“Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn’t come from a store.”
These are classic words written by a cherished American treasure, Theodore Geisel. You know him better by his pen name, Dr. Suess.
Television further immortalized that same children’s book, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, by animating the creation and giving the title character one of the creepiest voices available in Hollywood at the time, that of Boris Karloff. It’s now one of the staples of holiday television and is mandatory viewing this time of year along with other classics,
And every time I watch it, I make a vow not to become that guy …. the mean one …. the Grinch … because I fully admit there is solid potential to fulfill that destiny.
Before you label me as a Scrooge, tightwad or a cotton-headed-ninny-muggins, let me state up front that I love Christmas. As a kid growing up in northeast Wisconsin, I can easily recall fond memories of getting together with all of my siblings and enjoying the usual trappings of the holidays.
I lived well outside of the city limits, not too far from a tiny hamlet of a village called Hortonville. Having been raised in a wooded setting with nothing but field and trees around me, I have a different perspective on what a country Christmas really looks and feels like. We didn’t just sing “over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go,” we lived it.
As a family, we didn’t have a lot. We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have much to spare. With six kids in the house (plus parents and a live-in grandmother), my folks had no choice to be frugal and find ways to stretch on a perpetual basis.
For example, we grew potatoes in addition to other assorted vegetables in a very large garden…a lot of potatoes…because they were a cheap way to fill our stomachs as a part of the normal course of dinner. You’d be surprised how many different ways there are to make potatoes. I’m pretty sure I’ve sampled or prepared almost all of them.
And being the youngest, I recall having very little in my wardrobe that wasn’t a hand-me-down. That was a particular challenge as I was a few sizes larger and taller than my brothers. They were all toothpicks compared to me thanks to my healthy teen-aged appetite.
Christmas was equally difficult as my parents had to find creative ways to give the brood gifts without breaking the bank. Everyone received two, one from Mom and Dad and another from Santa, and that tradition carried on even after the last of us…me…found out the truth about the white-bearded one. I don’t ever remember being given anything that wasn’t of a practical nature, except for an electric train set that Santa brought when I was nine.
Even stocking-stuffers smacked of frugality. My grandmother’s home made hickory nuts that she had picked from the woods, shelled, roasted and bagged herself appeared in my stocking one year.
Having watched her throughout the process, that confused me a bit as I knew they were her creation. Apparently, Santa was helping himself in the kitchen to her hard work and trying to pass it off as his. I couldn’t believe a man who had a workshop full of boot-licking elves at his disposal couldn’t dispatch a few to go pick their own. To my mind, Santa was being inexcusably lazy.
It’s these experiences that taint my impressions of the modern day Christmas, and I confess that from time to time, it shows a little more to my wife and kids than what I’m comfy with. I’m all about the fun of the holidays, but I have a particular distaste for the commercialism that comes with it. Having been lovingly called “Scrooge” by my spouse and offspring a few times in the past, I announced my intentions last year to the family during a conversation in late October regarding our impending holidays plans.
“This year, I’m going to be in the holiday spirit for the entire season. No crabbiness, no grumbling, no complaining about money. No whining about the inconvenience of shopping. No harping about obnoxious department store adds and needles from the tree getting into the carpet.
You heard it here first. I will not be the Christmas Jerk!
The Christmas Jerk. The guy you don’t want to become. The intolerant, unpleasant person who hates everything the holidays are supposed to represent. I’ve known a few of those types over the years, and know I don’t want to become that guy.
If you allow yourself to move past the unpleasant mental imagery, the odds are favorable that you’ll identify with me. I’ll save you the lecture about how we tend to forget what Christmas means and how we should observe it, because the holidays can be interpreted differently from person to person. I’m also the last one to tell others how they should practice their beliefs.
Surely, I can’t be the only one who feels a slight tinge of anxiety this time of the year, but it’s how you cope that counts. Admitting you have a problem is half the battle, after all.
