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Thoughts About The Christmas Season

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The other day someone said there’s magic in the air at this time of year, as if this were the only time of the year that magic exists. I don’t know about that. Largely we make our own magic. Maybe it’s Christmas that allows us to see the magic that is always in the world but we usually ignore it because we don’t have time to stop and pay attention. But that’s the subject for a future blog.

The statement prompted me to take a look at how oddly people change  for this season – for both the good and bad. And I also considered how the season has changed since I was kid. There is good magic and bad magic, isn’t there? We certainly see evidence of both on Black Friday – and now the day before it that used to be Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday when everything imaginable was closed. It was like you had to stay home and spend time with your family because there was nothing else to do and nowhere else to do it.

Going back to my earliest memories of the Christmas season I recall catching the excitement over watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on a Black and White Philco TV set. CBS covered the event with Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit that year. I’m not sure whether Mr. Green Jeans was there too, but he probably was. Since I was around four or five years old and a devoted daily viewer of the good Captain there didn’t seem to be anything odd at all about all my TV friends being at a parade. In fact that’s that made the event more special for me. You see, from a kid’s perspective it’s easier to see the magic because no one has yet convinced him or her that it doesn’t exist. In fact, for a brief time the adults tend to encourage kids to believe everything is possible. And a lot of that has to do with Santa Claus. AT the end of the parade Santa made his annual appearance riding a float with his sleigh. What could be more magical than that?

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A few years ago when I worked for a major retailer and weighed about sixty pounds more than I do now I also sported a full beard. The combination of my weight and my almost white hair and beard made me a dead ringer for the man of the season. On a whim I tried on the store’s Santa suit, sans the pillow stuffing and false beard. It fit me well. What happened next gave me reason to believe there was magic in that suit – or at least seeing the suit reminds people, even adults, about the magic of Christmas. Maybe seeing Santa allows people to connect with their inner child, suspend the disbelief for a while and remember when they truly believed in things at face value.

Parents play Santa for their children. I think it’s in the job description somewhere between staying up all night with a sick child who has a fever and teaching a little boy or girl how to ride a bicycle – a kid’s first taste of true independence. We naturally know how to do it, I think, even without putting on the red and white suit. But if you’ve never actually worn the suit you don’t really know the powerful sensation of putting on the mythical persona. People react differently to you, as if you have become larger than life. Suddenly all the miseries of the world around you fade into the background.

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Not only do the little kids respond with smiles of immediate recognition and hopeful expectation, so do adults. A lot of people want to take a picture with Santa, of course. But really just walking around in a retail store wearing the suit causes everyone to pause and for a moment believe. In the process each person regardless of age remembers something nice about Christmas. For the little ones seeing Santa for the first time is an event that reinforces the myth.

Back when I was a kid the build up for the season was reinforced everywhere I looked. Decorations went up around Thanksgiving then and the narrow window for seeing the red, green, sliver and gold long with the blinking lights made it all the more special and urgent. Santa was coming soon! I think it’s all dragged out far too long now.

In my grade school back int he 60’s we started rehearsing for an annual choral pageant learning traditional songs. I’m not sure kids are allowed to do that now, at least they can’t sing anything overtly religious. When my kids were young they couldn’t. Another instance of a break in tradition between my generation and theirs.

Back in the day we helped decorate the classroom with crafts we made in art class – little Christmas trees and Santas, ropes made of interconnected loops of alternating red and green strips of construction paper to wrap around the tree int he classroom. We drew names out of a bowl and that was the person in the class for whom we were to buy a relatively inexpensive gift. If a kid couldn’t afford it they let the teacher know discreetly. Or their parents did. Usually the teacher kicked int he buck or two because every kid should get something at Christmas. It was a huge deal.

I think a lot of that excitement was lost as I grew older. The gifts became more about utility – socks and underwear as oppose to the latest and greatest toy. After I married and had kids I discovered that I got to relive the magic vicariously through my kids and their excitement at opening their gifts.

