Get on board or get out of the way
By Susan S. Kelly
My mother was having a Christmas cull one year and asked if I wanted the toilet lid cover. As one does.
This piece of church bazaar finery was my first claim as a child when the box of decorations came out every Christmas: a forest green, glitter-glued felt oval adorned with a ho-ho-hoing Santa face of pink, white and red felt with sequin eyes, a tufted cotton beard, and a clever drawstring to tighten the cover just so around the commode lid. I thought it was divine. I have it still, the outlined shapes of eyebrows becoming visible as it disintegrates, revealing the crafts-by-numbers kit it originally was. In the attic, Santa’s slowly getting de-flocked and de-felted somewhere under the Advent wreath candles that became a waxy purple unicandle during the 100-degree days of August.
The good news about Christmas, besides the obvious Good News, is that tastemakers and arbiters of Tacky are banished, or at the very least, muffled. That’s the bad news as well. Everyone is permitted his or her holiday indulgences and eccentricities. Last year my neighbor had an egg-shaped wreath on her door, and I have no idea whether it was accidental or intentional.
Flannery O’Connor famously said of William Faulkner, “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” This sentiment applies to Christmas as well. Either get with it, or get mowed over by it. But we can agree on this sentiment: Without women, there would be no Christmas as we know it. Females are out there in the trenches, responsible for every holiday fantasy promulgated in mags and ads — caroling, cookies, gingerbread houses, the works. “I see more of the Salvation Army ringers than I do my husband,” a friend once remarked to me. Another friend drew the line in the sand, er, carpet. “I shopped, wrapped, mailed, decorated, planned, cooked, cleaned and organized,” she told her husband and two sons. “You guys have to take down the tree.” They took down the tree all right. They took it down at Easter. Another friend buys herself an additional piece of her Christmas china every time her ex-husband mentions his new wife’s name in her presence. I suspect she’s on finger bowls by now.
As for that gingerbread house fantasy, here’s what I have to say about doing that with your children: Go for the pre-fab kits. I actually made gingerbread from scratch, spread it thinly on parchment-paper-lined baking trays, then cut it into wall shapes. Like many activities, it was cuter in the planning than the execution, never mind unappreciated. I’m still digging peppermint candy slivers out of the kitchen heating vents. Instead, keep an illustrated Hansel and Gretel book, complete with candy-covered fantasy gingerbread house, on the coffee table along with ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. Point out what really happens to bad little boys and girls, not getting switches in stockings.
I don’t understand the Fairness Doctrine of today, when couples routinely alternate Christmas between families. I get Christmas Eve, you get Christmas morning, they get Christmas Day dinner . . . logistics alone are on a par with the Normandy invasion, not to mention the emotions, prompting my next-door neighbor to wryly refer to the comings, goings and schedules as “the prisoner exchange.” To counter this trend, I had a third child after two boys — fully aware that the baby would likely be another boy — just to increase the odds that someone, someone, would come home to me at Christmas. Still, the in-laws have a powerful draw, in part because my sister-in-law concocts eggnog with five kinds of liquor, which she totes around during the holidays in a wheeled cooler. I don’t mean that the cooler holds containers of eggnog. I mean that the cooler actually holds the eggnog itself, sloshing around. Open the lid, and enticing clumps of a substance I’m afraid to ask about — Ice cream? Whipped cream? Egg whites? Butter? — float whitely on the surface. Five kinds of liquor soften, not to mention blur, the blow of absent family. And it was my mother-in-law who taught me the value of smilax at Christmas. I wrap the supple stems all through my (so-called) chandelier, and suspend papier-mâché angels from that green and leafy heaven. Ivy will not do that for you. I’ve also nurtured two smilax shrubs for years, for no other reason than to use their bright berries at Christmas, and have concluded I have two males or gender-neutral plants. Whatever their sexual preferences, they aren’t producing and I’m still using fake red berries.
Still, if I haven’t been able to fulfill every Christmas fantasy, I’ve managed to produce a few of the Christmas food fantasies out there. Clove-studded oranges: Check. Apples dipped in egg whites, then coated with granulated sugar so they appear to glisten: Check. On my friend Ginny’s birthdays, her mother would hand her some cash and say, “Run uptown and buy yourself a bathing suit for your birthday.” It’s not surprising, then, that Ginny’s ongoing fantasy for her own daughter was that she’d dash downstairs on Christmas morning, see wall-to-wall presents, and fall over in a dead faint at Santa’s largesse. If this is your fantasy, point your compass toward the North Pole of IKEA. Last I checked, a cloth tepee that covers 10 square feet of living room space was $5.99. Same for the fabric playhouse you drape over a card table. Never mind their two-hour shelf life; they come in desert browns and beiges, and jungle browns and greens. Because nothing says Christmas like camo. b
Susan Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and proud grandmother.