Christmas has always been a sort of gonzo season, when reason flies out the window for most Americans, and we do our level best to be the perfect enablers for our whining, pathetic, entitled youngsters. In my own feckless youth, the Sears Wishbook would be thumped out onto the table at a family meal with the instructions that we mark our quarry and remember our rationality, and we were one of those families where a hundred dollar gift was a once-in-five-years sort of thing, not an expectation. Back then, ’round 1977 or so, we’d wear down that catalog until it was a feathery stack of dog-eared corners, with items marked, crossed-out, revisited, emphasized with happy faces and exclamation marks, and Christmas morning was joyous, all pajamas and rampaging desire danced out under slowly descending clouds of shredded wrapping paper.
For me, it was always ruined, in some measure, by my astonishing ability to get my toy unwrapped, explored, paraded around the room, and either broken or dismantled in what seemed like a single blur of activity, so I am pictured in hysterical tears in most of our holiday morning photos for a decade, generally holding up a toy missing a leg or other major piece.
Still, there was this month of anticipation, and our home was the best place in the world to anticipate Christmas. I grew up in an actual log cabin, a relatively modest two hundred year-old farmhouse in Scaggsville, Maryland with foot-thick walls, exposed in our family room to reveal enormous hand-hewn logs and mortar chinking bristling with horse hair. We always had a real, and usually live, tree that filled the house with the glorious pine perfume of the season, as a plastic or aluminum tree was so far out of the realm of decency to my parents that one was never even suggested. We decorated outside with a single large wreath of real pine cut from one of our trees, mounted on a large plywood circle my father had cut, and lit with white lights, and would sometimes light the two small pines in the front as well.
Inside, we lit the tree with those big colored bulbs that ran so hot that they sort of baked the tree, releasing even more of that unbearably gorgeous scent, and it was hung with a mixture of our own handmade ornaments, the ornaments from my mother’s childhood tree, and an otherwise chaotic mish-mash of decorations, to be topped with our gold foil angel with a real porcelain head, who stood waiting on our old Victorian pump organ until the night of Christmas Eve, when she’d fly to the top of the tree under her own steam, at least if you took my parents’ word for it.
My mother took Advent seriously, and we had had a proper wreath and she would studiously enforce the weekly tradition of a short reading and lighting of the next candle on the wreath. We’d hit the date on the Advent calendar each morning at breakfast, too, invariably fighting over who got to open the next little cardboard window on the calendar.
All was not idyllic, of course. There’s something to the season that brings up feelings of inadequacy and of being incomplete, and there was an undercurrent of that, too, at times. There were family spats, and frustrations about why we couldn’t get wildly expensive gifts like some of the other kids in our school that neatly highlighted what we didn’t know then, which was that we really didn’t have that much money, with so much going into starting the family’s fledgling business and paying the mortgage on a house that cost an astonishing twenty thousand dollars.
My mother, I think, was most sensitive to all this, and she was the most strident critic of the commercialization of the holiday. It hadn’t been this way in her youth, she’d maintain, and it was getting worse by the year. We all knew it, sort of, in that way that you see a train rumbling down the tracks and know exactly how little you can do to stop it or change its course. We were different, though, and knew it.
What can you do, right?
“You know,” my mother said, brightly, at dinner one night well in advance of Christmas. “I was thinking that we should have a wooden Christmas this year.”
Three sets of utensils clinked on plates. My father kept eating.
“What?” asked my sister.
“I was thinking we should go back and have a Christmas like they used to, where everyone made gifts for each other and it was a real holiday, like in the olden days.”
Three throats tightened. My father took a sip of tea, searched out and removed a bit of thickened sauce that had made it onto a loop of his handlebar mustache, and my sister spoke up.
“Wait, you mean we’re all going get wooden toys? That sort of thing?”
“I don’t want a wooden toy,” I added, stepping in to voice my horror. “What am I going to do? Just pull a little wooden duck around by a string or something?”
“I just think it would be nice if we got back to basics on Christmas, since it’s such a special day,” my mother said, and we all just goggled, because she’d clearly finally gone completely insane.
