday hangover that can’t be cured with aspirin, but maybe with a snow shovel, a stealth shovel, because the first sound of clean-up is sure to bring the creators of this biohazard raging to its defense. If Santa was dumb enough to give them weapons, they will turn them on you. Otherwise, they’ll resort to whining and pleading at a pitch that sends the dog running for cover. A real Christmas, they’ll howl, is messy.

And they’re right. We’re so entrenched in the stereotypical postcard Christmas that the stress and strain to make our holiday perfect puts us all in a foul mood by Boxing Day. The real Christmas is not tidy packages under a perfect tree, a silent night, a shiny home. The first Christmas was a mess – no vacancies, hay everywhere, guests arriving really late, and the cow snored worse than my dad.

I heard it was great.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Mom's Recipe for a Traditional Holiday Meltdown

We never doubted there was a Santa. We did, however, worry that he would be able to make it past our parents. As Christmas approached, the vein in my mom’s forehead would get bigger and bigger, and her grip on sanity would tighten into a stranglehold. The thought of a chubby fun guy dropping in uninvited and tramping soot through her living room must have really made her nuts. About a week or two before the big day, as the four of us kids re-enacted our traditional holiday squabbling, she would finally blow. "That’s it! Santa’s NOT coming to THIS house this year!!!"

At first we were terrified. Santa always brought the best toys. Without him, all we had were bunny-suit pajamas from Nana and educational crappola from Mom and Dad. We would do everything in our power to placate Mom, petrified that the big guy would pass us by.

Then I figured it out. One year my brother gave the cat a bb-gun enema. Santa still came. The next year my sister spent staring oddly at classmates just to creep them out, and toys arrived right on time. I called a secret sibling meeting and shared my results. We graphed our naughty vs. nice annuities, and compared it to our gift receivables. The truth was out – good or bad, you could set your watch by the fat man. Mom was simply jealous that he gave us cooler toys, and she was conniving enough to garner a couple weeks of household peace by pretending she could stop him from coming.

It was scary to defy her. The first year after we knew, we still at least pretended to be good. We no longer quivered in our beds, sweating the daily errors of our ways. But just to be on the safe side, we carried on the tradition of superficial cordiality. The next year, when Mom raised the roof, we struggled to look scared, but we had found an inner peace knowing Santa didn’t listen to Mom. Her bombast was now merely a harmless holiday tradition, much like fruitcake, only louder.

Santa made it every year without fail. Even Dad’s attempts to keep him out by lighting a freaking bonfire in the fireplace didn’t shake us anymore. We knew the big guy would never let us down, except just one time, when my little brother asked for new parents, but that was probably just because he forgot to say please.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

O, Christmas Traction

Here in Southern California, it's very difficult to carry on traditional, snowy Christmas doings. The kids have to make do with a ton or two of snow trucked in for the holidays. It's just not the same making snowballs in shorts. (I mean wearing shorts whilst tossing snowballs, not putting them in your shorts, although...never mind!) Christmas carollers stroll the streets wearing Hawaiian shirts and drinking margaritas. We sit by the firepit on the patio, and I explain to the children what a 'snow day' is. Tears well up in their little eyes as they realize they'll never have one. 'Earthquake day,' 'forest fire day,' and 'mudslide day' are all on the calendar, but no chance of a snow day.

I'm sure the folks up north, with their ice storms and subzero weather, are quite saddened by this. We don't have snow handy in our driveways and walkways like they do, tons of it falling from the sky for months. If we want to see real snow we have to drive over an hour to see it, and sometimes it can be viciously cold, almost below forty degrees. I don't mean to upset you, but that's how it is down here.

The one tradition I have been able to carry on is the cutting down of a live Christmas tree. Each year we head to a tree farm to find the best looking one we can afford, (which reminds me of a singles bar, but I digress). They keep the trees neatly in rows, fenced in so they can't escape. We usually pick the biggest tree we can find, because, dammit, we have a twenty-foot ceiling going to waste in the living room, and I have size issues (as a result of that singles bar). I whip out my trusty hacksaw, lie flat on the ground next to the chosen victim, and get to hacksawing.

At this point, my eight-year-old tells me that trees are living beings too, and that we should respect their right to live. He's trying to hug the tree so I won't cut it down. Suddenly I'm a big, bad logging company. His younger brother tells me he can see my underwear. I can't see anything but pine needles and mud.

We get the monstrosity home and I remember the cardinal rule to tree picking - if it looks too big, it is. We lower the tree onto a wheeled chaise lounge (you'll never see that tip on Hints from Heloise) and tow it into the house. I attach the base, which involves a large iron circle, a wedge, 2 screws and a partridge in a pine tree. All we have to do is tip it up into place and voila! I said....voila!

