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Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

Over the years, I’ve received all sorts of Christmas gifts from employers and the magazines that buy my articles. Like any gifts, these corporate offerings say more about the givers than I suspect I know.

By far the most sensible corporate gifts are food – usually boxes of chocolate or nuts. In my case, the assumption that everyone eats chocolate is wrong, but I can take them to a seasonal gathering so others can enjoy them. Later in the evening, I might even raise an only semi-ironic glass to the founders of the feast.

Other than food, the most magnificent gift I’ve ever received was a six inch silver plated penguin holding up a serving bowl, like some Linux nerd’s version of a Maxwell Parish painting. The thing tarnishes if I so much as breathe on it, and I’ve only used it once or twice, since I don’t do a lot of entertaining, but I’ve never had the heart to bin it. It is magnificently tacky, and, knowing the editor responsible, I have no doubt that I am appreciating it in the spirit in which it was given.

It is a shared joke as much as a gift, although I suspect it was relatively expensive as such gifts go, since it was given at the height of the Dot Com Era by a company that was spending freely to attract and retain writers and boost circulation. Privately, I refer to it as the Penguin Nymph.

The majority of corporate gifts, though, are not so fortunate. One company sent in late January a travel alarm clock that looked like it was made of tin foil. Naturally, it arrived broken, and fit only for tossing away.

The company must have received a lot of complaints, because next January, it resolved on sending something that might survive the mail. I say “something,” because I’m not sure exactly what it was supposed to be. However, It was made of semi-transparent yellow nylon with the corporate initials repeated endless in green. It was too large and too filmy to be a handkerchief, but too small and the wrong shape for a scarf. I tried using it as a duster, but it quickly disintegrated after a couple of light uses.

I find both the broken clock and the filmy something humorous, because they have the opposite effect that a corporate gift is supposed to have. Instead of making me feel that our interactions through the year were appreciated, I had the impression that no one beyond my editor and perhaps someone in the finance department had any idea who I was. I felt, too, that such cheap gifts reflected how little the company appreciated me as much as the recession in which they were sent.

Rather than receive such inept gifts, I would just as soon receive none at all. The same goes for the corporate Christmas cards containing photos of a crowd of strangers, most of whose names I’ve never heard of, and whom I am unlikely ever to meet.

I suppose the tradition of corporate gifts continues largely because someone in human resources was taught that such gestures were good for morale. But to be effective, such gifts require a certain grace and knowledge of the recipient – or, failing that, at least the kind of neutral good taste represented by a gift basket. I sometimes wonder if those who send out gifts half-heartedly realize that their efforts are having the exact opposite effect than the one they are supposed to have.

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To the strains of Sileas’ “File Under Christmas,” I’ve just finished my wrapping for tomorrow. It was a feeble echo of the years when Trish was alive, and brings out the loneliness in my life more than ever.

Trish and I always made Christmas a large event. Although we would sometimes buy one moderately priced present for each other, mostly we focused on small gifts like movies, music, graphic novels, and books – always books, so many that each year we would only run out of new reading material about mid-March. Usually, we would buy each thirty or more gifts a year, opening a few in the morning, and the rest when we returned from visiting and needed to unwind. If we had a Boxing Day visit that we weren’t looking forward to, sometimes we saved a few gifts for opening when we dragged home, full of stories about relatives.

So many gifts took some planning. We had plenty of pre-wrapped boxes that I’m now slowly giving away because I no longer need them. Since I was the more organized of the two of us, and usually finished shopping earlier, I would scrupulously divide the pre-wrapped boxes, taking only half of them. Almost always, I had to wrap half a dozen gifts separately that didn’t fit into any boxes.

Then I would sit down and compose the tags. The tags were never as simple as statements about whom the gifts were too and from. They contained this information, of course, but early in our relationship, we started the tradition of adding a cryptic clue about the present. For example, a book by John Mortimer might have a tag declaring that it was “dead in the water” (mort = death, mer = “sea”). An album by The Pogues might be listed as “Before Pictures from the British Dentistry Association” in reference to Shane McGowan’s irregular teeth, while a season of Doctor Who videos might be described as “first of five, medicinally-speaking,” (referring the basic questions Who? What? Where? When? How?). The idea was to be as obscure as possible, so that the recipient would groan in recognition when the gift was opened.

