The first significant snow of the season falls around my house today, and I have an armload of balsam tips piled up ready to become a couple of wreaths, and the woodpile is giving off a pleasing fragrance beside the stove. I’ve got Christmas cards to address and Needhams to make and a Trans-Siberian Orchestra CD to find. I check the amaryllis bulbs every half-hour or so to see if they are growing; likewise, I ask my daughter in college when she gets done at least twice a day. I am giving serious thought to ginger cookies — for gifting, for breakfast, maybe just to make the place smell like Christmas.
Somehow, we have to reckon with the debt, diets, and guilt. We hear conflicting signals and are constantly reminded that We Aren’t Doing It Right. Bah. We cannot do it all. We will not be perfect.
Yet with all this delightful seasonal warmth I am feeling a bit the crank at the moment, because one more person has said, “I hate Christmas because I hate hearing that lame music in the supermarket before Halloween.” Or maybe it was, “I hate feeling like I am supposed to be jolly when I have a headache.” Or, “They feed me all these goodies and then try to sell me Skinny Jenny.” None of those, dear one, is a legitimate reason to “hate Christmas.” In fact, the tedious retail excesses and inane pop-culture nattering is not the fault of the holiday — or “The Holidays,” if you prefer (I’ve always found that expression a bit of a setup, because it sounds like there should be a large cluster of holidays for each of us.)
I propose that we be of good cheer. I propose that we be of good cheer, in fact, as an act of deliberate rebellion. I propose that we resist the annoying, the rude, the crass, and the awkward failures at political-correctness with all of our strength. This will be a real “Festivus Feat of Strength.” We need some good old, offshore-island-style anarchy. We need to rise above the stupid stuff, do only as we wish with the clattering demands of this season, and give a boisterous “Ho, ho, ho” just because we can. The scrooges can wallow in their gruel; I shall eat cake. Or Needhams.
Let us rebel. Let us advocate for a little more of doing what we enjoy this time of year, and for less anxiety about what we think the rest of the world expects. I have a few specific cultural “bullies” in mind.
One is with regard to gift-giving. Let us actively resist the ferocious reciprocity, score-keeping, brinksmanship, office scheming, and greedy, rabid little relatives.
We all know the drill: we’ll make an agreement around the workplace to give “only under $10” or “just something simple” or whatever and then pace the floors worrying because we know that Social Climber Susie or Brown-nose Bob will gift the boss a bottle of Scotch. Forget about it. We have to hold our ground against those who make the whole thing into a tremendous chore. Likewise, I say, resist the tyranny of the little family hooligan with the bad attitude who only wants expensive electronics and wouldn’t even think to color in a simple card for Grammie. He won’t sing, he’s too cool to decorate cookies, and he refuses to read the Night Before Christmas to his little brother, but the brat’s got a list a mile long of the video games he wants. Give him underwear.
Another is all this nonsense about there being a huge upwelling of Americans who are “offended” by the comment “Merry Christmas” and that therefore the more reverent need to “fight against this war on Christmas.” Bah, humbug. Oh, sure, there are a few who are genuinely troubled by a presumption of religion, or a presumption of somebody else’s religion, but unless the greeting card or the caroler threatens, “Get you to my church or else!” most have better manners than that, and just go on their merry way. There is rarely any interest in a fight.
At least around these parts we can generally offer such a generic sentiment with humility and without any presumption of the recipient’s personal philosophy. Few mean the word “Christmas” to be so heavy laden. “The Christmas season” is both a religious and a secular holiday, a complex confabulation of traditions — some new and some old; some English, some German and some American; some Christian and some far more ancient and some totally made up by retailers. We happy revelers get to pick! (Is that not, perhaps, the best part?) I don’t really think there are that many individual people who take offense at a well-intended greeting.
People know when they are being goaded, being preached at, or being criticized for their beliefs and that is a different ball of wax. I doubt there are really all that many, no matter their religious beliefs, who are walking around looking for trouble on this front. Rude people are rude people, and they will be rude regardless of the trigger. Litigious freeloaders looking to sue some municipal office over a bit of balsam are, to be sure, a force to be reckoned with but again, if no affront is meant we need to call such opportunism what it is. I suspect a few ultra-right TV-heads want to make a problem exist that needn’t, in order to bring attention to themselves.
Personally, I do not relish a reassurance that I am headed straight to the inferno because I believe much of this particular festivity to long predate the birth of a certain gentle Nazarene tradesman of somewhat revolutionary social opinions. Those who assert that “Jesus is the reason for the season” might remember that lots of northern-hemisphere cultures have held a mid-winter party since time immemorial. Yet I offer nobody any argument face-to-face, and will sincerely welcome anybody’s blessing. Lighten up.
Here’s a small thing but it means a lot to me: I feel pretty strongly about home cooking. I have heard that in many places it is a big no-no to offer homemade Christmas cookies to other people’s children, because we must teach them to mistrust everybody’s motives. I say: resist this tyranny of fear. Invite the little gremlins over to help make the cookies and maybe mommy won’t be quite so anxious. It’s about the soul, the act of cooking, the sprinkling of red sugar — it is not about dropping a package of store-bought holiday cookies on the desk at school. Has anybody ever really heard of a confirmed case of poisoned cookies? I mean really.
Back when I was a student at the University of Maine, I broke only one rule, and that was what I perceived to be a draconian fire law about live greenery. Ye gods and little fishes. Old, dry Christmas trees are a very real fire hazard, that is true, but things have gone a bit far when wreaths or decorations cannot be put up under sober and careful adult supervision because somebody thinks they could potentially pose an exceptional hazard. Nobody is suggesting we go back to the old German custom of lit candles on the tree, but there has got to be a happy medium.
I understand how it works: employers are told by their attorneys to make absolutely sure that in a worst-case scenario nothing could possibly be laid to their responsibility. If there should be a fire in the office and somebody got hurt, surely they’d sue for jillions because the workplace had allowed a pine bough spray in a vase on the receptionist’s desk. What a way to live. Going through our days in constant fear of the lawyers is even worse than fretting about people conspiring to sabotage our holidays.
Here’s an obvious one: Black-Friday-style late night sales in “big box” stores where aggressive customers either freeze their toes off in line or engage in eye-gouging mayhem in the aisles in order to buy wide-screen televisions. Does that sound like festive seasonal fun to you? What the hell next. No, that is not a question. Resist. Rebel. Take two or three friends and go out for a slice of pumpkin pie instead.
Somehow we have to reckon with the debt, the diets, and the guilt. We hear conflicting signals and are constantly reminded that We Aren’t Doing It Right. Bah. We cannot do it all. We will not be perfect. We could be a little bit more structured, perhaps. It would be a gross oversimplification for any writer to blithely suggest that people with unbelievably busy lives and back-breaking work schedules find time to take long walks for health or to just nibble a few sprigs of kale for lunch, but there might be something we can each do to reduce these feelings of inadequacy. We are bullied by these worries. We will probably not lose any girth this month and we very likely will shell out more than usual, but we’ve got to find some way to not feel so pushed around about those things.
It’s that feeling of “I didn’t intend to eat that — or buy that — but I did” that hurts. It’s the feeling of weakness that’s really troublesome. To make matters worse, marketers all know that a consumer who feels anxious, overwhelmed, tired or insecure will spend more money and will eat more sugar. It’ll be hard work but we have to try and resist this bully who whispers guilt in our ears. We’ve got to pick our battles.
In your eye, ye lawyers and big-boxes, mean-girl at work and rotten cousin Sidney, and Skinny Jenny too, and Season’s Greetings if that’s all you want. Bah, humbug. Now, for cookies.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus.
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