This "best of" article was originally published December 12, 2016.
Christmas. I’m not the biggest fan.
I’ve moved a safe distance beyond the days when my Grinch-like attitude was a downer for my wife Elise, who loves Christmas. I’ve learned to deal with the seasonal affect disorder (SAD) that used to sour my mood as winter solstice approached and cold rains doused my desire to exercise outside. I no longer get particularly annoyed when I see Christmas decorations at retail shops come Halloween. I’ve learned to stop referring to the holiday as “The Effing Great American Winter Greedfest.” Out loud, anyway.
The softening of my aversion is accompanied by a tinge of guilt. My late mother-in-law’s birthday was on Christmas, and our Christmases for about 30 years coincided with her birthday party. Every year entailed waking up on Christmas morning, opening presents, then driving to Sacramento to spend the rest of the day with the in-laws at Toni’s house. I was full of resentment, to the gills. Arguing that other people don’t visit their parents every single birthday (for example, my most recent birthday, which defined “uneventful”) got zero traction. But then Toni passed away a couple of years ago, and along with her the birthday mandate. This year I look forward to listening to my granddaughter play Toni’s piano on Christmas Day.
That piano is now in my oldest daughter’s home in Sacramento, where we’ll still be going for Christmas this year and likely many years to come. Two of our grandkids are there, we have a daughter in the Bay Area, and another daughter and grandkid from Redding who will be visiting in-laws in the Bay Area on Christmas Eve. Sacramento remains the most convenient family rendezvous point for Christmas morning. The resentments I had about driving to Sacramento every Christmas have drifted away.
The family get-tougher aspect of Christmas is great—it’s the reason Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. At the heart of my dislike for Christmas, on the surface, is the rank commercialization. It’s the time of year when cash registers ring like sleigh bells—make-or-break season for many retailers, and we’re happy to oblige. The pyramid of presents under our Christmas tree each year, I would argue, is objectively grotesque—a shrine to material excess.
But if I’m being honest, that’s just the public face of my distain. Deep down inside, I’m insecure. I never know what to get anyone. I don’t enjoy shopping, and I especially dislike shopping for other people because I have little sense what people will and won’t like. My wife is no actor—when she opens a present, I know immediately if I’ve hit a home run or grounded out weakly to the pitcher. Guess which at-bats I remember most vividly? So I procrastinate, and then over-shop for presents in a frenzy, in the hope that a couple will be solid doubles and a few will dribble past the infielders for singles. Alas, that frenzy of shopping closes the material-excess feedback loop—the sin of commercial gluttony, and the remorse that accompanies it.
(Apologies for the baseball analogies during football season. Pitchers and catchers report in 66 days—I keep track. Counting down the days until spring training begins is one of my annual SAD coping mechanisms.)
Now there are grandkids, and I’m not going to let my grumpiness trump their joy. And we do have some Christmas traditions that I enjoy. Each member of the family has a large stocking, knitted by our oldest daughter, and each stocking gets stuffed to the bulging point with all sorts of knick-knacks and treats. These little gifts are my favorites. For example, fingernail clippers from a company that makes knives and samurai swords out of Japanese steel that cut through nails like a hot knife through soft butter. Thoughtful, unexpected, relatively inexpensive little gifts along with practical everyday items of the type that you always forget to buy for yourself. Smartwool socks for everyone. The stocking stuffers are my favorite presents.
So I’ll abide, but I’ll be forever puzzled why my perfect Christmas holiday is such a tough sell, remaining so even after the kids were grown and before their career obligations and the grandkids arrived, making family vacations difficult. My perfect Christmas entails spending the holiday with the whole family somewhere in the semi-tropics: Hawaii, Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico…wherever. Skip the online shopping, the malls, the Christmas parties, the tree-cutting, the present-wrapping. Trade the whole shitaree for two weeks on a sunny beach on an ocean of warm, crystalline saltwater full of tropical fish, palm trees swaying in the trade winds.