Last year, I was still in deep mourning, and gift wrapping was so much a duty that I hardly noticed it. This year, however, when I am in slightly better shape, it seems colorless and drab. It involves no clues, because the relatives and friends I buy for wouldn’t appreciate the tradition. And it’s over so quickly, too, finished before an album is, where once I’d need five or six albums and an afternoon.

Compared to other years, it was joyless – but, then, to a large extent so was the shopping. I no longer shop with an eye out for something to delight someone. Instead, I settle for what is suitable, and I’m relieved, not saddened, when the process was over.

Christmas, clearly, is no time to be widowed. There are too many memories in gift-wrapping, and no sense of or belief in a future in which the gifts might be enjoyed.

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In the common room they’ve got the biggest tree
And it’s huge and cold and lifeless
Not like it ought to be,
and the lit-up flashing Santa Claus on top
It’s not that same old silver star,
you once made for your own
First Christmas away from home.

– Stan Rogers

This time a year ago, I was rushing downstairs with every knock on the door, hoping to get there before Trish did. At the door, the Kevin and Kell collections I’d ordered for her might be waiting, or the DVD of Oysterband’s 25th Anniversary Concert, or the Northwest Coast masks I’d bought. If one of them was, then I would have to figure a place to stash them until Trish was out and I could hide them more effectively.

This year, I am by myself, reflecting on how many traditions can accrete around a relationship in thirty-two years, and dreading the blankness of a Christmas without them.

The first Christmas we shared, Trish and I had barely been a couple for six weeks. We spent much of it at our separate families, but not before we exchanged gifts; she gave me a ceramic chess set, and I gave her Renaissance’s Live at Carnegie Hall. I still have both, although much of the Renaissance album is a bit lush for my tastes today.

The next year, we were an established couple, and backed each other up on all the obligatory Christmas visits. In fact, between dashing over to West Vancouver on Christmas Day, then to Parksville on Boxing Day, and half a dozen other places as well, we overdid the traveling so much that one of our first traditions was born: Never again. In future years, we confined our dashing about to the parents, and maybe one or two other events that we either couldn’t avoid or wanted to attend.

Other traditions were born that year, too. That was the year Trish started her tradition of giving her craftwork as gifts. Blackwork embroidery, cross-stitch, crochet, beaded ornaments, embroidery – over the years, the diversity was astounding, and all done to her perfectionist standards. One year, she made several hundred angels and bells, and sold them to buy Christmas presents, an effort she never quite equaled again. One year, too, I threatened the efficiency of her assembly line by doing candles, but the results were too mixed for me to do so a second time.

Trish’s crafts brought other rhythms to our Christmas as well. The one where she stayed up until three in the morning on Christmas Eve to finish a piece was one I might have done without. But the one of decorating our tree with her ornaments is one that always gave me a flash of pride, to have something so utterly unique in the living room.

Another tradition revolved around gift-giving. While I was a student and later as a grad student, we had a budget so tight that it always threatened to snap like a rubber band stretched too far, so we never got into the habit of buying large presents for each other. Besides, where was the fun in that? In our second year as a couple, we got into the habit of buying a couple of dozen small gifts for each other. Later, when our income increased had increased, we might include one or two moderately priced items, but, by then, the pattern had been set, and the small gifts continued – so much so that, over the years, Christmas and birthdays were when most of the books, music, and movies came into the household.

One advantage of buying small gifts was the amount of loving conspiracy that they inspired: splitting the alphabet in various gift categories so that we wouldn’t buy duplicates, secret phone conversations, and mysterious deliveries, all accompanied by cryptic and increasingly outrageous hints. We started using recycled gift boxes, wrapped in the most exotic papers we could find, and adding tags with puns and hints that would have made a veteran solver of crossword puzzles weep at their obscurity – tags that only really became meaningful after the gift to which each was attached was opened.

