Seemingly without warning, the holidays are here again, and I'm trying to cope. I could write about the spirit of the season and the joy of celebrating with family and friends . . . but I won't. Let's face it: This time of year is stressful, fattening, and expensive. Add to that the incessant playing of "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" on the radio—despite its universal disdain—and you've got a recipe for meltdown. No wonder so many people get bummed out, and burned out, this time of year.
And yet . . . I can't help myself. I'm excited about the holidays—again. Part of it comes from the comfort of tradition, I guess. There's something that just feels good about doing the same things year after year. Everybody has their own customs, and what's delightful to some may seem completely ridiculous to others. Maybe knowing that these crazy customs are totally loony is what keeps them enjoyable.
For example, my family is Jewish, but for us, the holidays don't officially kick off in our house until the day after Thanksgiving. That's when my husband pulls out his favorite Elvis Christmas CD and starts playing it regularly in the car.
When he first bought this CD some twenty years ago, the package included a small cardboard replica of Graceland at Christmastime. So, every year, when the CD comes out, so does Graceland, and it goes on display in the den until the holidays are over.
Hey, it's tradition. Who am I to question it?
Not that I should have expected things to be normal. Ever since I was a child, the holidays have been a little unusual. I grew up Jewish in very non-Jewish Tampa, Florida, and my parents didn't want me to feel different from other kids. So, even though we celebrated Chanukah, we also observed Christmas. Sort of. We had a tree; only it didn't look anything like the beautiful live green trees I saw at my Christian friends' homes. Ours was a sad little silver thing that my mother decorated with extremely ugly plastic fruit ornaments. It was hideous, but it served its purpose. I still remember the joy of finding a note under that tree telling me a new bicycle was waiting for me in our tool shed.
As I got older, the tree was relegated to a closet, and we just went ahead and celebrated Chanukah. And so my mother always hid my gifts, before they were wrapped, in the closet . . . like I wouldn't look there. To this day, I think my expressions of feigned surprise when I opened the presents in front of her were some of my best work.
At least my mom wrapped my presents. My friend, Robyn, who's also Jewish, says that her mother never wrapped holiday gifts. Which meant that, until adulthood, Robyn thought Jews not only didn't have Christmas trees, but were also forbidden to use wrapping paper. Robyn recently asked her mother about this; her mom answered, "Why bother wrapping presents when you're just going to unwrap them?"
How can you argue with reasoning like that?
Gift wrap or no, the tradition of holiday gift-giving transcends religion. Retail stores know this, so they decorate with every kind of Christmas, Chanukah, and generic holiday decoration they can think of. The day after Thanksgiving, now known as Black Friday (because of the profits the stores make), is when—in the best and kindest holiday spirit—all hell breaks loose at the mall.
There are always those cheery people who insist they love holiday shopping. Quite frankly, when someone tells me this, I feel obliged to offer them money to have their head examined. Clearly, the phrase "good will toward men" has no place during the fight for the last cashmere sweater on a rack or a prime parking space at a shopping center. People turn into animals when looking for holiday gifts. Not that I blame them. After all, they're on deadline. As a former TV reporter, I understand that concept, and also know that it can turn very nice people into real jerks.
While everyone gets in on the gift giving and receiving, there's no doubt that the one group of people who are oblivious to all the stress—and make out the best—are children. The pile of presents for our grandkids reaches obscene proportions, and we, of course, are guilty of conspiring to aid and abet the haul.
The other day, my 4-year-old granddaughter saw me looking at a catalogue of childrens' toys. After examining it, she said, "Nana, can I have the ones at the top of the page?"
"Which ones?" I asked.
"All of them," she answered.
It's also clear that there are plenty of kids who still face some confusion between Christmas and Chanukah. We have friends who are Catholic, and they have a son-in-law who's Jewish. Each year, their grandchildren question why they get presents every day for eight days at their one grandmother's house, and only get gifts once on Christmas at their house. Evidently, the kids think this is some kind of rip-off, and explanations about differences in Judeo-Christian culture don't appease them.
Still, gift-buying for children is pretty simple. Finding the perfect gift for an adult is not. Luckily, the Internet and catalogues make it easier these days. Without even leaving your house—or even your bed—you can point and click your way through your shopping lists, buying everything from shearling slippers to a diamond-encrusted bra from Victoria's Secret. And please note that if someone's thinking about getting that bejeweled bra for me, you should take into account the extra ten pounds I'll be sporting come January 1.
Luckily, I won't be the only tub of lard come 2008, because next to gifts, food is about the most universally popular part of the season. The calorie-packing really gets underway in our house when we throw our annual Chanukah party. We fry up dozens of potato latkes (pancakes) in enough grease to clog the arteries of an entire village. Accompanying the latkes: Caesar salad. Don't ask me why. It went on the menu one year, and voila! That's how traditions are born. Dessert is rainbow cake and chocolate-top cookies. And I think I gained five pounds just typing that.
Then there's the Chanukah gelt. These are chocolate coins, wrapped in gold foil paper, usually given to children. One year, my cockapoo, Elton managed to get into the gelt and consumed three pieces. I know chocolate is toxic to dogs, so I called the vet in a panic. He assured me that three slivers of milk chocolate wouldn't hurt the dog, and he was very impressed that Elton had managed to get the foil wrapping off of each coin before eating it.
Once we all get past the official religion-based holiday observances, there's one more major challenge to go. Maybe it's because it's the last event of the season. Perhaps it's because it marks an ending. Or it could be I've just run out of cheer. Whatever the cause, New Year's Eve bums me out. Hearing Auld Lang Syne is enough to put me into a funk till December 31 of next year.
Here's one reason why I can't get excited about New Year's Eve: In the 90's, we used to go to a New Year's party with a friend who found it endlessly entertaining to inhale helium from one of the party balloons and talk like a munchkin. He did this every year. My husband says it's a tradition, but to me, all the martinis in the world cannot make this funny. Luckily, our friend moved to Florida and for the last two years, we've stayed home to baby-sit the grandchildren. And yes, I do think this makes us sound sort of pathetic and old. Especially since we enjoy it.
Wait, I've got more: So you've survived the shopping, the weight gain, the aching wallet, even the countdown to midnight and the champagne hangovers . . . it's time to go back to normalcy, right?
Nope: now you must drag yourself back to the mall to return the hideous sweater and all the other holiday gifts you don't want or need. Fight once again for a parking space. Push and shove with cranky shoppers who also received ugly sweaters. Stand in line at cash registers to learn the item you're returning is now on sale, and without a receipt you can only get a refund of what is now the sale price.
And yet, this is all better than dealing with the dreaded unreturnable gift, like the hideous warrior mask we received from my dad and step-mom one year. My husband and I couldn't figure out what to do with it until we ultimately put it on proud display . . . in our basement storage room.
I know I sound like I hate the holidays—or at least hate many things about the holidays. But for some reason, in spite of all their failings, they're wonderful, too. Because no amount of commercialism or indignation or helium can completely cover up the genuine warmth my family and I have for each other when we're together.
And just like a woman who forgets the pain of childbirth, we'll be ready to do this all again next year.