Some of the magic of Christmas was lost because I worked in retail for so many years. Nothing strips away all the tinsel for a holiday like knowing you have to work longer hours and sometimes even have to work not he actual holiday. One Christmas Eve there was an emergency in the store and my obligation to the store superseded being home to assemble the gifts for my kids. That sucked.

In retail you tend to see the calendar in terms of whichever season you need to set and the next season to transition into. Also nothing gets you out of the mood like listening to Christmas music playing over the intercom ad nauseam – 16 hours a day for the better part of two months. Some of the companies I have worked for began setting Christmas in September! The warped logic behind that was that the store needed to establish through maximum repetition in the customer’s mind that the store has everything they need for decorating their home. In truth we wasted valuable real estate on the sale floor to present merchandise that didn’t start to sell at all until around Thanksgiving – when, oddly enough, the company began to advertise discounts off the inflated retail prices assigned to it.

Personally, I think putting up anything to do with Christmas before Thanksgiving is jumping the gun. Not only does it diminish the value of the season but also it spreads thin the magic inherent in the season. A longer span allows anything new or unusual to gain more of a routine feel. What’s lost in merchandising too early is the sense of urgency in getting gifts and decorations before it is too late. It caters to people who want to get their shopping done early and have it over with, I suppose. But I have never understood that either. Some people shop for stuff as early as July! I don’t know, it’s like the season is a chore to be accomplished, something to be checked off a work list. That is not what Christmas is supposed to be about. In fact, gift giving has been made the primary emphasis when in fact it was not the original message of the season at all. It is supposed to be about hope for the future and peace on Earth.

Black Friday has now encroached on Thanksgiving Day as more and more greed and one-upping the competition has distorted what used to be a great American tradition for sharing time and a meal with family and close friends. Yes, I understand that Thanksgiving was made into a Federal Holiday not all that long ago in a historical sense. But it is based on a tradition dating back to just about as far as history for English settlers goes in America. Since the holiday was established based on that tradition I think it should be sacrosanct. No one should be forced to work on a family holiday. In fact I propose that if a retail store wants to be open on a Federally recognized family holiday they should pay those who volunteer to work on that day double time, regardless of whether the employee is part time or full time. Also salaried employees should be compensated with bonus pay for that day. In this way a retail company would have to sharpen the pencil and figure out if it is really worth the sacrifice of their employee’s family time for the potential sales and profits to be made from being open one extra day.

It is disingenuous for a shopper to be in a retail store on Thanksgiving telling a retail clerk how awful it is that his or her company required him or her to work on a holiday. You see, if customers didn’t come out on a holiday to get those super early special buys there would be no reason for a store to be open. Somewhere along the way, someone who had nothing better to do reviewed their security tape footage and noticed how many cars drove into the parking lot while the store was closed. So, all those people who had no life and went out to see if any stores were open ended a perfectly good holiday for everyone else. It’s a matter of supply and demand, folks. If no one showed up for a sale, next year there wouldn’t be a sale.

As for those great deals, many are not so great. Take a look at how many are limited supply loss leaders, close outs or limited special edition items made to a different standard. Some off brand items or factory refurbished products also made the scene. In other words, a lot of the great deals on for Black Friday and Thanksgiving Day are really not worth the time and effort of getting up early or standing in line. But some of the deals are good and that entices shoppers to come out en masse risking life and limb.

Rush, rush, rush to save a few bucks on stuff a large percentage of which will be returned after Christmas. Walking across a store’s parking lot in the midst of the chaos of such a mass coming and going is like playing real life Frogger.

After working for nearly 30 years in retail I can tell you this, if I didn’t gave to work on Black Friday I would never go near a store. But I guess some people like the experience and perhaps that’s part of what’s necessary for them to capture some of the magic and get into the Christmas spirit. It’s like Black Friday jump starts the shopper’s metabolism. kicking it into a higher buying mode. But that’s not really the Christmas spirit, is it? It is something we have created in lieu of the true meaning of giving.