We learned quickly to take only some gifts for each other on Christmas Day, because other people became impatient with our exchange. But that worked out, too, since it meant we had a few presents to open when we awoke, and still more when we got home after visiting my folks on Christmas Day, and Trish’s folks on Boxing Day.

Then there were the stockings. There was always a marzipan pig in mine, and a Birk’s spoon in hers, either from her mother and me. Trish especially had a genius for finding the exotic and improbable at dollar stores, and often her stocking was the repository of the earrings I had found for her. In later years, when we decided the last thing we needed was more knickknacks or novelty items, the stockings were full of gourmet candies and sauces, which we would be happily discovering well into March.

Somewhere around December 28th or so, when the visits had temporarily slackened, came the gloating over the loot – I mean our first real chance to dive into the gifts and thoroughly explore them. Since our tastes overlapped so much, most of the time a gift could be appreciated by both of us, so we felt slothful and luxurious as we lounged around and made happy discoveries.

New Year’s Eve were for board games. Most of the time, there were just the two of us, but for a half dozen years, a couple of nephews were included, who always fought over the rules and pleaded with us for more alcohol than we would let them have. These massive game sessions would last for eight or ten hours, with pauses to refill the punch bowl on the kitchen counter and for me to cook a hearty lasagna of four or five cheeses.

And, finally, when the New Year had begun, and the guests were gone, came the tarot reading. Neither of us believed in such things, except perhaps as a psychological aid, but we both liked the atmosphere. Anyway, if New Years isn’t a time for omens, then when is?

After that, the days would drift back to normal until January 6th. On Twelfth Night, Trish insisted half-seriously, the tree and ornaments must be stowed away for another, or we would risk bad luck. So down they came, each hand-made ornament carefully wrapped away for another year, and I would march about the house all day singing a song from an old Steeleye Span album:

Oh, Christmas is past,

Twelfth night is the last,

And we bid you adieu,

Pray joy to the new.

This year all these things are gone with Trish. My Christmas shopping is much easier, but much less interesting, and my chances to see how gifts are received greatly reduced. I don’t really need the stacks of recyclable gift boxes in the walk-in closet, and I won’t be doing much visiting, since all except one branch of Trish’s family has apparently decided to drop me. I suppose I could start a new tradition and do some extensive volunteering throughout December, but I’m not sure you can call something a tradition if only one person is involved – and, anyway, it wouldn’t be the same.This year, every time I pass a gift that I no longer have reason to buy, I’m in mourning for the traditions that have died along with the person who shared them with me.

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This year, I have no serious work and nothing more pressing than the wrapping of a few gifts for Christmas Eve. I don’t even have to go outside, except for exercise, which is a relief, because what passes for a blizzard here is pelting down on the other side of the window. I’m glad to be able to cocoon, and I’m not missing in the slightest those office Christmas Eves in which everyone pretends to work and keeps waiting for the executive officers to set a holiday example and leave early. And, as I smugly settle to loaf, I’m especially thankful that I haven’t spent the past few weeks working in a mall store.

Between my university degrees, I spent three Christmases in a mall book store, and they were the worst so far in my life. It didn’t help that, one Christmas, the mall had only two albums, which the management played incessantly from November 15 – nor that one of them was a Smurf Christmas special. To this day, I retain an aversion to squeaky voices and blue-colored midgets.

Pre-Christmas shopping means longer hours of operation for a store, and more money for the part-time staff, of which I was one. But the extra money did not compensate for the stress of that month. The crowds would always pin two staff to the cash register – the most boring part of the job – and random questions would keep everyone else from housekeeping work like stock checking or re-stocking the shelves. A few minutes snatched in the back room would be a relief, just to get away from the crowd. After a week or so, things were so bad that no one wanted to venture into the mall to eat – although, if you stayed in the back, you would probably be called to help with an emergency on the floor.