We didn’t have a wooden Christmas that year. That year, I got what I still regard as the best present I ever received, an Lloyd’s combination clock radio and cassette recorder with which I discovered the joy of radio drama, the pleasure of recording The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series so I could memorize and rehearse every single moment of it for five years, the solace of going to sleep with Brian Eno’s Discreet Music playing, and the occasional thrill of waking to “Good Morning,” by the Beatles. I’ve gotten other wonderful gifts since, but that year, well—
It became a sort of mean joke at my mother’s expense, the wooden Christmas. She raised the subject a few more times in earnest, then ended up sulking about it for a few years after that. We, of course, found it to be great fun over the years, laughing over anything so preposterous, so stomach-churningly outrageous as forcing kids to accept lousy wooden presents made by hand.
What horrible lives we’d have led.
The only thing is, well, it’s not quite so funny anymore. I’m not ten anymore, and this year—this year in which the country I thought I knew really started to go bug nuts, with tea parties and rage and panic and endless, unfathomable stupidity, calmed with the opium surge of singing contests on television and the unlimited cultural mania over dumb women with spray-on tans doing dumb things and cheap electronics from China and…well, this is the fucking year for me.
I’ve had it. This is when wooden Christmas happens.
See, I’m not a Christian anymore, and it’s been thirteen years since I stopped being a middle-class (by birth, not income, alas) white guy with a degree in poetry dabbling in eastern religion and realized that I was, in fact, an actual taoist, albeit one practicing a home-grown flavor of the philosophy that would almost certainly evoke a smirk in the Chinese observer. I don’t believe in a historical Jesus, I don’t believe in Him as the son of God, I don’t believe that what we say happened on Christmas actually happened. It’s not my holiday anymore, except by familial and cultural convention.
When all the old celebrants of the day in my family either died or moved with their jobs and families to places elsewhere, and when the old house in Timonium where we’d celebrate the second half of Christmas with my lovely aunt and uncle and my cousins and my grandmother and step-grandfather finally went away, leaving a void, I lost interest in the day.
For years, I had a tree. Later, running late, I started decorating the vacuum cleaner, and I’ve done that, off and on, for a decade, feeling linguistically smug about the social commentary hidden in what I call “the vacuum of Christmas,” but I’ve missed the celebration and the joy of it. I get together with my mother, my sister, and my nieces, but it’s lost most of that magic for me. Thanksgiving was always my true center anyway, with my beloved annual drive to Georgia, the magical family homestead there, and all my wonderful family, so who needs it, right?
I’ve reached that annoying age when I start to find out, more and more, that my parents were right. I worry sometimes that I’m just getting crankier and more conservative, and that I’m on the verge of obnoxiously declaring myself a libertarian and affirming all those little nagging rake-shaking doubts about the world of the future, but I think it’s actually possible that my mother had it right on this one.
This is the year for a wooden Christmas.
I’d already narrowed it down, telling friends and family to please, please not get me anything, because I’m tired of stuff. I’m swimming in stuff, drowning in stuff, stomping around in a rage because I have nowhere to put all this goddamned stuff and it’s falling off shelves and tripping me.
Don’t get me stuff, please.
I’d narrowed it down to my nieces and nephew, setting a rule that Christmas is for children, but even that, well, I just reduced to gift cards. Gift cards to a bookstore, mind you, but gift cards, given because I feel like society makes it obligatory, unless I want to cross the Rubicon and become the cranky old duff I sound like a lot of the time.
This year feels different. It feels desperate, like those neighborhood parents back in my day who really hated Christmas, and hated their lives, and hated their failures, and hated the choices they’d made, but damn it if we all aren’t going to be HAPPY this year. Just spike up the eggnog a bit and shut the hell up, okay?
If you don’t shop, the economy will crash.
There’s just this ugly, panicked thing out there, this monstrous mutant of the Christmas Spirit™ on the loose, metastasizing like a glittery, green plastic wad of cancer, and you can’t turn on the TV, you can’t go to a department store, and you just can’t set foot in the media-saturated cultural landscape without being washed over by the whole thing, by the whole clownish grinning hypercolored sparkling LED-struing inflated novelty Santa bursting out of an inflatable novelty chimney giggling magical wonderland maniacal desolation of it.
For me, it should be academic. I’m not a Christian anymore. I’m Christian-adjacent, and I’ve seen and known many people for whom the faith produces wonderful change and magnificent humility, but I don’t need it.