I hang my lights up early, but don’t turn them on until after Thanksgiving. I have to admit, I could be the next Clark Griswold from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” if I were to let the urge overtake me.
I’m the guy who would buy a radio transceiver and exhaust my budget to the point of no return just to buy Christmas lights and other electronic gizmos and then set them all to music. I’d then convince my neighbor to do the same so we could have a power-grid-draining-back-and-forth dual of who has the best display.
From a cost and neighborhood electrical supply perspective, that’s not practical, so I have to settle for the next best thing. That’s tame compared to some of the house light shows here in the Valley that really do it up in a blaze of yule-tide glory. True, it’s becoming more of a trend these days, and it’s not uncommon to see others putting up their lights in late September or mid-October while the weather is still relatively warm.
That’s because it’s easier to hang lights when you can still feel your fingers. Plus, you might get lucky and get your picture in the local paper for your zealotry, like my kids did last year.
Seriously, it was right on the front of the lifestyle section and took up one-third of the page. I thought it was cool, and judging by the number of paper cutouts we received, so did a lot of family friends.
My kids thought I was just a dweeb for making them hang Christmas lights in October and got busted doing it.
I watch holiday movies. Not the new stuff, but the classics. I’ve told my son countless times that three things in this world are not funny: 1. Jokes about cancer, 2. Dead puppies and 3. Movies with Will Ferrell. That sparks a lively debate in our house as he’s a fan.
“Have you seen Stepbrothers? Legend of Ricky Bobby? Anchorman? “
“No, no and no,” I tell him. “Not interested. I like my movies to be funny and original.”
“What about Elf? You HAVE to like Elf!”
He’s right. I do like Elf. That’s a flick that helps move me into the right holiday frame of mind. It may not be considered a classic per say, but I’ll be willing to bet it will be in 20-30 years.
Other movies I would suggest – Home Alone (criminals getting maimed at Christmas time is a hoot,) The Polar Express, White Christmas and It’s A Wonderful Life.
And what could be my all time favorite? A Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine. Maybe that’s because it really captures what I consider to be the true meaning of Christmas…giving, selflessness and the recognition that the accumulation of wealth doesn’t drive complete joy.
That…and Kermit, Fozzy, Gonzo and the gang are always good for a laugh, even while telling a dramatic story.
I focus on the goodwill that the holidays create between individuals. It was the winter of 1982, and I was a clueless seventeen year old boy being sent on a errand by my Mom to deliver a gift to a family friend in nearby Appleton.
The weather wasn’t cooperating as a storm decided to drop about 4-6 inches of new fluff right about the time I was in transit. The roads were beginning to get messy and I was a relatively new driver, so it was a white knuckle flight most of the way in. It was all I could do to focus on the roads, and was not paying attention to addresses as they were hard to see through the snow.
I knew I was in the right neighborhood, so I stopped at what I thought was the correct location, got out of the car and headed to the front door of the modestly decorated home.
As luck would have it, I picked the wrong house. That didn’t matter, though, as I happened to wander into a family party by accident. They recognized I was lost and slightly frustrated, and welcomed me into the comfort of their home in order to get me out of the storm. It wasn’t long before I had a cold soda and a plate full of food in front of me while I searched for the correct address in the owner’s phone book.
After about 30 minutes of conversation, food and hospitality, I was on my way with the correct location in hand, which turned out to be a mere five doors down from where I had originally stopped. By this time, the snow had ceased a bit, enough for me to feel more confident about my winter driving skills.
Years after that experience, I reflect back on that day with a fond remembrance of what the Christmas spirit really means. Religion and beliefs aside, the holidays bring out the very best in us as human beings and is second only to the outpouring of care and concern that we exhibit in times of crisis. Yes, we are imperfect beings, normally driven by what is in our own best interest. In the right setting, though, our capacity for compassion, love and kindness is limitless.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what the Christmas season, holiday season, Hanukkah season….however you observe this time of year….is all about.
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