The uncomfortable truth is, pre-Christmas shopping in a mall reveals middle-class North Americans at their worst: Impatient, cranky, rude, and self-centered. Everyone wanted the staff’s attention at the same time, and a vocal minority did not believe in taking turns. For many, pre-Christmas marked their only foray into a book store all year, and many were uncomfortable there. Some would try to haggle on already discounted books. Others insisted on special attention that no one had time to give them, such as running their purchases to the post office and sending them off to relatives in Europe. A few always seemed to mistake the book store for the daycare center, and would drop their pre-school kids off to rummage through the children’s section, where only constant policing kept the books in saleable condition, and screaming children running through the aisles added to the chaos of hundreds of people doing something they hated. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that most of the customers were dressed for winter, and quickly became over-heated in the mall.

Then, just to make matters worse, most of the customers were only interested in only a handful of books that were making headlines just then. That meant that, if you weren’t trapped at a cash register, as a staff member you were bombarded with the same questions several dozen times in a shift. I still think that a white board with the most common questions and answers would have helped. Not that many people will read anything unless prompted, but it might have helped the temper of the staff.

Closing time was almost impossible. Some people didn’t want to leave, and had to be told outright that they had to go. Others would dash in at the last minute, if a staff member wasn’t posted at the door, denying them entry. Even then, the staff was lucky if its members didn’t put in forty minutes of unpaid overtime before limping home, tired and irritated to collapse into bed – where they faced nightmares of endless hordes of customers, and tried not to think that they would be having another extended shift in twelve hours.

The pre-Christmas season was so stressful that I didn’t enjoy any of the Christmases I spent in the book store – not least because, after Christmas, the return season was almost as bad, its only improvement being a return to regular hours.

The only good that came out of the experience was that the third Christmas in the book store gave me the incentive to go back to school for another degree. I had no idea of what I would do with it, but, for a few years, I figured, I would have sources of income that didn’t involve fending off a mob.

But the experience had some long-lasting effects. Even now, years later, I avoid shopping malls whenever possible, but particularly from mid-November to mid-January. If I have to go to a mall around Christmas, I go on a commando raid, at a quiet time, and getting in and out as quickly as possible. My Christmas shopping, I do mostly elsewhere. And, at this time of year, I look back with a shudder, glad that period of my life is over, and only relived in stories.

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Last week, the BBC suddenly decided to censor The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, bleeping out the word “faggot.” It wasn’t the first time the group had been banned; its “Birmingham Six” song, which talks about the dangers of “being Irish at the wrong place and at the wrong time” was condemned as being little short of treasonous when first released, even though charges against the six were eventually quashed. However, it was undoubtedly the most ridiculous censorship of the group, done, I suspect by someone far more eager to appear virtuous than to do anything concrete. But it served to remind me that not only is “Fairytale” one of the few modern Christmas songs to have survived any length of time, but it is also one of the few modern ones of any artistic worth.

In fact, I can only think of one other modern Christmas song that has survived a couple of decades: John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas” — and that has always struck me as insipid in its sentiment and banal in its rhyme. I don’t think anyone could hear “A very merry Christmas and happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear” and imagine that he was at the top of his game when he wrote it.

By contrast, “Fairytale of New York” is a compressed and moving story. It starts off, almost stereotypically for the Pogues with the announcement that it was “Christmas Eve … in the drunk tank,” but soon moves into talking about people’s hopes and aspirations. The narrator, who is apparently aging but still comparatively young, talks about his lucky win at the racetrack (which probably landed him in jail as he celebrated too alcoholically), and how he hopes it’s an omen for the new year. Meanwhile, an old man beside him, who doesn’t expect to see another Christmas, starts singing, as the narrator starts thinking about his lover.

Then the song moves into a contrast between the dreams the narrator shared with his lover when they were young and their present life. The contrast is carried in a duet between The Pogues’ lead singer Shane McGowan and Kristie McColl, who was brought in for the occasion. The two old people recall their younger days, fall to cursing each other (which is where “faggot” is used, along with “slut” — apparently, words demeaning to women are no longer censored), ending with the man admitting that “I built my dreams around you.” Despite the exchange of abuse, the implication is that the narrator and his lover are still essential to each other.

