Holidays

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays 

I really cannot blame my mother too much for her disdain of mandatory family gatherings. The same people who scorned and ridiculed her when she first met them now wished to embrace her, three times a year, with hypocritical open arms and unctuous salutations. For over fifteen years we were expected to rotate three major holidays to be hosted at one of three houses. Christmas was at Aunt Rose’s, New Years was at Aunt Kay’s, and Easter was at our house. Thanksgiving did not count for some reason other than the fact that four holidays cannot be evenly divided by three families, leaving me on that day each year to profusely thank Uncle Mike for having moved to California.

How these holidays were selected and how the lottery fell to determine whose house and on which of the days I will never know, but it was cast in stone that this schedule was immutable.

The menus and routines were also immutable. 

1. Christmas (1950s)

On Christmas my grandmother made cheese ravioli. They were gigantic, exquisitely tasteful and had individually varied kaleidoscopic shapes. I still have the original recipe and make them on a rare occasion; but I dare you to try it for yourself to understand why we only had them once a year. Making ravioli falls into the general category of; “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Without fail Chicken and salad always followed this first course.

Since my preference would have been stay at home all day playing with my Christmas presents, the post-meal, pre-desert adult bull-shitting break seemed interminable. By that time it was usually dark outside and I was bored beyond belief.

Finally, associated with a great fanfare entrance from the kitchen, and all the dining room lights turned off, Aunt Rose would march in with a snow white cake covered in white frosting, sprinkled with stale coconut slivers, a single white candle lit on top, and would then proceed to lead the family in a hearty rendition of singing happy birthday to ‘Baby Jesus.’ It was nauseating and insipidly stupid. Although to be absent from this ceremony was to commit family blasphemy, the whole scene presented a great conundrum, as to my knowledge one does not get the cake, the song, or a single candle on ones actual birth date. Nor could I reconcile the fact that by my count this anniversary really called for a much bigger cake to accommodate the necessary candles or that helping to light and then blow out 1959 of them would have finally made it worth spending the entire day there.

To make matters worse, I happen to hate coconut, would try to pick each flake off the frosting in a process that created a gooey mess which then prompted a few unsolicited but predictable annual comments from Aunt Rose.

  • What’s the matter? You don’t like coconut cake? Who doesn’t like coconut cake? What kind of a kid doesn’t like coconut cake? Sal, what’s wrong with Alan that he doesn’t like coconut cake?

The next step in logic, which might be to serve a chocolate one too was obviously beyond anyone’s imaginative reach. Either that or it would undoubtedly conjure up some crude bigoted comment blaspheming Jesus by an implication he might have actually been a black man.

  • Chocolate huh? Hey Rose. So you think maybe God was a mouli? Ha, ha.

The only other possibility for desert then was a bowl of fruit  with over ripened brown bananas, pulpy apples, last years chestnuts and soggy grapes or some chocolates with unpredictable and sometimes inedible interiors. Because the house rule was that you were obligated to eat the candy you picked or you could not have another one, we kids usually palmed the ones with the nasty surprises inside and tossed them outside in the next-door neighbor’s yard.

One of the most poignant things I remember about Rose’s house was the full size oil portrait of herself over the fireplace mantle, wearing a crimson red dress.  But I only fixated on the large black facial mole because the hair growing out of the mole had been omitted by artistic flattering license. This made the painting a hypocritical showcase centerpiece and a subtle declarative monument to who really wore the pants in the family. Actually because of her stump legs that failed to taper to ankles, she would have looked much better in pants.

True to form, she had a litany of “house rules” creating a paranoia in which I truly believed that the eyes on that painting could see what anyone; anywhere in the house was doing. The very fact of being in her house gave me the creepy feeling that I was in an oversized birdcage replete with hidden surveillance cameras.

Uncle Ed, who was married to Rose, was a very humorous, congenial, easy going laid back person. He was a pleasure to be around, was naturally funny and had a knack for making everyone laugh; and an odd polar opposite to his wife.

He once sent my mother a homemade birthday card with a cameo headshot of himself on the inside panel, and crayoned angelic starbursts radiating out around his beaming face. It simply said: ‘Happy Birthday: From Me.’

Eddy loved fresh water fishing, deer hunting with bow and arrow, and was an avid coin collector in the days when rarities still existed in pocket change.