#BlackFriday #Thanksgiving #Christmas #Shopping #ChistmasSpirit #SantaClaus #Magic

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Family At Thanksgiving – Excerpt From A Novel In Progress

The following is from a novel-in-progress titled Text Messages. This is a Chapter called Family At Thanksgiving. The book is largely set in Connecticut, where I lived for nine years. It is about Barry Woods, an author who is divorced but maintains contact with my ex, Lydia who comes each year to be with the Children, their families and their nieces and nephews, the children of Barry’s deceased brothers.

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Family At Thanksgiving

Sherry and Brenda both pushed away, figuring their father might at least understand that much of their dissatisfaction. Then each of them exited his study just as Lydia arrived at the doorway. She knocked in due respect for her former husband’s sanctuary. Even though the door was wide open the room was as dark and uninviting to her as it had ever been.

“Come in,” Barry said.

“I prefer not,” Lydia replied.

“Have it your way. You usually do.”

“I’ll not grace that remark with comment.”

“Ah but you just did.”

“It’s a weakness I have.”

“Always wanting the last word. Yes, I remember. Anyway, I’m glad you could make it,” Barry said.

“Mostly I believe that.” She smiled.

“You should because mostly it’s true.”

“Well, you are full of surprises today! This is probably the longest you have ever spoken with your daughters.”

“We used to talk a lot,” Barry protested.

“You spoke to them separately,” Lydia said. “Hardly ever together.”

“It was in the interest of self preservation. They’ve always ganged up on me whenever they had the chance.”

Lydia laughed. “They are my daughters, too.”

“Is it instinct or did you teach them? Hell, for all I know you might have even put them up to it this time around.”

“Who me? You know that’s not my style.”

“You’re right. You’re more about direct confrontation. You never needed a proxy.”

“Whatever is necessary whether I enjoy it or not.”

“Anyway, I used to read to them. They were together in the same room then. So it wasn’t like I was always treating them separately. I used to read to Tim along with them. Then after he’d nodded off I scooped him up and carried him to his room and tucked him in.”

“When they were really little. After Tim was in school you handled him separately.”

“Was that a mistake?”

“Maybe it was. I know you made up stories to tell the girls. I don’t think you ever did that for Tim.”

“I did it for all of them. But the types of stories were different. A father and his son have distinct bond but a man and each of his daughters has a relationship. I didn’t want to reveal any secrets about one to the other.”

Lydia smiled. “That’s good. It’s a lot of bullshit but it’s sounds pretty good.”

“I’m glad you approve.”

“I didn’t say I approved.”

Barry shrugged.

“Oh, there it is!”

“What?”

“You know.”

“Oh, yes. The dreaded shrug,” Barry said. “I’d almost forgotten how much it irritates you.”

“I doubt you forgot except for maybe how much you enjoy doing it. So, how are my two beautiful daughters doing? I’ve barely talked to them all year.” She shifted the subject to avoid further confrontation.

“They’re fine,” Barry offered. “They’re always fine. How’d you sleep?”

“Actually, I slept very well. I was honored that I got to sleep in my old bed.”

“I changed the sheets and comforter,” Barry said. “I even dragged your favorite pillow out of storage and washed it especially for the occasion.”

“I’m flattered.”

“Your daughters and I were just talking about some things, the past and all that.”

“Well I wondered where everyone was,” Lydia said. “I saw Tim and Cindy in the hallway upstairs. Billy called me Gram. That was irritating but I guess it’s to be expected. His hugs are worth allowing him to call me that.”

“Where are the others?” Barry asked.

“The smokers are where they usually are this time of day, puffing away on the back deck. But I sort of expected to find my daughters in the kitchen amending the caterer’s recipe for mashed potatoes.”

“Actually I should probably do that before he serves.”

“I think the girls will handle it.”

“So, where all did you look. You had to expect the girls would be talking with me?”

“Well this should have been the first place I looked. Apparently your daughters have learned to look here. It has always been your sanctuary, ‘the room’ as they call it. More like ‘the tomb’. Why does it need to always be so dark?”

“I’m no fond of the sun, unless I’m outside. That’s where the sun belongs. In fact, when Sherry came looking, that was where I was – outside.”