This year, though, I’ve had it. I’ve had it with the gloss and the empowerment of endless entitled whining from all the little kids who’ve been genetically mutated into the shock troops of corporate sales forces, their little dye-reddened cry holes yapping out orders to the adult world, lest they unleash the ruinous forces of disappointment. I’ve had it with Best Buy’s CEO claiming that he feels “terrible” to force his employees to shelve their Thanksgiving nights to go in and open those wretched stores at midnight so that wage slaves can march in and fist fight over chattering dolls because nothing else will do, MOMMY. I’ve had it with packaged cheer, bottled Christmas tree scent to spray on lousy plastic trees, cutesy Christmas cookies stamped out by machines in the billions.
I could let it all go, and be that guy.
I’ve been that guy for a decade. No skin off my nose.
I could also clean up my table saw and make something. I can sew, I can knit, I can make things. I am the kind of man Thoreau wanted me to be, largely because I read Thoreau and made it so. The thing is, I like to make things and give them away. I like to celebrate, even when it’s not my holiday. I like to cook and bake and prepare fine meals.
This year, I think, may be the right time for that wooden Christmas.
The old log house is gone, in the hands of people who I hope treasure it at least half as much as I did. All my uncles are gone, and my grandparents, as well. My father last picked a crumb out of his mustache fourteen years ago.
The country where I grew up is gone, too, gone away into divisions of Red and Blue, with us and against us, I’m right and you’re wrong and everyone’s just dug in and set to fight.
Like someone watching a train, I can’t put my hand out and stop the juggernaut, but I sure as hell can step off the tracks, find my own way, and share what I learn in the process. When I was a kid, it was all about the anticipation, and the desire, the way it burned and the way is made me feel like my whole life would change if I just got the right thing. Sometimes it was true, and my clock radio with a cassette recorder changed things, and my Commodore 64 with a Datasette changed things, but mostly, the gifts are just more details in the day.
If I think back on how it was, I don’t miss and often don’t even remember the presents I got, unless I managed to break them in some spectacular way. I think back and I remember my family, all of us, back when all those wonderful people were still with us. I remember the drive across Baltimore and running across the lawn of my aunt and uncle’s house, and I remember sitting on the hearth talking, and fleeing when their old Dalmatian would break wind. I remember playing in the gully behind the house with my cousins, and having long conversations with my aunt’s mother, who I flattered shamelessly and who flattered me in return by speaking with me with the same attention and reverence she would accord another adult.
The gifts were always just the excuse to let us feel special, but you never know that when you’re young and you still believe that what television tells you is real, and that what your friends tell you is real, and what the internet and the billboards and the itchy underlying buzz of insatiable need says is real. Christmas is the gonzo season for Americans, and lots of other Westerners, but it’s only as real as we make it.
If I had my way, Black Friday would be the day for everyone else that it is for me.
This year, I’m going down early to Georgia. I’ll pack my tiny red roadster like a piece of luggage, check the oil and clean my windows, have a lovely two-day drive down my favorite road in the world, Route 301 from Maryland to Sylvania, Georgia, and I’m going to unpack in the back bedroom of the house down there, charge up my netbook, and sit on the porch swing writing and watching the cars go by. I’ll be out in the back with the roller harvesting windfall pecans, and I may drive into Savannah for an afternoon. I’ll prepare the congealed salads, set up the tables, brine and cook the turkey, polish all the good silver, and otherwise work my fingers to the bone in the best possible way.
At midnight on Black Friday, I will be asleep. At eight AM on Black Friday I will be asleep. Around nine, I’ll get up, convene in the kitchen with all my Georgia cousins who I only see twice a year, and we’ll assemble some kind of breakfast from the mountains of leftovers, and eat scrambled eggs, venison, pecan pie, turkey, cranberry sauce, congealed salad, dried apple cake, snowflake rolls, cereal, and whatever else is there, and talk and talk and talk and tell stories and share our adventures and just be there, right there, in that moment, far from the crowds clamoring for one stupid piece of plastic crap after another.
Come December 1st, I’m going to start putting together the details of the best wooden Christmas ever, but before then, I will be damned if anything’s going to stop me from telling my cousins lurid stories about the street people I meet at work. ‘Round noon, I’m going to lock myself in the big bathroom with a book, fill that enormous seven foot clawfoot tub with scalding hot water right up to the rim, and float there, reading, until I’m one big pink raisin.
The way most people live mystifies me, but I was very lucky. I can’t stop a rolling train, but I can share my own story, and point out that giving your children a wooden Christmas will be hell for about thirty years, but they’ll get over it, and find that they’ve been living better all along because of what’s behind that absurd suggestion.
Maybe there’s another way.
And I’m here to tell you it ain’t half bad.
© 2011 Joe Belknap Wall