Tag Archives: Christmas

Christmas Blues

Some of us really hate “the most wonderful time of the year.”

It is difficult, no, it is impossible to explain our aversion to Christmas to anyone who hasn’t struggled during the holidays. We are likely to hear, “Whassamatta wit’ you? It’s Chris’mas, fer Chrissake! Stop being such a downer and get into the spirit!”

“…Crappy toys flying off the shelves
Midgets dressed up to look like elves
Spread good cheer or burn in hell…”
Denis Leary (1)

It wasn’t always this way for me. I looked forward to Christmas when I was a kid, especially the smell of a fresh-cut tree permeating the house with a scent that we enjoyed but once a year. We’d buy a tree from the stand some local fraternal organization had erected in a parking lot, then haul it back home. My parents struggled to get it into that rusting metal tree stand without losing too many needles, and then adjust the crooked trunk until the tree was as straight as possible.  We’d untangle the lights and clip them to the tree branches, sometimes swapping screw-in bulbs to balance the colors. Finally, we’d take those fragile glass ornaments from their thin cardboard boxes, shake a wire hanger loose from the pile and carefully put them on the tree, hoping they would all survive until January.

But things changed. The details aren’t important; let’s just say I cringe when I hear John Denver singing Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas.  It got worse after we moved from Arizona, where everyone was pretty much on the same socioeconomic plane, to the Midwest where I discovered the haves and have nots. That the sun disappeared behind endless grey skies between November and April exacerbated my own depression.

One dismal winter day in 1974 I found “The Death of Christmas: Interviews with forty-three survivors,” in the bargain bin at Follett’s Bookstore, across the street the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.  The proceeds from this 1971 book raised funds for the Neediest Children’s Christmas Fund in Chicago. On the cover a sad black Santa with an empty toy sack stood in the snow before three poor urban kids, a heartbreaking sight. The title page featured this illustration (2) by John Fischetti, an editorial cartoonist for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News.

A quote from one of the “survivors” summed up my feelings: “Christmas is for the rich to enjoy, the middle-class to imitate, and the poor to watch.”

A few years later I was walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago one miserable December evening for reasons I’ve long forgotten, as I certainly didn’t have the kind of cash one needs to shop there. People hurried along the sidewalks like salmon rushing upstream to spawn. Women in furs. Businessmen in overcoats and severe looks. All the stores windows were brimming with faux Christmas cheer—the kinds of decorations no ordinary family would even think of buying—enticing the wealthy with diamonds and furs. “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

A young woman sat on the cold concrete, leaning up against the marble front of a jewelry store, eerily illuminated by a light above the display window. She was rocking a young child wrapped in a thin blanket. The child’s mouth was open in a silent cry – I suspect the little girl may have suffered from cerebral palsy. A small container with a few meager coins lay at their feet. People passed them by without a glance and my heart ached at the wretched scene. I stood looking at them for a few moments, feeling helpless and confused. I don’t remember giving her any money; I think I was too shocked and ashamed. I’ve never forgotten that little scene from more than forty years ago.

The approaching holiday season triggers a predictable emotional sequence: annoyance; irritation giving way to righteous anger; resignation, relief when it’s all over followed by the post-holiday despondency. I’m annoyed when Home Depot and Costco start stocking Christmas decorations and crap in September. At least they have the decency to not play Christmas music until a week or so before Thanksgiving.

Then there’s Black Friday. The day after professing gratitude for friends and family, a roof over one’s head, and more than enough to eat, people get into fistfights over crap that will lose its appeal a few weeks into the New Year. I detest the term “Doorbusters,” which conjures a stampede of desperate peasants trying to buy their way to happiness, unaware they are being shamelessly manipulated by corporate overlords with far more money than they will ever have.

My irritation grows in direct proportion to the frequency of overly precious Christmas advertising on television and blossoms into righteous anger by late November when car commercials outnumber all others by about ten to one. Nothing captures the true meaning of Christmas like buying your spouse a luxury SUV wrapped in a gigantic red bow and telling your Yuppie kids some bullshit story about how Santa delivered it.

The post-Christmas crash follows the buildup to Christmas Day. It’s the hangover from the night before, except that night was six weeks in the making. Dried-up trees litter the curbs and dumpsters overflow with cardboard boxes and torn wrapping paper. Stores fire sale their Christmas crap up to 90% off, which gives one an idea how much it was worth in the first place. Wal-Mart starts stocking Valentine’s Day cards before New Year’s Eve. The college bowl games and the Superbowl are often anti-climactic, and I never liked basketball. Football pre-season is eight long months away.