The long standing family joke about him never having actually bagged a deer was quieted the day he did a surprise drive-by on the way home from upstate and after plopping the carcass onto our front lawn tried to hack some venison off the butt end of buck he had shot. My mother, who secretly abhorred the thought of roasted venison, politely declined the offer by lying about the fact that there was not enough room in the freezer. But then again she also said the same thing when I tried to put my fishing bait in there; always harping tirelessly about its smell until it was finally used up. Freezer excuses and freezer rules.

Since Eddy worked for the New York State Throughway Department, he could unpredictably get called out on Christmas Day to plow snow someplace in upstate New York with exotic sounding names like Saugerties Although everyone bemoaned this fact and pitied “poor Uncle Eddy who had his Christmas ruined”, for some equally strange reason Uncle Eddy himself never seemed to be too upset at having to leave, even hinting at a bit of cheer instead as he bounded out the front door saying: “Merry Christmas everybody.”

Later in life when I had to carry a beeper on holidays, I too would come to appreciate the saving grace of being paged out from onerous obligatory social functions which made having to work, by relative values, seem to be infinitely better than mandatory fun with insipidly boring relatives or the tedious ennui of a cocktail party.

My cousin Jimmy and I preferred our own fantasy about Uncle Eddy, that after a few hours of plowing snow off the Thruway, he was  hanging out with his road crew; maybe playing cards or possibly pulling a break at some road-side diner. He would probably be happy to have escaped for the holiday and was perhaps even enjoying a nice piece of chocolate fudge cake for an unusually welcome change on Christmas Day.

                    Birthday cake

Happy birthday, baby Jesus, Happy birthday, to you.

What’s Wrong with ‘The Holidays’

What’s Wrong with The Holidays

There are seven major U.S. holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day, Easter, The Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Labor Day. There are a few minor ones such as Columbus Day, Presidents Day, Veterans Day, Valentines Day and Halloween and there are other coincidental and cultural ones such as Passover, Martin Luther King Day, Yom Kippur and Kwanza.

For most of us, and for the most part, Thanksgiving and Christmas seem to be the two holidays for which there are significant obligations and certain significant expectations, which revolve around and involve family. That these holidays require a great deal of psychological preparation is an understatement.

Thanksgiving

Historically Thanksgiving memorializes a gathering of Pilgrims and Indians at the time of the fall harvest. One legend has it that as the Pilgrims were then on the verge of starvation, the Indians taught them how to survive the harsh New England winter and may have even assisted them by supplying much needed food.

The favor was repaid in kind by the Pilgrims who purposefully threw their Smallpox infected blankets out on the perimeters of their settlements because they knew the Indians desperately needed them and would therefore use them. The Indians picked them up, brought them to their lodges and because they had no natural immunity to the disease were promptly decimated. Thus a simply effective form of genocidal germ warfare eliminated the Massachusetts (Massasoit) tribe and subsequently many more tribes as the disease spread from village to village; then eventually across the entire country. Eventually the Indians did give something back by introducing Syphilis to the White Man, but at least the method of transmission and the intention was more fun, pleasurably enjoyable, benevolently intended; and also not immediately lethal.

At the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln designated the day to be a day of true thanksgiving for the salvation of the Union’ which had nothing whatsoever to do with either Pilgrims or Indians.

Today, and now that the Indians are forgotten and out of the way we usually commemorate this original mixed cultural event with a family feeding frenzy.

Pilgrims

Parsing out the Smallpox

 

Christmas 

Christmas is a contrivance of the early Christian Church that was made to coincide with and thus to supersede long standing cultural rituals of the winter solstice or of mid winter pagan celebrations. It literally means Christ Mass.

In ancient Rome the winter holiday Saturnalia was designated to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, designated as a month long festival given over to hedonistic pleasures. Within that month at the time of the solstice, there was a feast honoring children, Juvenalia, and on December 25th the birth date of the god of the sun, Mithra, that particular day was observed as being the most sacred day of the year.  Druidic Europeans celebrated the winter solstice simply because the darkest days were then over, longer days would soon prevail being a generic concept I can wholeheartedly embrace.