To me, this song, in all its ambiguity and understatement, is a perfect expression of the modern, secular holiday season. It’s not about the real meaning of Christmas (whatever that is), and the saccharine sentiments of movies like The Santa Clause are completely absent from it. Instead, it’s about people trying to get by, failing, yet finding a comfort in each other all the same, And if the rituals of the season are no longer Christian, they still seem to bring comfort, as the upbeat chorus suggests:

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day.

It’s this painful ambiguity, I think, that has allowed “Fairytale” to survive where other modern carols don’t. However much some people might wish things otherwise, we don’t live in a Christian age, and any attempt to pretend that we do is only going to ring false and be soon forgotten. Unlike other modern carol writers, The Pogues aren’t afraid to admit that. And if they are brutal and exaggerated in their expression of the fact, they are at least honest – and that’s the starting point for any memorable art.

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For me, sanity in December is defined as keeping out of the shopping malls. The hordes of increasingly desperate shoppers, all over-dressed for indoors and getting increasingly hot and frustrated is one of the worst ways I can imagine to suck all the joy out of whatever mid-Winter festival you happen to celebrate (For years, I’ve sent custom cards with every possible greeting from “Merry Christmas” to “Io, Saturnalia!” crossed off one after another).

This attitude is hardly surprising. To start with, I’m not a recreational shopper. I can’t imagine having so little to do that I would wander around looking for something to buy. For me, shopping is generally a grim, serious business, comparable to a commando raid, in which getting in and out in the least time is the main objective – which is why I do the grocery shopping; I can be counted on not to overload the budget with impulse purchases. The two exceptions are books and music, and I don’t count them as consumer items, since I get the same pleasure out of a library or someone else’s music collection, and much of what I buy is not only hopelessly untrendy, but bought to keep.

Such shopping as I do tends to be in small street front stores. The store rents in malls are so high that interesting stores, or even stores that offer anything except the latest fashions were long ago banished elsewhere.

If you want a tailored shirt, fine Japanese porcelain, or weapons grade chocolate, you don’t go to a mall – you hunt down a small store front that is either rented by an ambitious immigrant or has been in the same family for three generations, and do your shopping there, socializing with the clerks and maybe sitting down with a cup of herbal tea before you pay for your purchases. That’s shopping as it was meant to be, and mall stores simply can’t offer it.

Besides, between degrees, I worked in a mall book store for several years, and the experience left me with a disinclination to linger in malls at any time of year. The way that buildings are used for extended periods leaves a patina of emotion over them, and, although malls fall short of the oppressiveness of a prison, they are still far from being intimate or comforting places to linger.

Add this general nature of malls to the fact that I spent two Christmases having nightmares about endless lines of customers by night and being tormented by day by repetitions of the Smurf’s Christmas album every forty-five minutes (the mall only had two seasonal albums), and the wonder is that I don’t flee screaming from mall entrances like some hapless South Pacific explorer who’s just raised Cthulhu from R’lyeh.

Still, even without these preferences and previous experiences, I would find malls in December an unpleasant experience. For one thing, the seasonal decorations feel like they are trying to jolly you into a good mood, and that always brings out the worst in me – I’m generally an easygoing person, but I clench my jaw any hint that someone is trying to manipulate me.

For another thing, the sheer number of people who descend on the malls in December is overwhelming. I’m not thinking physically so much, although recreational shoppers can be frustrating for those of us who treat shopping like a bombing mission. While you want to walk briskly, they stroll slowly, making abrupt stops and darting out suddenly in front of you and generally getting in your way.

Instead, I’m thinking of the sheer number of purposes all boxed in together and conflicting. Emotionally, it’s as though everyone is smoking highly individualized cigars in a confined space – the effect quickly drains you.

You don’t get this same effect on public transit or at a concert. In these places, most people have much the same purpose, such as waiting out the ride or listening to the music. But a crowd of Christmas shoppers is not a group. It’s a mass of individuals, each filled with their own purposes.

