After some semantic housekeeping, I’ll provide herein my recommendations on how to get the very most out of your Christmas, or at least have a good laugh at the holiday’s expense.
Some semantic housekeeping
You might bristle at—or, conversely, rejoice in—my use of the word “Christmas” as opposed to “the holidays.” Obviously this is a loaded issue, and I gave it some thought. I decided on “Christmas” because it has become the generic term for the December 25 holiday that most of the people I know make the biggest fuss over. I’m using the term to mean something pretty specific: the day on which most Americans open gifts that are arranged beneath a tree that everybody calls a Christmas tree. I am aware that there are plenty of other holiday traditions but I’m too ignorant to blog intelligently about them.
Please don’t construe this as me prioritizing Christmas over any other cultural or religious tradition. For most of us, Christmas is not primarily a religious holiday. Almost everybody exchanges Christmas gifts but how many actually attend a special Mass? My family never did, growing up. Words like “stocking,” “present,” “candy,” and “get” were on everybody’s tongues but we never uttered “Eucharist,” “Mass, “liturgy,” or “Holy Communion.” Sure, we all pretend this holiday is about more than just giving, getting, and eating, but generally any putatively deeper meaning is just tacked on for good form. (It’s kind of like how everybody had to mourn Mother Theresa’s death simply because they’d so recently made such a fuss over Princess Diana’s.)
So, no—this post isn’t about any so-called War on Christmas or on pretensions of deep meaning. It’s about the typical Christmas holiday as my family and friends have traditionally experienced it: i.e., conspicuous consumption.
The best gift ideas
The real sweet spot for Christmas is when you’re kid and aren’t expected to give anyone anything. You just get, get, get and it’s awesome. Then you gradually have to start thinking of others, maybe you crudely craft some gifts for your parents (like a pottery ashtray even though they don’t smoke), and eventually you buy a few things for a few people, and this escalates over the years. Then, if you’re lucky enough to become a parent, the whole thing shifts completely and you have to give, give, give. It does help when the kids write cute letters to Santa, like this one.
I confess: I really don’t enjoy gift-giving. It’s not that I’m stingy; I’m actually fairly generous with my time and money. (Not that you should ask for any … isn’t this free blog enough?) My problem is the inefficiency of the whole gift-giving affair: how seldom a present actually pleases the recipient. I recently saw a Nordstrom ad on the back cover of a magazine that really annoyed me. “LET’S GO GIFTING!” it says, showing all these impossibly hip, happy, and exhilarated people clutching gift-wrapped packages. One of them is literally wearing heart-shaped glasses.
Look, Nordsters, if you find gifting that thrilling you’re obviously in the thrall of the giant retail machine and it’s having its way with you. Choosing a gift should be a careful, sober thing. If you’re snatching things up impulsively enough to keep your shopping companions from getting bored, you’re moving too fast. Your approach is as naively impossible and inappropriate as heart-shaped glasses. I don’t want to seem like a scrooge or anything, but I would really, really enjoy crushing those glasses under my boot.
I once got caught up in that let’s-go-gifting “spirit.” It was awful. I came into some money (something like $100) right before Christmas in 1983 and my brothers and I went on a spree. I remember my brother Geoff being totally enchanted by a wristwatch because it actually ticked. So what? It’s not like all watches were digital back then. But it was like entrapment: he was enchanted, so we had to pitch in and buy it for him. My brother Max and I somehow ended up buying each other the Police album “Synchronicity” so we ended up having it on both record and tape. It wasn’t until we got home that I realized how stupid that was. It’s not like we couldn’t have made a tape from the record and saved some damn money.
Buying gifts is hard, which I know because when I do receive one, half the time I don’t like it. And when I give one, the odds are even worse. Our poor choices demonstrate how little we really know our loved ones. My dad usually bought me books written by well-meaning environmentalists, spiritual healers, naturalists, etc. who just can’t write well. The book would begin with something like, “In winter, when the green earth lies resting beneath a blanket of snow, this is the time for storytelling.” I’ve tried to read these books and I just can’t. My literary standards are far too high.
Once my dad sent my wife some silver earrings. She opened the box, said, “How nice,” and then immediately turned to my sister-in-law and said, “You want ‘em?” She meant it. They were perfectly nice earrings (and probably expensive) but not her taste.
My picks for my dad weren’t much better. When I was like 12 I bought him a bike mirror. Of course this was a stupid idea. My dad was enough of a nerd for fenders and racks, but not for a mirror. He was clearly at a loss for what to say, so he said nothing. After a couple of weeks he still hadn’t mounted it to his handlebar so I asked him about it. “Oh, I have another use for it,” he said, though I never discovered what this was. He may have used it to line a landfill.
In college I bought my dad a UC Berkeley sweatshirt, which I thought he’d be chuffed to bits about, what with us having the same alma mater and all. But he never wore it. Had I thought about this, I’d have realized I’d never seen him in a sweatshirt at all. They were, I came to understand, beneath his dignity. When I cleaned out his house a year ago I half-expected to find that sweatshirt but I guess he got rid of it … possibly right away.
