Monday, December 15, 2014

2014 Christmas Spectacular

Hell's bells, no I have not stopped blogging, though work and a little illness have kept me from some of my pastimes recently. Now it's almost time for my holiday spectacular and yet, I have not written one normal post (as if any of them are really normal) in a month, so, the heck with it, I'm going with the holiday edition today.


Holiday memories


I was born and raised in a Jewish family.  Late in his life my father settled an argument between my older brother and myself. I clearly remembered that we had a Christmas tree one year, although now, all I can remember is the fact of it and no picture of it pops into my head. My brother said don't be ridiculous. Dad sided with me - yes, one year we had one.  I also seem to remember that something about them calling it a Chanukah bush, which is what Jews like to say when they decorate a tree, but I'm less sure about that.


Not that my parents had any pretensions about being Christian (it has occurred temporarily to two of my siblings). It was 5 of their 6 kids that left the religion. My parents were Jews to the core, my father to the degree that he affected a Yiddish accent for a few years (yes, really). They were Reform Jews, thank God (said the atheist) but Jews all the same. And they didn't want to us to mix up any Christian beliefs with those we were supposed to have. So, when I was four my mother tried to tell me that there was no Santa Claus. That I have a slight visual image of, though it could be imagined. It took place, if I recall correctly, in my bedroom, and my mother delicately tried to let me know that Santa was just for fun, and hoping I wasn't very disappointed. I wasn't.  I was embarrassed. Embarrassed that she thought there was a possibility that I thought that there a person who could actually slide down your chimney. Of course, at the time, I wasn't yet an atheist.  I'm not sure I gave the concept of God any thought at all at that age, although I may have just repeated the mantra or believed it. You can't remember everything. The firm skepticism I developed I distinctly remember occurring when I was in the 2nd grade, when I concluded religion was a hoax pervading the entire earth (thinking how could I, a child, alone, recognize this fraud and who was perpetrating it?) How far off was I?  Depends what you believe.


My family, naturally, celebrated Chanukah and I do have some nice memories of the lighting of the menorah with its characteristic waxy aroma and bags of candy money, that is, chocolate wrapped in faux-silver or gold aluminum, and even of that pathetic toy - the dreidel, with which I must have played a game on occasion.  For those not familiar with it, it was a top with four sides upon which were marked four Hebrew letters, one of which I think I remember was a gamma - our g. But, don't hold it to me.  Nor do I remember how you played.  And there was that horrendous dreidel song - "Dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay . . . . "


Leaving aside the many famous Xmas songs Jews have written, they somehow couldn't write a decent Chanukah song until Adam Sandler giggled through The Chanukah Song on Saturday Night Live (although to be fair, I once though I heard a relatively decent in Hebrew one year at a tree lighting ceremony, of all places, but, have never been able to learn its name and have never heard it again). Though I am not much of a Sandler fan, his song is fun because it mentions all kinds of celebrities, Jewish and otherwise, and brings into the light that whole Jewish funk some go through during Xmas season, ostensibly because there are far more Christians - many nominal, of course - than Jews, but I really think because the Christian holiday has racked up the better cultural icons. By far - by far.  


Not being a believer or really considering myself a Jew (other than by heritage and how others judge me) it is pretty easy for me to enjoy Xmas all I want. People like to bash the commercial aspects of Xmas, but that's exactly what I like, not the religious aspects. The last Xmas mass I was dragged to I brought a book with me. At least a few times I have tried to encourage a Jewish person suffering through the Xmas doldrums that they can enjoy pretty lights, fun songs and movies as much as any Christian without betraying their family and faith. Christians don't actually own the pretty lights. If an atheist can celebrate Xmas - and possibly a majority do in America - and Christians can enjoy Fiddler on the Roof, why can't Jews like Xmas?


But, some Jews can't get past it. But just as sad to me as Jews being unhappy because it seems to them like the whole country is having a party and they aren't invited. But, also sad to me is that some Christians can't appreciate the commercial Xmas I so adore either because it violates whatever religious restrictions they put on themselves. In some sects of Christianity (at least, they say they are Christians - others differ) Christmas can't be made merry, I think because they believe it trivializes it. I only know this because a few times in my life I've met children who weren't allowed any Joy to the World in the way the other kids could celebrate Xmas and it made me feel bad for them.  Who says they can't be pious and serious and sing O Magnum Mysterium in church and Jingle Bells on your way home? I know what you are thinking -- just because I can't see why anyone would do that to their kids doesn't mean they can't have joyful and meaningful lives too, but, how do you not let your kids watch Elf at Christmas?  People should answer the phone like he does in the movie -  "Buddy the Elf. What's your favorite color?" - at least in the holiday season.


