december 15, 1999
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The holidays are upon us, and whether you celebrate Yule, Christmas, Ramadan, Hanukkah, or Solstice, there's one constant: family gatherings. My recently-relocated-to-New-England brother and I have been having a raucous email exchange this week trying to figure out where to go and who to see. His last missive ended with the observation that the only major difference between the Weavers and the Griswolds is the addition of Randy Quaid.
Leaving aside the insanity inherent in my and his spouses' families (which would be a whole other essay), Weaver holiday madness starts with my dad. Now you have to understand that my dad is an engineer. As such, the whole shopping/cooking/decorating melange doesn't really appeal to him. What he likes are the lights. The man is crazy for lights that do weird things. When I was a kid, we had those strings with the frosted sleeves where every 20 lights or so, the color changes. They blinked by color string. So the lights had to be lined up in perfect, color-coordinated rows so that they would blink in neat vertical lines around the tree. Which was bad enough. But by the time I was in grad. school that was too dull. Now he has lights with the colors all interspersed - green next to blue next to pink next to orange. You get the picture. But these lights flash all sorts of patterns by color. And they're controlled by a little box which lets you select which pattern you'd like, or, to induce seizures in your family, all of them in rotation. Five minutes of the "disco" pattern could easily send you to the hospital. But I guess I really can't blame him. It seems to be hereditary, as his mother has lights that blink in time to the carols played by their control box. Yikes.
My mom, on the other hand, becomes Martha Stewart without the plastic smile. She bakes about nine million types of cookies, temporarily cornering the market on unsalted butter in southeastern Pennsylvania, and decorates anything that doesn't fight back. This is not as serious an affliction as it used to be. My folks have recently redecorated the downstairs in shades of green and burgundy and revamped the holiday decorations to match. But for years, it was harvest gold, olive green, and brown in the living room, and olive green and baby blue (yes, I meant to type baby blue) in the dining room. Add in some holiday red and gold and it begins to look like the house is recovering from a serious bender. She also has a penchant for complex handmade gifts. She's good at them, to be sure - one year she gave me a set of the 12 Days of Christmas cross-stitched ornaments that are just about the prettiest things I've ever seen on a tree. But imagine the panic that ensues on December 20, when you realize that you're only up to day 9 of the 12 days, the sweater you were making for Grandma is still missing its left arm and back, and the quilted table runner for your sister in law isn't quilted yet. And you're expecting the entire family (30 plus people) for a Christmas Eve open house.
Which brings me to the rest of the crew. The Christmas Eve open house was initiated when I was about 4 with the intent that we'd all see each other then, and everyone could stay in their own houses on Christmas Day. That lasted about 2 years. Then Mom's mom started in with, "But you have to come over for Christmas dinner!" Then Dad's mom started in with, "But you're going to [Mom's] parents!" Soon we were spending the majority of Christmas Day in the car. Thank heavens my folks drew the line at the 6 am breakfast at Dad's mom's place. The Weavers are not morning people.
The typical Christmas Day runs like this: around 9:30 am somebody - usually me - wakes up and decides that we have to get started on the presents or we'll never make Mom's mom's 5 pm dinner. Seems like plenty of time, right? Obviously, you've never opened presents with my family. So I wake up the spouse, the folks, the brother, and the sister in law. Which takes at LEAST 30 minutes (I told you we weren't morning people). Then we all have to wait at the top of the stairs - don't ask why, it's tradition - while my dad turns on all the Christmas lights (including the ones that cause seizures, but we're all still too sleepy to be adversely affected), puts on Andy Williams' Christmas album (yes, I said album), and stokes the fire in the wood stove. He then takes the obligatory, "Is that your hair, or were you attacked by a rabid racoon?" picture and we all stumble into the family room (where the wood stove is) to open the stocking presents. Then it's on to the still-freezing living room for the big gifts.
There is, as my brother calls it, the Christmas Code. It is very important not to break the Code. The Code dictates that only one present can be opened at a time. So after we've all taken our traditional spots around the tree (yes, that's also part of the Code), I pick up the first present, read the tag aloud and hand it to the appropriate person. The recipient must then shake the box, feel the box, and try to guess what it is. The giver must smile knowingly and say nothing. Then the box must be slowly unwrapped, and the paper folded flat - not to be saved, but so that it's neat for recycling. The item must be removed. If it's clothing, the recipient must stroke it, smell it, and examine the materials and care instructions tag. Nice fabrics and washable garments get especially approving comments. The item then gets passed around for everyone else to stroke and smell (don't ask why - it's the Code). The recipient must then go to the half bath, change out of pjs and robe and into the item, come back, model the item, get picture taken, return to the half bath, change back into pjs and robe, and return to the living room. Then I can pick up the next package to hand out. If it's a tool, toy, or other item, it must be removed from the box and assembled, the directions must be read, and it must be used. Immediately. Before the next item can be opened. We're all dreading the year someone gets a bread machine. We'll still be opening presents on the 26th. This process is repeatedly interrupted by adding wood to the fire, changing the record to Sandler & Young or Elvis's Christmas album, getting coffee or tea, getting a bite to eat (you'd get hungry too, if it took you 3 hours to open your presents), and bathroom breaks, during all of which all present opening must cease until all family members have returned to their assigned spots in the living room.
Around noon, when we're finally finished, everyone has to eat whatever really bad for you, delicious, gooey concoction Mom "What Would Martha Do?" Weaver has prepared for...um...breakfast and take a poll on which newly received item s/he will wear for the rest of the day. Then it's off to Dad's mom's.
My dad's family is largely made up of, well, large people, and my grandmother's house is extremely tiny. His youngest sister has 4 children, and I'm pretty sure that all of them are ADHD with no Ritalin in sight. And they've all been eating cinnamon buns since 6 am, so by lunchtime the adults are in a carbohydrate-induced stupor and the kids are bouncing off the walls. It's complete chaos. The living room is dominated by the tree, covered with the afore-mentioned Christmas carol timed blinking lights and by the very large TV, which usually features a sporting event at full volume. I generally sit on the stairs, where it's a little cooler, and I'm out of the way of the main traffic pattern. When the din gets to be more than we can bear, we head back to the car to Mom's mom's place for Christmas dinner.
My mom's mother has slightly different standards of food safety than most people. Every year we're left wondering if this will be the year we finally all end up in the emergency room with food poisoning. In addition, as she's gotten older, her taste buds aren't quite as sensitive, so every year, the food gets saltier and saltier. Last year, the mashed potatoes had more salt than a bag of Utz salt & vinegar chips. That's a lot of salt. And she's never quite gotten the hang of what's involved in being a vegetarian. On the down side: many years I'm confined to crudities, dinner rolls, and the cranberry relish. On the up side: I can drive everyone to the emergency room, since I'll probably be the only one without food poisoning when the ax finally drops.
We straggle back to my folks' place well after dark. The house is cold, since the fire went out while we were trying to choke down the mashed potatoes. We flop exhausted on the sofas while Dad rebuilds the fire, then, true to engineer form, proceeds to flip through all 65 channels in 30 seconds. Every 5 minutes. For an hour.
I wouldn't miss it for the world. Happy holidays.
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