It's too big. Not for the room, but for us to lift. We use ropes, pulleys, lots of grunting, but our Christmas pine is still reclining on its chaise lounge. My tree-hugging son is worried that it's gone too long without water. He wants to give it an IV. His younger brother has realized that his favorite show is on and has disappeared.

After three hours of cantilevers, Advil, and a physics lecture (last one courtesy of my eight-year-old), we come up with a plan. Using 2 barstools and a two-by-four (aka - 'piece of wood'), we manage to lift the center of the tree a few feet off the ground. I take a deep breath and position myself, coiled, under the top of the tree. Then, just as both boys jump onto the base of the tree, pushing it down with their weight, I spring up, launching the top skyward. The tree creaks, the barstools fall, and the boys run for their lives. I become the first ornament on the tree, but that's ok, because it's finally upright. The boys place me on the chaise lounge and wheel me to the kitchen to make dinner. Happy holidays, everyone!

Thursday, December 1, 2005

O, Christmas Tree

Chopping down our own Christmas tree has been a tradition in our family since I was knee-high to a pine cone. At our farm, we kids would have an early breakfast and head out at sunrise, hiking to a pine forest to the north, carrying a rope, hacksaw, and lunch. The rope was for tying up my youngest brother and dragging him through the snow. The hacksaw came in handy at lunchtime, trying to digest whatever Mom had made for us. To be honest, we couldn't tell if it was stale since it was frozen solid.

I remember singing Christmas songs, mostly to make sure the hunters didn't mistake us for deer. If I sang just right, kinda nasally, it would vibrate my nose and warm it. Early on I had learned not to rub my nose to warm it up. In these temperatures, the tiny hairs inside the nose often froze, so if you rubbed your nose, you'd send icy needles into the sensitive lining of your nasal passage. The blood would drip on your jacket and boy, would Mom be mad.

After lunch we would choose a tree to bring home. This took a while because there was four of us, and we had never agreed on anything in our short, frozen lives. Eventually the boys would pick a really tall tree, maybe thirty to forty feet high. Since I was the oldest, it was my job to climb up and lop off the top of the tree with the hacksaw. Taking just the top of the massive tree made my sister happy, since we weren't really killing the tree, just maiming it. The tree would later die of bug infestation brought on by the decapitation, but again, she would point out, we didn't kill it. (She's now an attorney.) My brothers loved making me climb the thirty or so feet in the air to trim the tree. Try as I might, I was never quite able to hit them with the tree as it fell.

It was then time to haul the veggie carcass home. We'd take turns towing it with the rope. In the few years that there was no snow, the tree would become caked with mud, leaves, etc. This could be a real problem when we went through the cow pasture. Cowpies don't normally grow on pine trees, and don't do well in the heat of the living room.

We'd usually get home a little after sundown. Surprised and a bit saddened to see all four of us alive and intact, my parents would welcome us home before retiring for the night. Tradition held that we couldn't eat until the tree was up in the living room. Unfortunately, the tree was very often too wide for the doorway. We would push, shove and cram the beast until we had shredded the entryway and cracked enough branches to make the poor tree look like the cows came home right over the top of it.

But we'd get it propped up in the corner of the living room, tieing it to the curtain rod so it couldn't run away. As I sat there listening to my brothers argue whether it was standing up straight or not, I'd get to thinking how I couldn't wait to have my own kids so I could share this family tradition with them.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


There are some traditions that are sacred. Easter egg hunts, back-to-school clothes, pizza Tuesdays...they just make sense. Then we have Thanksgiving, a big, fat, juicy four-day week-end perched like a sitting duck right before the big enchilada - Christmas. I've got eighty-seven thousand lights to put on the house, twenty-three dozen cookies to bake, seventy-eight presents to regift, and twenty-two cards to mail - and I'm supposed to put that on hold and cook a seven-course meal? Couple that with a couple of boys that abhor ham and detest turkey, and you see where I'm going with this. The lightbulb glowing over my head is not from the oven. Am I truly going to pull the frozen entrails of a dead bird out of its patootie just because my Nana did? My grandmother also drank Gallo wine, ate Kitchels, and watched the Price is Right. Sorry, Nana.

My boys each have a distinct reason for disliking the traditional turkey feast. My eight-year-old, the sensitive one, is a vegetarian. My seven-year-old says turkey is "icky," "gross," and "sick." Last year I tried to placate them by stuffing the turkey with the icon of kid-dinners - macaroni & cheese. It was "icky," "gross," and "sick."

This year will be different. This year, whether we like it or not, we're going to celebrate the true meaning of the season. We're going to be thankful for a four-day week-end. We're going to stay put and be a family even if it kills us. And my boys are going to be thankful they have a mom who can buck tradition and say, "Turkey, you may live, because you are icky, gross, and sick." Instead we will create a more palatable, albeit frozen, main course - a custom-made, turkey-shaped ice cream extravaganza. Gobble. gobble. Eat your heart out, pilgrim, and pass the sprinkles.