I made a conscious effort to suppress my inner Grinch when I became a father. I didn’t want my kids to have the same dismal holiday memories I had, and I think it worked out reasonably well. (One year the oldest got a pair of pliers to pull the bug out of his pre-teen butt.) Still, the first time I read them The Polar Express I lost it at the end when Billy reflects: “At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound.” (3)

My son asked, “Why are you crying, Daddy?”  You’ll figure it out in about twenty years.

I’ve made my peace with Christmas. I take delight in the little things. Classic Christmas albums by Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and the incongruous duet with Bing Crosby and David Bowie. Christmas movies like White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, and Die Hard.
The guy in the neighborhood who spells BAH HUMBUG on his roof in rope lights. (I wanted to put an inflatable Grinch on the roof, but Peg promised to shoot it full of holes). The look on the Chreasters’(4) faces when they show up at 12:15 a.m. for the Christmas Eve “midnight mass” that’s been starting at 11p.m. for at least thirty years.

Christmas Day is becoming more like Thanksgiving – dinner with family and friends, wishing all peace and good will, and trying not to be a dick in the coming year. Getting stuff isn’t important; being with those you love is the best gift.

Many still find very little to celebrate around the holidays, but some churches have stepped in to fill the void.  During the 1980’s the British Columbia hospice community started “Blue Christmas” services which have since spread to churches.

“…The idea of Blue Christmas is to acknowledge the darkness, and let it be dark. That is a quietly revolutionary act in an optimism-obsessed culture that would pressure even the Little Match Girl to look on the bright side. Some churches refer to the event as the “Longest Night,” because many services take place on December 21, the winter solstice, when the sun stays hidden longer than it does on any other night of the year. The structure varies widely, but common motifs include candles, music in minor keys, periods of silence, and time to privately share specific sadnesses and fears (say, by writing them down and placing them on a “tree.”). …” (5)

If you can still hear the bell, you are indeed blessed. Please say a prayer for those for whom hope remains elusive.

  1. It’s a Merry F@#%in’ Christmas (C) 2004 Denis Leary
  2. “The Outsiders” (C) 1971, John Fischetti. Used with permission.
  3. Text from The Polar Express (C) 1985 Chris Van Allsburg.
  4. Chreasters: occasional Catholics who show up only on Christmas Eve and Easter, largely out of some subconscious obligation to the memory of long dead relatives who will chew their asses once they reach Heaven.
  5. Graham, R. “Blue Christmas Services Honor the Dark Side of the Season“. Slate, December 21, 2016. Accessed on December 7, 2017.

The Charlie Brown Tree

Christmas was pretty good when I was young. I hadn’t become acutely aware of being one of the “have-nots” and Christmas was a time when the perpetual underlying tension between my mother and stepfather seemed to fade for a few weeks. I looked forward to the respite, however brief it might be.

One of my memories is of the year we had our own Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Almost everyone bought real trees back then, usually from a fenced-in lot that looked more like a hastily-erected corral. (The only artificial tree was an aluminum one that came with a rotating color wheel. Yuppie hipsters will pay big bucks for something most of us considered butt-ugly and crass.) We’d look around for a five footer that wasn’t dried out and hadn’t started shedding needles. Ten buck or so later, we’d stuff it into the trunk, take it home, and wrestle it into the tree stand, trying to make it look straight and steady enough so it wouldn’t tip over.

Most Christmas light strings were made of thick, tan wires attached to black plastic sockets outfitted with clips that attached to tree branches. Inside lights used the night light-sized C7 colored screw-in bulbs; outside strings had the larger C9 bulbs that were sometimes textured to imitate a flame. We used one white bulb to light up the Star of Bethlehem cutout in the front of my mothers’ old wooden Nativity stable. I never remembered the difference between “series” and “parallel” wiring, only that if a bulb went out on one type, you’d spend hours trying to track down the offender.

Some people lit their trees with the Noma bubble lights. Shaped like candles topping a street-light shaped reservoir filled with fluid, they bubbled when the bulbs heated up, providing hours of entertainment.

