virtual children by Scott Warnock

Christmas tradition futility and those darn elves

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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.

No gasping, and well-balanced decorating.

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.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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8 Responses to “Christmas tradition futility and those darn elves”

  1. OMG, Scott…this is hysterical. You guys are living my life, with the exception of the Toblerone. LOL!! That goddamn elf is ruining my life too. Ours doesn’t move because he has jet lag, and we finally got a fake tree too. We have plenty of pictures of our old tree farm adventures. Good Memories! Have a Merry Christimas!

  2. Toblerone, eh? For me it’s pistachios. No idea why pistachios. Though, it does please me.

  3. I love this post Scott. We are the family of could’ve/would’ve /should’ve ‘s this time of year !

  4. I realize, reading this, that my family has some unique/rare Christmas habits, but I also like this time of year. In fact, to extend the Christmas season, which can only be done on the front end, we put our artificial tree up on November 15th. Why does that annoy people?

    My affinity for this time of year is a little ironic. Our kids know about Santa because my wife told them as soon as they could speak English. Many of our friends and family have their kids believing in Santa more than they believe in Jesus (who I think is supposed to have something to do with the whole thing?). And the Christmas season can easily be associated with tragedy, for me, from the death of a sibling to the tsunami in the Pacific a few years ago to the recent school shooting.

    But it came to me these past few days; that’s it. The Christmas season gives me permission, overt, undeniable permission, to choose happiness. I learned early in life that happiness is there for most to choose. You don’t wait for it, and you don’t judge it. When challenges parallel happiness, you deal with them in a more productive, positive way…or at least I do.

    Well done to those of you who choose happiness no matter your excuses. Watch your artificial trees bloom, consume inefficiently, allow your focus to stray. Hug your loved ones, and soak up every moment.

    Thank you, Christmas; good to see you again.

  5. Your not alone. Our Elf is sedentary as well. Apparently he has fibromyalgia this year. Last year it was shingles.

    Happy Birthday!!

  6. Comment of the year by my 10 year old – “Even when I’m bad I still get lots of presents, so who cares what that elf sees.”
    Merry Christmas to you and your toblerone!

  7. LOL! Great post. So very, very true. I forget to move the elf every night. Now I have more excuses as to why. Thanks.
    Happy Holidays!

  8. Hey – quite ripping me….just because I have nothing better to do than move those stinking elves every night. Also, I make that French Toast and Christmas Casserole every year, so consider yourself lucky you eat that instead of the pineapple bake !!! HA HA….One year I screw it up and still hear about it 10 years later !!!

    Great article. Our traditions may not be the “All American Version”, but we end up having a great Christmas Day hosted by my lovely sister and brother-in-law.

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