For most of us, late December makes for a profoundly inside holiday—all those warm bodies packed into a too-small living and dining room; the bedrooms closed off except as a sealed repository for heavy coats. Generally speaking, the kitchen and dining room aren’t the favored spots for the guy-tribe; we agitate there, leaning against walls, doorjambs, feeling around the edges like a wolf pacing its cage. While a family pick-up football game might be stirred up in fairer weather at Thanksgiving, by Christmas the walls have seemed to close in around us.
In his later years—after the baked-in incentive to keep up the holiday charade had passed—my father, a Midwestern grain farmer, took the bull by the horns and created his own Xmas tradition, which included playing Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” at eardrum-shattering decibels on speakers taller than Santa’s elves. Not one to split hairs over the merits of real or artificial greens, he made a tree one year out of a 2 x 4 with a plywood base and, as a protest, strung lights on it and called it good. He dutifully hauled it out each and every year thereafter. Needless to say, my father’s plywood Christmas drove a sizable wedge between him and the rest of the extended family, whom he continued to call on only long enough to say “hi” and eat pie.
Christmas is surely the most verbal of holidays, putting demands on men that can sometimes vex or stretch. On Thanksgiving, one can usually get by with a few phrasebook-style utterances of gratitude and salutation before retiring to the soft seats and something invitingly nonverbal on TV. Christmas, on the other hand, offers no such furlough from the responsibility of language and self-expression. We are expected on that day, to actually have a back-and-forth…a conversation—involving feelings, and yes sometimes even wishes and dreams. That part, I think, might be good for us in the way that spinach is good for us, or brussel sprouts.
Was my father selfish for playing by his own rules during the all-important holiday season? As a teenager I thought so, wishing he would hang around longer and make nicer with the relatives. At times I found his retreat from the holiday and its conventions—his self-styled Charlie Brown Christmas—almost cowardly. Then I grew up and heard from all the doctors, and emergency room medics, and psychologists, and lonely hearts about how hard the obligatory holiday celebrations can be on nonconforming types, and I began to change my tune from “White Christmas” to a bit of “Blue.”
These days, I feel this most sacred of seasons ought not to make men (or women) feel uncomfortable in their own skin, or create an overwhelming need to meet the expectations of others. If a particular man in the family is (really and truly) a loner, let him commune with Santa one-on-one if he so chooses, or not at all. If he’s an inveterate traveler, let him experience Christmas in Rome or Chanukah in Tel-Aviv. If he’s a homebody who wants nothing more than to eat auntie’s cookies and open up gifts carefully packed with return receipts, let him have his familial-commercial holiday without undue guilt or criticism.
Let the overlarge and undersized shirts and sweaters pulled out of gift-wrapped boxes around the country this Yuletide season serve to remind us of an important chestnut: the way we celebrate the holidays need not be one-size-fits-all.
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