Norsemen celebrated the Yule from December 21st into early January, also in recognition of the return of the sun, celebrating it by burning giant logs in fire’s that could last up to twelve days; ergo the possible derivation of the twelve days of Christmas. In some areas of Europe domesticated animals were slaughtered at this time so that they would not have to be fed during the months when feed stores were scarce, thus making this the only time of year when fresh meat was available for consumption. It was also a time when beer and wine fermentation reached a climax. Need I say more? Germans honored Oden, a terrifying vengeful god who in subscribing to the naughty and nice theory, made nocturnal flights to directly observe his people’s behavior and then decided upon who would prosper or who would perish. People hid inside their homes to avoid him.

For eons, early Christians observed Easter as their principle holiday, but it was not until the fourth century that the Church, on some arbitrary whim that a certain Pope decided to create a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. The truth is that no one actually knows the day when Jesus was really born. Some people think it was March of the following year: that is 0.25 AD.

Pope Julius I chose December 25th to coincide with and to absorb the pagan holidays, thus increasing the chance or the odds that it would be popularly embraced. He originally called it the Feast of the Nativity. After attending church, true believers would usually then become inebriated, then in a carnival like atmosphere crowned a ‘King of Misrule.’ Poor people would then knock on the doors of the wealthy demanding food and drink, but if the rich folk did not comply by paying back a presumed societal debt to the less fortunate, these aristocrats could then risk suffering mischievous revenge. Perhaps these indigent masses were just getting the holiday confused with Halloween or perhaps trick or treating simply became shifted to an earlier date on the calendar.

The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas 13 days after December 25th highlighting the ongoing mystery about the actual nativity date and creating significant friction between two great subcategories of Christianity. Puritans in England outlawed the holiday as being a decadent pagan ritual, while American Pilgrims imposed fines for celebrating it, until in 1870 the United States Congress overrode the prudes and finally recognized it as a Federal Holiday.

Thus it is easy to see how the hodgepodge of Christmas customs may have evolved. Thus includes its several names, the varied celebrations of Jesus birth, the emphasis on children, the invention of Santa Claus as a corruption of the patron saint of charitable giving, Saint Nicholas, the twelve days of Christmas, the Yule log, the eating and drinking, the socializing and the gluttony.

Somewhere along the line it has also became as romanticized as a Norman Rockwell painting or the vignette of a team of Budweiser Beer’s Clydesdales Horses towing a carriage to Grandma’s house over the river and through the woods during a gentle snowfall; just a picture perfect day, with perfect weather, for a perfect family consisting of a perfect three generations.

Christmas has also become an over commercialized capitalistic nightmare as well as an excuse for overindulgence and excess at every level. It has also been given over to a time when people decide for just one day out of the entire year to be charitable, loving, and giving or to visit relatives they often would not other wise give the time of day, while hypocritically pretending they actually like them. It is a day that children come to expect a trove of toys and gifts they either do not really need or actually deserve or which they will then ignore in about two days hence, when they then again beg their parents to buy them something else.

Politicians seize it as an opportunity to truck out the hypocritical concept of temporary armistice and world peace, with the irony being that sometimes the people we happen to be fighting are not even Christians who could care less about the one day of the year they may not be shot at or bombed.

The real problem derives from a lack of understanding that the idyllic Norman Rockwell family does not really exist. Subsequently then with holiday fantasies and expectations going unfulfilled or with a plurality of people actually believing that most families other than their own are having that Norman Rockwell day, there is a tendency toward large scale disappointment, bickering, feuds and collective depression.

The winter holidays then become a prime time for the vengeful emergence of seasonal depressive disorders and tend to be a peak time of the year for a substantial incremental increase in alcohol or drug abuse as well as suicide rates. That is unless you happen to be a school teacher, when Labor Day is the one that throws you into a withering little ball of pure angst.

Instead, the entire concept of these holidays should be simplified, grounded more in reality and put back into a better relative and spiritual perspective. Thanksgiving should be a day of gratitude by most of us for at least having something to eat, and to serve as a reminder that many in the world at the same time are starving to death. Christmas should remind us that every day of our lives we should try to perform at least one random act of kindness for one randomly selected stranger.

He’s making a list

And he’s checking it twice.

He’s going to find out

Who’s naughty and nice.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

 

 

Norm Rockwell

Happy thanksgiving

Christmas

And a very Merry Mithras, too

Photos: 1 Lithograph/Unknown source 2. © Norman Rockwell 3. Personal collection