Thursday, November 15, 2007

What Would Jesus Do? Coping with Chrismukkah and Other Romish Plots

"Happy Holidays!" (Boo-hoo) "Happy Holidays!" (sniff-sniff!)

With this variation on a well-known lyric, the Radical gets ready to expound on a fraught subject for many: the inexorable approach of the holiday season. The Good News: Thanksgiving Break and it's five glorious days off will be here soon. The Bad News? The four subsequent weeks of holiday cheer.

In a town like Zenith, home to Zenith University, people have had plastic turkeys hanging from the trees in the front yard since they took down the fake cobwebs and ghosties on November 1. These are people who never seem to miss a chance to decorate. You have them in your town too -- they are perennial patrons of the Christmas Tree Shoppes, people who swooped in on December 26th, 2006, to purchase Blinky Santa on sale. These are the people who are really ready to rip down the plastic birds and get a full creche, with Kings sneaking around the side of the house, out on the lawn by Friday noon at the latest.

But you've got to think that many of them are probably decorating to stave off the rage and pain that some people feel so strongly that they have the opposite reaction: they are too depressed to even put out a napkin in December. And even if your feelings about the hols, like mine, are not negative but just ho-hum with the dollop of pleasure here and there, the whole buildup and non-climax can make the arrival of January 2 a true day for celebration.

You may, however, be someone who dreads the holidays for reasons that are not so mysterious: perhaps you are single, getting ready to trudge off to the 'rents in their Florida condo, and the holidays are a painful reminder that the world is made for families; you are involuntarily childless and every Chrismukkah (to cite a word just coined by my friend Mouse who, by the way has a spanking new site for her blog) causes you to pine for the toys you are not buying. Maybe you are actually in the family you want, a family of many or a family of one, and somehow, somewhere, you have just lost your grip on why everyone is supposed to have fun at Chrismukkah, given that it seems to only add to the obligation of being an overstressed, adult wage-earner.

"Stop!" you are shrieking. "Enough! I don't read your stupid blog to get more upset! Are you just going to pick scabs all day?"

No. Of course not. Calm down. Make a cup of tea. As usual, I will tell stories and give advice. The Radical is nothing if not predictable.

I always liked Chrismukkah a lot until I went to college, and I think I can point to two things that were a turning point in that initial year of serious intellectual work, the first of which suggests that "the holidays" may be structurally foredoomed if you are an academic. That semester my exams and final papers were not finished until almost Christmas eve, and I had misjudged the quantity of work I had to do in a way that I have more or less continued to do ever since. So I was working balls to the wall, not sleeping much, and only vaguely tracked it that there was a holiday coming at all. The other thing was, when I was tracking the holiday and my responsibilities to it, there was almost nowhere to shop for presents in Shoreline. There was the Oligarch bookstore (where many of my classmates bought Oligarch sweatshirts and shot glasses for their families -- no kidding), a famous record shop, and that was pretty much it. Festive, no?

Indeed, I think it is this business of having exams before Chrismukkah, since I more or less never left school, that overshadows the season. There are still too many papers and exams to fill days that could otherwise be spent baking cookies and getting drunk at office parties hosted by wealthy clients. (And besides, the only wealthy clients we have are students, who never invite us to parties because they are too busy studying and writing papers. What a vicious circle.) To add to that, somewhat later in life -- like ten years ago -- I began to care a great deal less about receiving presents (although I still like to give people presents) which I think is the inevitable outcome of both making enough money that I can buy what I want, combined with the fact that I pretty much have what I want -- a dog, a house, a car, a girlfriend, a decent job, a New President, a research account, a Mac, a successful blog and an iPod. So Chrismukkah comes with the added burden of people who love me asking me what I want. What I want, now that my basic needs have been addressed, are things that cost either nothing (a kiss) or thousands of dollars (go live in Paris during my next sabbatical, solar electricity panels) or are without price (world peace, an announcement by the AHA and/or Tom Bender that history is an interdisciplinary field after all.)

See what I mean? However, I have some ideas about holiday gifting that will keep me sane over the next four weeks, and I offer them to you.

