Taylor Swift was raised on an eleven-acre Christmas tree farm a few miles outside of Cumru Township, Pennsylvania, a small rural community located in the southeastern corner of that state. I don’t know what to do with this information right now, or why it comes so easily to my mind, but considering its heavy rotation inside my head I feel that this is somehow crucial information to consider when thinking about the holidays. I don’t know either.
We learn about the holidays from our families I suppose; that and sheer repetition. I learned how to celebrate the holidays from my dad. Unlike my mom who was sent into a feverish spin until the festivities ultimately unraveled her, my father stood in front of the holiday season and let it hit him like a truck. He didn’t so much participate in the holidays; the holidays seemed to happen to him. This is a notable difference, I think, even if the end is the same.
“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” first arrived in theaters on December 1, 1989. I mention this only to get the numbers right. To date, my father has watched “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” a total of at least twenty-three times, soon to be twenty-four. I am not that far behind. We had the VHS copy of this movie. Now we have the DVD. Despite what cultural commentaries this Christmas movie supposedly makes on my family (as opposed to, say something like the hallowed greatness of “It’s a Wonderful Life”), I forget whether or not I actually like the movie. I know that when I was younger, the image of Clark Griswold rocketing down a snow hill on a saucer greased with “non-chloric silicon-based kitchen lubricant 500 times more slippery than any other competitor’s cooking oil on the market” could send me into hysterics, but when I watch this scene today I don’t know why I am laughing. But I am laughing. My muscles retain the memory. Sitting in front of this movie I am the picture of a Happy Christmas.
But back here in November, with the holiday season looming on the horizon, I am noticeably less at ease. To be sure, November is partly to blame for this encroaching feeling of dread. Clear nights and bare trees have me looking ahead. Still, a case of seasonal longing does not explain the festive panic that will soon descend upon this city in only a few weeks. It doesn’t explain why I suddenly owe my sisters gifts, or how an inanimate snowman magically becomes sentient or why it is my job to take a hacksaw into the woods outside of Elroy, Wisconsin and drag a Douglas Fir into the living room. But maybe I am misreading my confusion. I may simply be enthralled with the magic of the season.
My bewilderment with the holiday season perhaps stems from the fact that I found out the truth about Santa Claus far too early in life. The youngest of three children, this was bound to happen. Parents get bored. Children can’t keep secrets. However, even more damaging to my holiday spirit is the fact that someone else did not ruin Santa for me; I came to the horrible conclusion on my own. I could deny a sister or a parent much easier than I could deny my own childish reasoning.
The story that I tell goes like this: In a package of festive gift labels that my mom brought home from the store there were eight holiday-themed options in the package, each varying in color, size and holiday theme. Seven of these labels were left blank, marked only with a short “To:” and “From:” quiz that you could fill in yourself. The eighth label, however, was different. Instead of leaving the “From:” category blank, Santa’s big curvy signature had already been signed in black. The plastic laminate had not been open. Everything was wrong. I had been misled.
Certainly I’m not the first child, nor will I be the last, to have his innocence smashed hard against the blunt edge of reality. We do this all for them, we tell ourselves. We sit them up on a stranger’s lap at the mall, for them. The United States Postal Service accepts letters addressed to the North Pole. Missile defense teams routinely “spot” Santa and his reindeer as they make their way across their radar screens. Personally, it all seems a bit cruel and unusual, especially considering that the holiday, religious observances aside, means nothing. Once the spirit of the season compels you to buy collector Federal Reserve Notes certified by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for your teenage children, it is hard to continue to treat this tradition as sacrosanct.
I know. The holiday has festive names for people like me. For all that mystifies me about this season, I do know that I am ruining it for everyone. Try telling your coworker that you’d rather not participate in Secret Santa this year because you are uneasy about the way multibillion-dollar global retail corporations take advantage of our tradition of gift giving that, although intended to celebrate selflessness and a recognition of our shared humanity, tends to proselytize a notion that love is material and luxuries are owed.
In truth, Christmas has no conscientious objectors. This may be because the holiday is inescapable. Santa sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. This may be because taking issue with a fat Nordic man who spends the majority of the fiscal year managing a workforce of toy-making elves and judging children with a reductive moral pen only to then deliver these toys to children around the world in one night late in the fourth quarter via flying reindeer sleigh is, in a word, stupid. Worse still, a head-on analysis of the Christmas season now seems completely beyond the point.
The only way that Christmas makes sense to me now is in memory. More than any homemade Christmas ornament that I’ve made or sugar cookie that I’ve pressed into holiday shapes my most vivid Christmas memory is not an object but a process of unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning. The formula is simple. First, my sisters and I sort out the presents under the tree into five individual stacks, one for each member of my family. We are careful to count the number of gifts in each stack. Second, each family member takes a turn opening gifts, one at a time, first the presents from our relatives, then the presents from our family, being careful to save the gifts from Santa for the end. If we follow these steps, Christmas ends for each of us at exactly the same time.
Still every year I find myself hiding presents behind me, keeping my family in the dark as to how many gifts I have left. I open a box every other rotation in order to keep up appearances. I take my time, diligently unpeeling each piece of tape from the box, removing the wrapping paper and then folding it neatly into crisp, clean squares. “This is too nice to throw away,” I hear myself say, not really sure what I mean. My oldest sister employs a similar strategy. Our Christmas is locked in a stalemate.
I don’t know why I do this either. In sheer moments I could lay this holiday to rest on the living-room floor in uneven strips and it would all be over: the nonsense, the shopping, the Christmas tree, the tangled lights, the gift wrap, the “Taylor Swift Holiday Collection.” I could do it. But you have a gift left unopened in front of you too.
You go first.
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