“Whatever for? It’s frigid.”

“Your blood has thinned living in Phoenix.”

“You haven’t taken up smoking again, have you?”

“No. I just needed to clear my head. The cold helps.”

“I see.”

“I really think I should check on things.” He brushed past his ex-wife to immediately exit ‘the room’, growling a little in the process.

“What was that?” she asked but he didn’t respond. Instead of answering he continued on his way, pausing first with the caterer’s staff to inquire when dinner would be served, then briefly checking the amendments his daughters were already in the process of making to the trays of mashed potatoes, something they did every year and it always required a handheld mixer toward the end.

One of the caterers began to protest but Barry halted him. “It’s fine,” Barry said. “It’s a good thing. You should ask them for the recipe.”

“Perhaps I will,” he said.

“Have a taste when they’re done,” Barry said over his shoulder as he departed the kitchen, passing the dinette and opened the French doors to exit out to the redwood deck, joining the smokers of the family. He nodded to each as he said hello to one and all then individually by name, impressing a couple of them that he even recalled as he rarely talked to any of them, only on the sporadic occasions when he called his daughters were not home.

“Aren’t you cold?” Brenda’s husband Roscoe asked.

“Not at all,” Barry said. “Are you?”

“It’s freezing!”

“Is it, now? Then why are you out here? Oh yes, the need to smoke. How insane is that?”

Roscoe stared at his father-in-law, mostly wondering what could possibly be wrong with him. Was he playing tough guy again, seeming impervious to the elements.

“It’s all in the mind,” Barry said looking directly at him, giving him the eerie feeling once more than Barry could read his mind. The wry smile then turned to a hearty laugh as he leaned over the deck railing, appraising the blanket of snow covering the backyard, pointing to tiny tracks left by squirrels and rabbits.

Almost in unison, the others suddenly decided to extinguish their butts. None of them wanted to deal directly with their father-in-law or uncle as the case might be.

“No coals on the deck,” Barry warned. Even though his back was turned to them. “Against the shoe soles.” Each of them responded per instruction and then, butts in hand, they began looking for a can.

“It’s at the end of the deck,” Barry directed. “Behind the kitchen alcove. I should have put it out where everyone could find it but I guess I was hoping that all of you would have quit the nasty habit by now.”

“That’s actually pretty damned creepy, Mr. Woods,” Winston, Sherry’s recently newlywed husband said as he passed by en route to returning to the warmth and comfort inside. “Are you a mentalist?”

Barry laughed as he turned to face his youngest son-in-law. “I’m a writer, as you know. We’re often accused of being mental but hardly ever mentalists. It’s a trick.”

“I see. “

“And actually, since the wedding you’ve been allowed to call me Dad. You’re soon to be the father of one of my grandchildren. That gives you permission automatically.”

“Dinner is served,” The lead caterer held opened the door for his announcement prompting everyone to begin filing inside.

“I’m starving,” Winston said, bowing his head but quickly moving away from what was a most uncomfortable encounter with his father-in-law. He was headed for the washroom to rid the smell of nicotine from his fingers before eating.

As he arrived he had to wait on first Roscoe and then one of the cousins who had forgotten that the house had five bathrooms and three washrooms. Winston had an excuse, at least. This was his first Thanksgiving with the Woods family.

Barry chuckled to himself as he remained on the deck. He might have even been amused if he had followed behind Winston. He could have made him even more uncomfortable standing behind him as he waited just as needlessly in line to wash his hands.

“Dad, what is wrong with you?” Tim asked as he poked his head out the door. “It’s cold as Hell!”

“Have you ever explored the irony contained in that expression? By other accounts Hell is pretty damned hot.”

“Well, you never know. There are levels, right? At least one should be extremely cold.”

“I suppose it’s all according to which torment would best suit you for eternal condemnation for your sins against God…but not Mankind.”

“Why not Mankind? Do you think we are somehow more forgiving?”

