Greeley's Rancho Arcana
A six-part essay
December 2003. It's that time of year again.
I'm digging out all the decorations in the garage and getting ready to string up the lights on the outside of the house. This time, I'll make sure to lock the legs on the ladder. After the lights are up, we'll grab the kids and head out to find a nice tree and begin shopping for gifts and whatnot. So far, so good.
December is our fun month, especially since we have a couple of children who still see magic all around. The Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, assorted birthdays; all are important milestones on our family calendar, but they can't compete with Christmas and Hanukkah. These minor-league days are not part of a 'holiday season.'
December, for us, is more than the month these two holidays happen to fall on; December is a state of mind. Renewal. Love. Smiles. Excitement. Sharing. Family. Friends. Tradition. Music. Food. All the things we need to sustain us throughout the year, all delivered in a month-long package.
My parent's families have a long, long association with the trappings of the season, one going far back into the mists of antiquity; to the dark forests of Germany, where the Christmas tree is believed to have first appeared in homes; and to the remote hills and valleys of southern Wales, where the Christmas spirit lived long ago as an agrarian festival of renewal, tied to the winter solstice.
We are, of course, 'modern.' We don't cut down our own tree, hang it from the ceiling, and decorate it with real candles and silver. Nor do we go running around in the dead of night on Christmas Eve wrapped in a sheet with a horse's skull on a pole, challenging our neighbors to poetry and song on their doorsteps -- though, on this last item, it might not be a bad idea, actually. My neighbors are pretty cool. Many of them are recent immigrants on their way up the American ladder and have only limited notions about how to properly celebrate 'western' holidays. Perhaps I can help.
(Like to hear what such a visit by the Mari Lwyd might sound like? Stream or Download an mp3 file - 500 KB)
|Your host, Unit #4967, on his first visit to Santa Claus in 1966|
No, no, no; the truth is when it comes to Christmas, we're just like you--if you grew up or raised children in a secular home during the halcyon days of 1960s America. Perfectly normal folks, we.
On the surface, our typical holiday practices haven't changed much in the past 35 or 40 years, and they are probably a good deal like yours. Get a tree, a bird, some toys and cards. Decorate. Watch holiday TV. Have everyone over. Take pictures. Eat too much. Clean up cat-puke a la pine needle. Tear open presents. Take more pictures. Step on toys. Take decorations down, mash into boxes, bury in garage. Throw everything out January 2, except the toys and cards and children. Lose the film. All carried forth with optimism and a sturdy ladder. It also helps to have an abundant supply of warmth, courage, and goodwill. Fortunately, these items enjoy wide circulation in December; they're not too hard to find if needed.
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You know, as I'm sketching this essay, I'm starting to think that maybe there's not much else to say here. I mean, Christmas is such a uniform experience across the country nowadays.
We all buy our stuff at the same places now, our kids all watch exactly the same programs and want the exactly the same toys, we all have the same funny stories to tell about screwing up the turkey, gifts gone wrong, working as an elf at Macy's--geez, what else is there to say? A survey of robotic habits and common holiday mayhem doesn't sound especially entertaining.
I could go on about the religious aspects and contradictions of the holiday, but frankly, I'm not much of an expert. I'm also a little short on protective gear; proper handling requires thick gloves and sturdy tongs.
Did you know that there are maybe 9000 different Christian sects that lay some claim on December 25th? Add to that number all the other 'non-christian' faiths which also hold opinions and assumptions about that day in response to their worldview.
Very dangerous territory. No matter what I say, or how polite I'd try to be, I would probably end up upsetting everyone. 9000-plus official points of view presents a lot of unfamiliar ground.
The problem I'd have here is that I don't and couldn't possibly know everything about this subject. When I don't know what I'm talking about, I'm forced to compensate by admitting my ignorance up front and sticking to the facts I have on hand.
My first inclination here would be to grab at simple, objective things like old calendars and mathematics and start from there. However, some people find mentioning the obvious the mark of the ill-mannered, and...
OK, forget about organizations. How about the personal dimension? What does this holiday really mean to you, or me? Is there a common denominator under the surface?
Different people find different things, of course, and it's often expressed in unique and sometimes entertaining ways... but that's such an obvious topic. And besides, who am I to imply that I know something about 'The Meaning' of this holiday?
Want to see pictures of my kids doing funny things to the cat under the tree?
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It looks like this essay might drop dead right now--BUT--as I write and look back, I am reminded of one particular Christmas holiday memory of long ago, one that stands head and shoulders above all the others ...
... It was the year my siblings and I were introduced to the simplicity, beauty, and joy of the aluminum Christmas tree.
The year was 1972 and all of us were spending part of the holiday with a friend of my mother...
You've never heard of aluminum Christmas trees?
Um, how about the Wham-O Air Blaster? Big Wheels?
Andy Williams? Burl Ives?
Well, pull up a chair, Ulysses. Let's all get up to speed on aluminum Christmas trees, and while we're at it, we'll touch on some of the key elements of the Christmas experience that I remember. If you don't have a handle on these things, then you might not appreciate the story I want to tell.
When we're done with our little holiday overview, then we'll pick up my family's story in 1972. We're going to jump around a little bit, so hang on.
Let's go shopping for trees!
Set the Wayback Machine to Part 2 of 6, Sherman...