Click here to read Part 1 of my loving tribute to the Yuletide Season. Otherwise, plunge right in…
9. The issue about the things you shove in a bird.
First off, we have this raging debate on what one calls the bread-based concoction that one uses to enhance the dead turkey on a platter. Is it stuffing, or is it dressing? Granted, there is the dryly clinical explanation that one should only use the noun “stuffing” if the verb “stuffing” has been part of the preparation. If there was a violation of an orifice, then you have created stuffing. If there’s no intrusion, and your savory bread bits are served alongside the turkey in one of Aunt Beulah’s better china bowls, then your offspring is known as dressing.
This seems rather clear cut, but then you introduce traditions and cultures and human beings into the mix, and it all goes to hell. Some people will only call it “stuffing” regardless of the preparation, and there is an opposing mindset that clings to the “dressing” connotation with snapping-turtle vehemence. And this whole conundrum really shouldn’t matter, because there are more important things in life, but it does matter, as the history of mankind has shown that people become fixated on the most inane of rallying cries and then nations go to war.
Adding to this combustible situation, what with modern times where families no longer live in the same town for multiple centuries, since word has gotten out that you can actually move somewhere else more suitable to your personality, various components within the same tribe have had different experiences and learned different things. And yet, due to tradition or unresolved sibling-rivalry issues or court orders, these far-flung family members still converge in one locale for the consumption of a massive and ill-advised holiday meal.
And this is when things go awry.
Example dramatic scene: You were born in a certain southern state, but you’ve managed to escape such a prison sentence and you’ve lived far and wide, pursuing your own quests and possibly avoiding the shame of things you may have done in your hometown that raised eyebrows. Still, you dutifully return for the holiday gatherings each year, but your mind has been addled and confused by your new experiences and your bohemian, all-accepting worldview. You’ve forgotten a few things, such as the rigid convictions of people who have always lived among like-minded rigidity, and the vehement outrage with which said people react to those who dare to contradict their rigidness. (For the record, yes, I am making fairly overt commentary about a certain political party that now considers fear of change as its bedrock foundation. Would you expect otherwise from me? I hope not.)
So, you end up inadvertently destroying the fake camaraderie around the feasting table by losing your mind and asking if Cousin Jebediah could please pass the bowl of dressing parked near the centerpiece dead bird. There is a momentary, horrified pause as everyone in the room absorbs what has just happened. (There is even silence from the “kiddie table” in the other room, because most children can sense when something has just gone left and there is about to be a rearrangement of family bequeathing.) Then the pause ends, and the world-shifting begins.
“I am appalled that you are even at this table!” says the matriarch of the family, because it’s always the matriarch who is appalled. (The patriarch has been drinking moonshine behind the barn since sunrise and he barely has a pulse at this point. He really doesn’t care.) Aunt Beulah grabs her better-china bowl and hurls it out a nearby window, one that has been opened because there are far too many people in this house who don’t live here and the body-heat factor has required an adjustment in temperature, even though most in the room deny such a thing as climate change. “You are not worthy of being served!” Even your parents are looking everywhere but at you, negating childhood memories of them petting your head at bedtime and promising that you could be anything you wanted to be. You now realize that gin must have been the impetus for their tenderness, and that “anything” really meant “anything that doesn’t go against what we believed when we first wandered out of the caves”.
This is how writers are born.
10. Begging for gift ideas.
It never fails. You find yourself at a loss as to what you should purchase for certain relatives and/or friends and/or people you don’t really like, due to some cosmic interplay wherein not getting them a gift would be unseemly, unwise, or subject to litigation. You do your best, via texting or phone calls or carrier pigeon, to wring some kind of idea out of them, but their responses are either completely evasive or fraught with impossibility.
Your Mother: “I don’t need anything. I just want to see you.”
Your Father: “Who are you? How did you get my number?”
Your Cousin: “I thought you were so hot in junior high.”
Your Grandmother: “A great-grandchild. Twins would be nice.”
Your Best Friend: “You’ve done so much for me, I don’t expect anything. But the clutch is going out on my Honda, so…”
Your Niece: “I want a concert t-shirt for my favorite boy-band even though they are completely sold out and on back order for three months. If I don’t get one, I’ll just die!”
The Weird Lady at Work Who Dresses in Black and Mutters Bitter Poetry to Herself in the Breakroom Who You Normally Avoid but You Happened to Draw Her Damn Name This Year: “I don’t trust emails. They speak of death and pain.”
Your Significant Other: “Why are you asking me this? What are you trying to say about our relationship? Who have you been talking to?”
11. The Christmas parties that you are obligated to attend when you have no desire to do so.
I’m actually rather fond of parties as a concept. I enjoy being around friends and eating delicious nibbly bits and having a few cocktails and discussing the far-flung topics that often come up as the evening progresses and the cocktail tallies rise. In fact, I am the man that I am today, at least in part, due to the many nights I have spent on someone’s back patio rambling on about whatever comes to mind, laughing and gently sparring and growing as a person. Good times.