When gifts really go wrong it’s when the thought (i.e., what counts) doesn’t demonstrate enough love. In the Christmas of 1977, I received the “Star Wars” soundtrack (a two-record album). My brother Max only got a “Star Wars” calendar, which a) didn’t cost as much, and b) was only good for a year. Never mind that we had only one record player in the house, meaning he could hear this album as often as I could. He was hurt, and said so. The first time I played the record, I spied him sadly tracing his finger over a picture in his calendar as he listened—his face a perfect picture of forlornness—to “Lieia’s Theme.” He really did believe that this disparity in generosity meant my parents loved me more. This happened to be true, but that’s not the point. (Max, if you’re reading this: that was a joke, okay?)
So the best gift idea, if you can swing it, is the no-gifting pact. I’ve had this pact with my wife since our kids were born, and if it’s not my favorite thing about Christmas, it’s at least a huge relief. We’d both much rather pick out something really nice for each other’s birthdays, when we aren’t trying to please all our relatives at once. (This year I extended the no-gift pact to my brother Bryan and his family. His kids outnumber ours by 4.5 to 1 so this is just good economics.)
The second-best gift idea is the white elephant. If the whole point is for the choice to be awful, it’s hard to go wrong! And sometimes they really work out. Check out this simply awful “inspirational” wall hanging:
Turns out if you flip it over it makes a nice tray for holding miscellaneous doodads!
The best part is that if I ever throw up on it, or the cat pees in it, or we just decide we suddenly hate it and it has to go, I don’t have to feel bad that a friend or family member wasted any money on it.
The best place for Christmas shopping
If you head to the mall for Christmas shopping, you’re going to be immersed in a lot of the all-together-now, isn’t-this-season-exciting bullshit that the retail industry hopes will loosen your purse strings. You’ll also have to hear a lot of really awful holiday music. You might even have to dodge a lotion sniper. None of this is pleasant.
If you head to a thrift store like Goodwill, you’ll still have to endure the awful music, but you’ll avoid crowds and enjoy a much more subdued, almost moribund atmosphere. Goodwill is a great reminder of the life cycle of a consumer good: from department store to home to garage to here. And when you’ve had holiday cheer practically forced on you from every other direction, the depressed aura of a thrift store is actually kind of refreshing.
My wife and I headed over to Goodwill yesterday for some white elephant shopping. We scored this killer bobblehead for only four bucks:
It was brand-new, in the box, and even came with a battery. It talks, spewing madcap platitudes from the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” sitcom. And I have just discovered that you would have to pay $38.99 for this bobblehead at Target—except they don’t even have Dennis. Nobody does! The only place I found Dennis was at the Amazon.com marketplace, offered by a third-party seller for—get this—$189! It seems to be a collector’s item! (What is wrong with people? How does this useless tchotchke appeal to anybody?)
Of course when you give white elephant gifts you always run the risk of spotting the object peeking out from a trash bin in the driveway as you leave the white elephant party. But the recipient of my Dennis bobblehead is from India, and after being initially completely nonplussed by it (and how can you explain a bobblehead?), she declared, “I like it. It is my first bobblehead. I don’t know Dennis, but I like him. I will keep this bobblehead.” I can’t remember the last time I felt so good after giving a gift.
The best Christmas treat
The problem with Christmas treats is the sheer glut of them. They all hit you at once—Toblerone, candy canes, all manner of fancy cookies, giant chocolate assortments, etc., and even though I almost never worry about my weight, I start to get disgusted with myself after about the ten thousandth calorie. Moving on to heartier fare, the traditional turkey dinner is all well and good, but it seems so redundant with Thanksgiving barely behind us. So the better Christmas meal, in my book, is a spiral-sliced ham from Harry & David. (No, they didn’t pay me to say this.) I had this at my mom’s house one Christmas, and she sent us home with the leftovers. The way it’s pre-cut, you can just tear off hunks of it at will, no knife required. And the thing is huge. For days you can just be in a post-Christmas fog, barely functioning as a human being, subsisting on shreds of this delicious, super-salty ham. The only problem? I just found out they’re like $90! (I think my mom got ours from the factory outlet.)
Runner-up in this category is homemade eggnog. I understand this is a terribly complicated thing to make, requiring skill and a lot of time, like it has to ferment for a couple weeks or something. Ferment? Yep. Apparently the addition of bottled booze is basically cheating. You don’t really make eggnog—you brew it. I’m finding no evidence of this on the Internet but I trust my source. I can’t put homemade eggnog as the number one best treat, though, because I’ve never actually had it. I only assume it’s amazing because why else would anyone bother? This rarified, perhaps mythical creation has the added advantage of being totally unlike all the mass-made treats that, together with all the perfect gift ideas, create this fusillade of consumption that so overwhelms me every year.
It looks like I’m running out of space, or you’re running out of time, or I’m running out of ideas for next week’s post, or all of the above, so I’m going to cut this off here. Tune in next week for The albertnet Christmas Guide – Part II!
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