We had a couple of Shiny Brite ornament boxes filled with the solid color balls, since most of the original glass decorations had bit the dust in years past. There was always a wad of tangled-up hooks somewhere in the bottom and inevitably one or more hangers would pop out of the ball, daring me to put it back in without crushing the ball.

We never had much money and this year must have been especially tight. My stepfather decided we’d cut our own. That isn’t easy when you live in desert mountains and the dominant species are piñon and scrub oak, but hope springs eternal.

We drove out of town through the new tunnel and backtracked on Old Divide Road, which used to be the only access from the west, to Juniper Flats Road, which led to a plateau high above Route 80. Calling it a road is being charitable. It was a one-lane dirt trail of boulders and gigantic ruts on a 30-degree incline that would bust an axle if one was cavalier.

So we gingerly climbed about a mile until the road plateaued and we could breathe again. It was early evening and the sun was just about to set. We wandered around among the scrub until we came upon something that resembled an evergreen. It was small but I imagined lights and ornaments would make it suffice. My stepfather got out a carpenter’s half-hatchet, whacked the base a few times and we had our tree.

It was a lot smaller when we got home. The tree stand was far too big, so we put it in an old paint can filled with dirt. It looked a lot like Charlie Brown’s forlorn little tree. We dressed it up with one string of lights, a few ornaments and icicles and put a towel around the can for a tree skirt. Mom plugged in the lights and we stepped back.

As Linus would say three years hence, “It’s not a bad little tree. It just needs some love.”

And love made all the difference.

Sounds Of Christmas Past

Christmas music used to be something we used to hear for two or three weeks in December. We had a small collection of Christmas LPs we played on a monaural portable record player until I was in high school when we got our first stereo (bulkier, but still portable). That was long before stores and advertisers inundated us with holiday tunes and Christmas decorations in October.

When I was seven years old, I cried the first time I heard Connie Francis singing “Adeste Fideles.” I covered up by telling my mother I was sad because the record was slightly warped, making Connie sound like she had a bad case of hiccups. I have more than 150 CDs of Christmas music in several genres—classical, pop, jazz, comedy, big-band classics, new age, medieval and world music—there are a handful that remind me of Christmases Past.

 The Andy Williams Christmas Album (1963). Saying “Happy Holidays” was perfectly acceptable back then and wasn’t part of the “War on Christmas.” Andy Williams was still married to Claudine Longet; we watched their Christmas specials on TV. Good times; naïve times.

The Story of Christmas by Tennessee Ernie Ford with the Roger Wagner Chorale (1963). This combines traditional carols with songs from South Africa, Mexico and Japan, tributes to Mary’s donkey and Christmas trees, and the Christmas Gospel. It was the soundtrack to the NBC television special broadcast on December 22, 1963, without commercial interruption.

 Merry Christmas by Johnny Mathis (1958). His version of “Winter Wonderland” was a hit single in the UK and the album was on the Billboard 200 in 1959, 1960 and 1962. My mother was devastated when she found out he was gay, but she still loved his music.

W.T. Grant’s A Very Merry Christmas, Volume 3 (1966 or 1967). This compilation was only available through the now-defunct W.T. Grant department stores. I remember it for Percy Faith’s “Angels We Have Heard On High,” Mahalia Jackson’s version of “Silver Bells,” and Jim Nabors’ “Three Wise Men, Wise Men Three.” I didn’t know that Gomer Pyle could sing!

 Reader’s Digest’s Joyous Noel (1968). This was a four-record set with singers long-past (Enrico Caruso, John McCormack, Marian Anderson, Fritz Kreisler), recent-past (Kate Smith, Mario Lanza, George Beverly Shea, Spike Jones), and then-current (John Gary, Perry Como, Harry Belafonte, Lorne Greene, Vaughan Monroe) among many others. It also had the uncensored version of Glenn Miller’s “Jingle Bells,” with the verse about Mexicans sitting around all day listening to music and drinking tequila. I managed to find a copy on e-Bay a few years ago.

 Christmas With The Norman Luboff Choir (1964). I bought this after hearing “Do You Hear What I Hear?” on the Reader’s Digest album. The only time I’d seen this album in CD format was in the post exchange at the Grand Forks Air Force Base in 1991. I bought it for about nine bucks; Amazon.com was selling a new one for $255.99 at the time I wrote this.

I’d like to know if anyone else has favorite Christmas albums.