Last night, I discovered the meaning of Christmas while feeling up our newly acquired tree. There I was, trying to disentangle myself from the branches while my girlfriend stood over me, yelling. As I yelled back (which of course is the only acceptable response to being yelled at), precariously placed ornaments began falling off the branches while my pitch-covered hands attempted to simultaneously catch said ornaments and prevent the tree from crushing me entirely.
The Christmas holiday has always been somewhat of a challenge for me. While everyone around me gleefully prepares for that day of magical magic with magic snowflake magic, I find myself growing wearier and wearier. A proper Christmas, I have always felt, is something more akin to a Charles Dickens novel: suffering, understatement, and pitiful starving children. You can't have Christmas without starving children. But all around me, Christmas is every bright ostentatious light bombarding my face. It's twelve different charities offering people an opportunity to buy off their consciences for another year. It's marked-up products on "sale" all the time, everywhere. Sadly, gone are the days where people gave Christmas the reverence, respect, and fear it deserves.
Which is the state of mind I was in when I remembered that I had obligated myself to my office's "Yankee Swap" tradition1. Of course, I needed to procure a gift for the gathering, so, despite my distaste for shopping in physical retail locations, I "texted"my sweet darling girlfriend with my futuristic telephony device.
"I need to pick up a Yankee Swap gift for my office party on Thursday"
Her response chilled me to the bone.
"Great! We can do the rest of our Christmas shopping while we're out too!"
Every year we diligently work toward picking the most perfect personal gifts for our family members that we can manage without going into a special kind of holiday bankruptcy. Since we still live in a world where employers are terrified of the possibility of hiring anyone under the age of 45 for fear that the inexperience of youth will completely crush whatever remaining threads of competency they have managed to hold on to since the recession, "perfect gift" often means, for us, "lint sculpture" (some years we can afford to splurge and decorate with glitter). There's no worse feeling than finding the perfect gift for someone you love before realizing that you can't afford to get them anything more unique than a nice mug ($25?! I could make cheaper drinkware! Out of lint!). So repeating this process continually throughout the night was not only something I was actively hating, it was something that was unlikely to yield any actual results, positive or otherwise.
After (what felt like) several hours of mindless rejection of perfectly great gifts I couldn't afford to give, I had somehow managed to at least acquire a Yankee Swap gift2 and had now decided it was time to kill. Recognizing the look of murder in my eyes, my sweet darling girlfriend suggested we head for the bus depot post-haste. Complaining the whole way that walking was not nearly fast enough for me, and why-oh-why-don't-I-have-my-jetpack-I-get-for-living-in-the-future, my sweet darling girlfriend's nerves began to fray at the ends. I might have taken her attempt to read a book during the ride as a sign that she wanted to avoid an argument, but I am the argument-starting king and such subtleties are lost on me. By the time we arrived home tired, annoyed, and dinner-less, I had gotten through the first 207 reasons of Volume 1 of Why I Hated Christmas. Ignoring my distasteful disposition completely, sweet darling (increasingly being pushed toward darling-ish) girlfriend made her way across our living room to our adorably scruffy Christmas tree remarking
"Oh no, it's crooked - will you help me fix the tree?"
The thing about my sweet darling girlfriend is that she can get anyone to do anything. What, you wonder, limits the scope of this ability? I can tell you now the answer is terrifyingly, nothing. You may have assumed that you would never eat that whole chili pepper, ride your bike through freezing weather to deliver a spare key, or stick your whole arm in that tank of electric eels while the guard across the room yells at you, but guess what? Sweet darling girlfriend just pouted that adorable pout that makes a kitten hugging a puppy on a baby unicorn seem downright offensive. And now you're in aquarium-jail listening to the aquarium president-guy lecture on and on about "decontamination", "secret government eel experiments", and "pandemic protocols". What. A. Drag.
But sweet darling girlfriend does have one weakness. One thing that has the same overpowering, mind-controlling effect on her as she does on everyone else. That thing is Christmas.
I'm lying on the floor, groping around the dirty, cold water at bottom of the tree stand trying to determine if the stump is actually resting on anything at all. It's not. The stump is too small and low branches are preventing the fully-decorated tree from sitting properly and securely in the stand, which I've decided was done on purpose solely to make my life miserable. Since we don't own any kind of shrubbery trimmers, I start cutting away branches with an ill-advised kitchen knife, handed to me by sweet darling girlfriend who has a look on her face that suggests a close-friend is about to undergo a dangerous medical operation. Two branches off. I stop and breathe for a second, trying to maintain a Zen attitude. I fail.
"Hurry up," sweet darling girlfriend cries "I can't hold this forever!"
By the time I've hacked through the third branch, I've run out of things to call sweet darling girlfriend and have begun making up new words which disappointingly, still fail to convey the rage I feel about being forced to violate a Christmas tree I hadn't really wanted to begin with.
"Why didn't you check this before decorating?!" I yell "This is why we should have gotten a fake tree!"
She yells back that she thought it was fine and that a fake tree would defeat the point. The doorbell rings; the indulgent cheap burgers I had forgotten she ordered for us from the delivery place around the corner have arrived. "One second," she says, dashing off and releasing the tree before I can say anything. I know I can't hold the tree on my own, and let it fall on top of me. It's small, so it doesn't hurt, but the needles are prickly and the sap is getting all over my clothes. It was lying there, under our disfigured, unstable Christmas tree that I realized I wasn't really mad at all.
It's no great revelation that Christmas is a holiday of ritual. Pick out the tree, shop for gifts, visit family, cook the dinner, wrap the gifts, kidnap and interrogate a mall-Santa; it's all part of a strange yearly obligation we agree to uphold, even when we grow tired of it. We all have nightmare stories of holiday fights with family, meals gone awry, family fights, stress about everything that needs to be done, or fights with family members. What being crushed by my comically Charlie Brown-ish Christmas tree taught me was this: all the fighting, and stress, and craziness- it's all part of my own Christmas ritual. All that insanity and pressure is what I love about the holidays, and can't imagine a proper Christmas without.
Several minutes of silence pass before sweet darling girlfriend emerges from the hallway, gloriously, carrying what I now sense to be the sweet, wonderful smell of delicious burgers after a long afternoon of desolation and hunger.
"Get this damn thing off me." I say cheerfully, and we finish the work we began, quickly and successfully. I turn the tree 90 degrees so the branchless side is facing the wall, declaring "There."
Sweet darling girlfriend hugs me "Thank you" she says. Somewhere, her beaming smile is diverting attention away from an adorable newborn.
"Fine," I grumble "Let's eat".
1 For the uninitiated, the aptly named Yankee Swap is a cross between something resembling gambling and a free market economy. Each participant brings a non-specific gift to the event and chooses a number. Then, in order, the numbers are called out and the person holding that number gets to either: a) pick one (wrapped!) gift from the collection of presents or b) steal a present from someone who has already chosen. That person must then pick a new gift from the pool of unwrapped items. This continues until all the numbers have been called. Clearly, the poor, sad fellow(ess) who has the misfortune of picking the first number is virtually guaranteed to be going home with a grill brush or windshield wiper cleaning kit.
2 Sweet darling girlfriend's own office's Yankee swap gift type breakdown was as follows: 60% Starbucks gift cards, 35% alcohol drinks, 5% "grill brush"-grade miscellaneous items