Not a good time? Going to a party where I don’t know 90% of the attendees and most of that unknown contingent is very clique-ish, gathering in impregnable groups where it is very clear that you must not breach the perimeter of their haughty exclusion. I don’t like people like that. On the flip side, they probably don’t care for me, because I’m the one who stands off to the side, emitting “do NOT engage me in conversation” vibes as I nurse the tiny plastic thimble of wine I have been served by a stern-faced woman at the libations table, biding my time until it is socially appropriate to fetch another thimble.
I suppose that some of my dissatisfaction is my own fault, because I’m not much for pretense and false camaraderie. Still, I wouldn’t have to be standing in the furthest possible corner away from the fake festivities if I hadn’t been invited in the first place. And there’s the rub. I’m only here as the result of some distorted etiquette, be it a directive from the powers-that-be at work who insist that I show my dedication to the company by actually showing, or from a relative/friend who insists on throwing you into a mosh pit of people that you aren’t going to like.
12. The fake praise you have to offer during the gift-opening ceremony at the big family gathering.
This is a very vexing situation. You already know how the pageantry is going to play out, after decades of receiving gifts from certain family members and friends and dubious acquaintances. You’re fully aware of who will stun you with the perfect gift, and who will slam into a brick wall of ineptitude. Leopards rarely change their spots, especially if fundamentalist religion is somehow involved. So, in the interest of helping you maintain your sanity during that one day when you are supposed to show your love, as opposed to the other 364 days when showing love should be just as appropriate, here is a helpful plan of action that I have developed over the years.
If at all possible, try to be the anointed one given the task of dragging all the presents out from under the tree and distributing them to the lustful crowd. This can be a somewhat arduous endeavor, especially with my family, where it’s quite obvious that everyone has active sexual lives and every year brings a fresh crop of little urchins whose names you haven’t learned yet. The situation is complicated further by the previous crops of urchins who have since matured (at least physically) and they are now bringing boyfriends and girlfriends to the shindig. Every year there are people I have never seen before in my entire life.
Still, despite the moments of confusion, your gift-transporting efforts will pay off, because it keeps you occupied while everyone else finds themselves in a roving spotlight as they rip open presents and the rest of the room waits to see their reaction. If things work out, by the time you are done with the UPS duties (discreetly shoving your own presents into a hidden demilitarized zone), the revelers will be sick of watching people destroy wrapping paper and they will all head into the kitchen for another round of desserts. This allows you to quietly have your own opening ceremony without someone’s Instagram photo capturing the horrified expression on your face.
Now, there’s always the chance that this process will backfire, with turkey-filled bellies weighing folks down and they have no interest in getting off the various couches and chairs. They will all turn their eyes to you, and suddenly you are the main event, forced to open all of your presents, one by one, in full view of Oprah and the Baby Jesus. You cannot allow this to happen. As you play “Santa”, shoving gifts at people you don’t really know, you must keep one calculating eye on all the participants that you do know, assessing their expectations and adjusting your deception accordingly.
If you spy a participant that is expectantly waiting for you to open something they have given you, you must interrupt your flight plan, find the designated present, tear into it with feigned gusto and glee, then go back to your newspaper route. This is an acceptable bit of bait and switch, giving the impression that you have been opening your gifts all along. (Besides, the people who have come bearing gifts of pure crappiness don’t care if you open them or not. They’re just here for the food and maybe a higher ranking in future dispersals from somebody’s trust fund.) This all sounds a bit exorbitant, fraught with unjust behavior, but the end goal is to survive the situation without offending anyone, which is what family gatherings are all about.
Wait, that’s not quite true. The end goal should be this: Sometimes the gift IS just as important as the thought, in a manner of speaking. Simply giving someone something trivial does not absolve you of what should be a deeper purpose, assuming that you actually care for the giftee and you aren’t dealing with someone who has not earned your faith and trust. You don’t have to spend a fortune to make someone happy. But you should understand how to make that person happy, and go from there. A framed photograph from a certain time. A book you both love. Tickets to a play that you have talked about seeing for years. An art deco pencil holder because you both reached for it at the same time at the antique mall, and you called dibs, but you were already planning ahead. The stupid stuffed animal you managed to win at the county fair years ago when neither of you knew what you wanted out of life, but you laughed all night long. A copy of the poem you wrote when you first, fumblingly began to figure out what it might be that you wanted.
Love is in the details, not in the price tag. It’s the little things, the shared randomness, the fleeing moments when you think “wow, I’m so happy I’m with you right now”, that bind us and keep us sane as we fumble our way toward our better selves.
Previously published. Slight changes made, mostly to muddle the identities of certain relatives so they can’t be quite sure that I’m talking about them, but I really am, although I’m essentially negating my muddling by adding this comment. Family relationships are tricky, yes?
Anyone out there recall a holiday story of mine that you’d like to see again? I think I’ll share three or so more, but I’m not sure of my selections at this point…