The other aspect of Christmas and Chanukah that is big, of course, is gift giving. I hate to say it, but the joy of gift giving has been a little trampled on for me. I can remember a time when I gave out dozens of gifts every year. Unfortunately, it seemed to upset people more than please them and foist upon them an obligation I did not intend. Because if they didn't get one for you, they felt better instead of worse. I admit I've felt a little uncomfortable at times in those circumstances myself - Oh, they thought of me and must be hurt because I didn't think of them. But, I get over it. The way to handle it is to just try and be gracious and think if you can give a gift without getting one back, why shouldn't they be able to. Of course, you may be kidding yourself, but, what's the harm? There was at one point a time one circle among my friends all exchanged gifts with each other. That was sort of ruined when one of them (who, just wasn't going to like anything you gave her . . . I mean him or her ) insisted that we only give gifts for the kids. The Kids? They got so many gifts, if you piled up all of the presents I got as a kid it wouldn't equal one year's worth of presents for them.


Which brings me back to my youth and getting Chanukah presents. The way we did Chanukah - and I have no idea if this is traditional and Maimonides did this with his kids too or if it's just an American thing - is that you would get one big gift on the first day of Chanukah and then smaller gifts the next 7 days.  By "big gift" I mean that I would get a board game or something, like Mousetrap or Clue. And, we would be excited. The one thing you feared getting, of course, was ---- clothes. Because we could give a ***'s  *** about getting clothes and it meant one of your eight days and gifts was gone. Oh, well. Over all it worked out. I don't remember Chanukah ending and feeling disappointed.


So, nowadays, I exchange with my girlfriend (yes, she who I also like to call my 25 to Life Sentence, my Ball and Chainsaw, the Warden, my GirlFuhrer and my Insignificant Other) my daughter, brother and his family and less than a handful of my closest friends and a few others. On occasion I sneak a gift to someone and just leave it on their door step without a card so that they don't feel terrible and have to rush out and get me something, pretending they forgot to give it to me.  That's what Xmas guilt has reduced me to - being a Xmas sneak.


I do have a gift giving problem this year. It seems, limited as I am, I mostly only know how to give people books.  No idea if they actually read them or not. Personally, I read almost every book people give me as gifts even if I didn't choose them. There are limits. Someone once gave me (and others) a door stop of a novel by someone whose writing he admired for Xmas and I got through about four or so pages before I realized I'd rather be crammed down a chimney or take a terrifying ride on a flying sled without a seatbelt and gave it up.  But the rest I've read, even when given by those who have no idea what my taste is, and often I am surprised and really like them. And, of course, when I hand them out, I'm sure there are some clinkers in there too. You have to be in the right mood for a book and you can't always judge correctly what someone else will like or be in the mood for.  But, that's probably true of all gifts.


In any event, some people I give gifts to don't read paper books anymore; they read on devices. I suppose there is a way to give them a gift, but I'm 55 this year and it is a bit over my head how to go about it (I am up to the level where I can now download a book onto my Kindle, but I pretty much only download stuff either for free or almost free, that I'm pretty sure I would never read otherwise than on the crowded train where a book can be clumsy). As I have probably written on my blog more than once, I know these electronic readers are better in almost every way than books, but I'm not used to it and I like to look at my books sitting on shelves or in piles. It feels better to turn a page than click a button. Call me a luddite. I'm fine with it. Except when I move. Then having everything on a reader would be a godsend.


There's always gift cards, of course, so that they can actually pick out what they like instead of what I hope they like and haven't read yet, and on a few occasions I have given them to people, and don't mind getting them myself. But, still, I can't help but get the feeling that it means, look, I want to get you something but I'm too busy and it's not really that important so that I would put any thought into it and risk giving you something you don't like. So I'm not fair. You should hear how I feel about wedding registries.


Anyway, yes, I love Christmas and don't care who knows it, but so many people I know (okay, women - though in the modern world saying so somehow makes me a misogynist) just get overwhelmed by the expectations, reciprocations and self-inflicted pressure of the holidays and sometimes hate it.  Maybe "dread" is a better word.  Yes, they keep a list of people who send them cards and only send those people cards the next year. Is that really the spirit? No, but it's the reality.


I went to a restaurant today called Rolf's in NYC. We started the tradition last year adding it to our pilgrimage to see the tree and walk down 5th Avenue looking in the store windows. Rolf's is a German restaurant and not that special in itself (the food's okay and too expensive), except they decorate the hell out of it for Christmas starting in October and there is something fun about sitting there in a pub where it looks like Santa exploded.