Then, just to make matters worse, the longer shoppers have to search or wait in line, the intenser their emotions become. And, many of these emotions, of course, tend to be negative ones; you almost never seen holiday shoppers looking pleased or excited, or expressing how pleased the person they are buying for is going to be with a purchase. Instead, the concern is whether an item is in stock or can be ordered in time, or whether they can find a place to sit and eat or why the mall overheats everything and whether that person over there is going to cut into the cashier line. Such emotions and concerns become increasingly heightened as the month of December continues, culminating on the last shopping day before Christmas, then bursting out in one last ugly outbreak during the post-Christmas sales.

If you’re at all sensitive to the mood of crowds – if you can sense how a band has left everyone mellow of full of social purpose, or whether a protest march is about to turn ugly – then about fifteen minutes of this stew of concentrated negative emotions is all you take. Then, like me, you either have to flee or find a quiet corner where you assume the fetal position without being noticed.
Rather than face this disquieting experience, I find it easier just to avoid malls in December. If I miss a few bargains, so what? They were likely on items I’d never purchase anyway. And the main advantage of this avoidance is not just that I find buying presents less stressful, but I arrive at the holiday feeling less exhausted.

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In my circles, at least, an increasing number of people seem determined to escape the consumerism associated with Christmas. Instead of buying gifts, they’re making donations in the name of people. One man goes even further, telling those around him that he doesn’t want gifts. Intellectually, I am all for these ideas, and feel that I should emulate them more than I do. However, on another level, I wonder whether, in struggling against the tawdriness of the season, they go too far in the opposite direction.

Your feelings on this subject, I suppose, will partly depend on the level of consumerism you associate with the season. If you’re accustomed to buying one large gift and going deeply into debt, then cleansing yourself of these expectations will likely be a relief. Too many people see gift-giving as a kind of competitive potlatching, in which their extravagance assert their own status or worthiness.

If, however, you’re like me, and prefer to give small, carefully chosen gifts that don’t exceed your budget, then a completely anti-consumer Christmas risks being joyless.

From the point of view of giving, finding a gift for someone is an act of empathy and imagination. Except, perhaps, in the earliest stages of a relationship, industrial culture doesn’t have many customs that encourage these things, so we shouldn’t eliminate the few that do. For me, selecting a gift for someone I care about is a pleasure, and I consider a day well-spent as I try to imagine this person reading that book, or how that set of earrings might match that person’s skin or hair. And despite the chances of making a wrong choice, I admit, too, to a little pool of gratification inside when I see that my choice pleases the recipient – or, at least, that they’re pleased that I made an effort.

From the point of view of receiving – well, the inner child (as we’re calling Freud’s Id these days) always enjoys being pampered. For myself, I have to admit that an unread book can reduce me to a state of intellectual gluttony. Give me a stack of unread books, and I am in the same state of happy frustration as a parrot trying to choose between a playtoy and a millet stock. No matter how much I try to be an adult and socially concerned, I have to be honest and say that a card that says a donation has been made in my name just doesn’t compare.

Besides, a donation card seems reminiscent of of a gift card, that most impersonal of presents. Unless very carefully chosen, it can seem the gift of someone who doesn’t know you very well, or, perhaps, of someone who doesn’t want to know you. Either way, it seems contrary to the whole point of gift-giving, which is to claim or reaffirm a relationship. Gifts between strangers are sometimes useful or necessary, but, even then, they are more successful when they are chosen to given pleasure to the recipient.

And if that sounds childish, I agree. But we place such a premium on responsibility and maturity these days that maybe letting the inner child out for a brief romp isn’t so bad an idea. At least that’s better than repressing it until it escapes in the form of an entrepreneur’s greed for money or power.

I do make donations at this time of year, if only for the selfish reason that it’s the last chance to reduce the years’ taxes. At times, too, my gifts do include donations. But I much prefer to keep my charities separate from the art of gift-selecting. Insisting that everyone must constantly be an adult and act out of enlightened motives is simply too high an expectation to place on anyone.

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