1. Think of things people can give you that don't cost much money. For example, I am going to ask my sister for a photograph of herself. I know she has lots of them, as she is a performer. She has no money and I do not have a single picture of her worthy of framing. This will cost her approximately $1.50 in postage; around $16.50 if she adds an inexpensive frame. And I won't have to worry that she has spent money she doesn't have for something I don't really want.

2. N's cousin -- of whom I am very fond and who has very little cash and a nice life in the country -- started a practice several years back of telling people that if they must give her a present, they should choose something they already own that they think she would like and give it to her. Sometimes she does the same. Last year she gave us a jar of relish, made from zucchini she grew in her garden.

3. Last year a nephew of ours, who is a high-level executive in city government (where gifting can get completely out of hand) baked all his employees a loaf of french bread. This sends a signal, too, that they don't have to shower him with expensive gifts that could also, down the line for reasons impossible to anticipate, probably ensnare him in one of the city corruption scandals for which my state is famous.

5. Make a gift of your time to do something fun and free with someone for whom you would ordinarily buy a gift. This has the added attraction, if you are so inclined, of allowing you to re-acquaint yourself with feeling good during the holiday season, without committing to the Chrismukkah spirit itself, since there are lots of free events during December that are also holiday-ish. Think church music, concerts on the green, skating, or even a walk on the beach followed by lunch.

Now, since we all know that Hannukkah is kind of a low-level Jewish holiday that has been elevated to create equal opportunity consumption habits, can we admit that it is really Christmas that is the issue here? And I can only offer one powerful suggestion about what to do with The Day itself. Tell your relatives you are spending the holiday with friends, locate other people who are dreading the arrival of Our Savior as much as you are, and do what that famous Jew, Jesus, would do if he were actually walking the earth today: go out for Chinese food and a movie. Click here for a biblical rationale for why eating Chinese food "can only be a Romish plot to destroy God’s true faith." If that can't get you out to Empire Szechuan with a smile on your face on December 25, nothing can, my friend.

Start planning now so you have something to look forward to.

Mother of God. If things aren't difficult enough in this world, I clicked on University Diaries for my daily fix of bile and was told that "this URL cannot be found." Fortunately, I recovered my composure and googled UD, found it again, and recopied the link. The link to the left is now correct, although little different from the previous one. Our favorite curmudgeon is making some changes that are giving her minor league fits, and that may be what has undone the link somehow. Anyway: no matter. What was once lost is now found.


Morgan said...

Being a poor grad student, I just sent my family my Amazon wishlist and assured them used copies of books are FINE. I realized this morning that while my extended family can expect NOTHING from me this year other than my joyful presence, i do need to get my parents something though I have no idea what.

Also, I am a practicing Christian and I still wish I could sneak off and eat Chinese food with people I really like on Christmas.

Anonymous said...

I didn't coin it (I believe whoever does the tacky advertising for Old Navy is responsible for "Chrismahanukwanzaakah"), but thanks for the link.

My favorite thing about being linked by you is the inevitable torrent of hits pouring in from Zenith IP addresses at impossible hours of the night -- I so feel for them. "Hi, Zenith kids!," I think, "I'm sorry that your paper is being cruel to you that you must seek refuge here. But never fret, you bright, overcaffeinated thing, for this, too, shall pass."

More relevantly, my mother has finally learned that I want books, not pearls, for Christmas. I, too, only ever give books -- it's especially fun with the particularly intellectual, the game of finding not only what they haven't read but what they haven't read that will astonish and inspire them. This was easier when I lived in France, and could get gorgeous French paperbacks inexpensively for my Francophones. Hélas.

Susan said...

My family has for a few years made extra contributions to various good causes at Christmas. We give presents to the children. It's not quite as much fun, and I like the idea of passing on something already owned. For people who live near me (not most of my family) I do bake too. One of the perks of my weird job is that I don't have exams to grade just before Christmas!

PPB said...

I find Chrismukkah exhausting. Why? I AM religious. Really religious. Like clergy religious. So attending bajillions of "forced fun" events at work (last year there were 6 office parties! 6! and I skipped the all-University ones!)and dealing with familial expectations on top of the whole religious thing....

This year the children are getting books, and the adults are getting heifer project donations. Ducks maybe, or sheep. Or parts of sheep. Or whatever.

All I want for Christmas day is chinese food and a movie.