I enjoy the holidays. Years ago I vowed to resist letting any of the hoopla get to me, as I know can happen. But oh there’s pressure, tinsel-draped, gift-wrapped pressure.
We’ve whipped up the holidays — thank you, television advertising — into being more than an end-of-year breather, a time of reflection, contemplation, simple giving. You try to buy tear-inducing gifts. Joy to the, whew, world. You want neighbors stunned at your lights. If you have kids, the holidays become a major memory-building apparatus. You want to make something magical. Talk about laying it on yourself.
And you can’t one-off Christmas events. You can’t just do magical; you must create a sustained series of annual reproducible activities. You have to do something every year. You have to, in other words, create traditions.
So despite my policy of chilling out (even in the face of the horrible cosmic unfairness of my December 21st birth date – just saying), my wife and I are good parents and have sought out Christmas traditions. We’ve tried.
At one time, we would have an annual trek to a tree farm for our Christmas tree. This seems nice, but it really wasn’t. Global warming has made December a pleasant month in the northeast. But not on our Christmas tree day. It was always cold — and windy. The kids argued on the ride. They walked around our tree farm — same one every year! Tradition! — for a few minutes then complained and all ended up in the car. My wife looked at every tree. Soon, I wanted to get in the car, even though complaining kids were in there too. At home, while everyone else warmed up, I’d be outside trying to trim the stump to fit into the tree holder. I’d need the chainsaw, but we were always out of gas.
Well, it turns out I’m bitterly allergic to fir trees (it only took years of lying prone and gasping on the couch to figure this out — now there’s a tradition). So one year I bought her an enormous Balsam Hill artificial tree, ending the tree farm journeys.
Could we have a family decorating tradition? That’s too many Warnocks in the living room for too long a period of time. My wife likes the ornaments just so (she’s really into our tree). The kids like to put them all on one branch. She would eventually take over, banning everyone from the room. Now she just decorates the tree while the kids are at school.
How about a gift-giving tradition? My annual shopping spree after hours of contemplation in Houlihan’s turned out to be unsustainable. While I enjoyed the surprise — mine, not hers — at seeing the extravagant gifts I had purchased after such contemplative stints, I couldn’t afford it. So I’d buy her an annual ornament. But one year she said, “I have enough ornaments.” And that was true.
At one time, we traveled around every Christmas Eve visiting friends. But as all air-hockey-table-assembling parents discover, Christmas Eve is a bad night to be out late hitting the spiked nog. The kids, anticipating Santa will miss the house, are nervous wrecks. You are exhausted the next day.
Trying to think of your own tradition and follow it is tough enough. Then The Elf on a Shelf comes along. These people are shameless: The subtitle of their guide book is “A Christmas Tradition,” overtly compelling you to systematize this.
You have this darn elf (or, in our case, elves. We have a bunch of them, although one looks more like one of those rabid monkeys from The Wizard of Oz) and you’re supposed to move him around every night so he can find better vantage points for child surveillance. Despite strong indicators to the contrary above, we’re not big drinkers or anything, but we can’t remember to move these elves. So my eight-year-old believer wants to know why his cousin’s elves go somewhere new every night (blast my sister-in-law!) while our elves hang on the same lamp for days. “They’re sleepy,” we say feebly. “They like that spot,” we mutter. December wears on, and he presses, and we fall into that Santa-based behavior modification language: “They don’t move because you don’t clean your room and sneak into our bed each night! Your naughtiness is the cause of their elvish lethargy!”
You see what’s going on. We try. I guess our traditions are what they are. No one allowed downstairs on Christmas morning until Mom and Dad wake up (even this is superfluous, as my kids, for some reason, usually sleep in on Christmas). We have the same French toast recipe and breakfast casserole every year for brunch. I write a Santa letter to my nieces and nephew down the street. We fry a turkey for dinner. My wife puts a Toblerone in my stocking — I don’t know why.
Hey, our feeble efforts even spawn a Christmas miracle now and again, like one year when my lovely daughter surveyed the package-paper wreckage and declared — finally — “Alright. I got everything I want this year.”
In the end, Christmas is a good day. We’re together. Family and friends stop by. The kids stay in their pjs. And those elves, having spent all week stuck clinging to the banister, survey it all. I believe they are satisfied with the Warnock version of Christmas.