“No, certainly not; not at all. With people I think it’s more about apathy. Sin is nothing special where people are concerned. We do it without thinking, much like breathing. Forgiveness is the alien concept. Even when you figure that out and fully intend to forgive it doesn’t mean you forget so whenever you are reminded of the transgression the previously offered forgiveness instantly vanishes.”

“Not to get all bogged down in another discussion of philosophy and religion with you but don’t you think that a sin against Mankind may actually at least irritate God?”

“You may have a point.”

“But, Dad, honestly! You are out here contemplating sin and forgiveness in a silk shirt and jeans! It’s well below freezing.”

“Around ten degrees, give or take.”

“That’s my point.”

“Look at it this way. At least I’m dressed,” Barry said as he passed by his son to stand just inside the door as Tim closed it, shutting the cold air outside where it belonged.

“Everyone else is probably piling food on their plates waiting in great anticipation of whatever it is that you want to tell us before we all dig in.”

“Tell them to enjoy the moment and wait on Winston.” He pointed. “He doesn’t know where the other washrooms are.”

“You could have at least told him.” Tim nodded in acknowledgement as Winston turned to see why his name was being discussed.

“So could Sherry. She knows the secret.”

“You have a point there.”

“See, now who was cruel to him, me or his own wife?”

“She probably didn’t think to tell him. Marriage is still new to her. And she’s distracted, you know – seeing everyone again.”

“You’re probably right. They haven’t been married long enough for her to have intentionally omitted telling him something useful. Are you coming?”

“Right behind you. I’m starving.”

“Uh, Winston. Follow me.” Barry grabbed his son-in-law’s sleeve in passing. Winston obeyed. “There’s a private washroom in my study, two sink bowls and a toilet. I never understood the need for two washbowls until the first Thanksgiving that we had in this house for more people than just Lydia, the kids and me.”

“I got the one in the garage,” Tim excused himself. “Oh, and Winston…by the way Dad is being an horrendous smart ass today. It’s not just you.”

“Yeah, I sort of got that.”

“He probably likes you.”

“Now you’ve destroyed everything I’ve been working on up to this point.” Barry shook his head but then patted Winston on the back as he ushered him toward a bookcase that was directly behind the large oak desk, “You have to slide out ‘War and Peace’ at the same time as ‘Sirens of Titan’,” Barry revealed the secret. “The books are alphabetical by author.”

“Odd combination, Tolstoy and Vonnegut.”

“It was close enough for the books to work with the concealed latch.”

“Does everyone know?”

“Tim does,” Barry said. “He’s a guy so I had no problem with him leaving the damned toilet seat up. And your wife knows. She discovered it on her own. I have no idea why she wanted to pull all the books on that shelf at the same time.”

Winston chuckled. “How old was she?”

“Ten, I think. You know why men don’t like to squat to pee in a toilet, right?”

“Uh, it’s unnatural?”

“No, the water’s too damned cold,” Barry said.

“Too deep too,” Winston added.

“I’m beginning to really like you, son.”

“I’d hope so. It’s been several months.”

Tim lingered outside the door of Barry’s study, having washed his hands he thought it might be best to wait for Winston and Dad. When Barry emerged he faced his son, “Are you ready to eat?”

“Yeah, just I need to talk to you about something important. It can wait though.”

“Okay,” Barry said as he focused on his son’s face and read concern. He even knew what it was about, largely anyway. Then Barry turned back to gather his youngest son-in-law. “Come on, if you delay too long with this crowd you’ll have to stop somewhere on the way home to pick up something to eat.”

“It’s not that bad,” Tim said to Winston as the two young men followed Barry into the dining room. “There’s always leftovers.”

“And more mouths to feed,” Barry said as he glanced around the table. “Isn’t that right? I’ll have to get a bigger table soon.”

“Jeeze, Dad. I don’t even know how to respond to that,” Brenda said.

Barry paused at the head of the table. “I love this time of the year. Thanksgiving is really the only time we are all here together as a family and test whether our bonds are stronger than our dysfunction.”

“We have other family ties,” Tim said. “Sometimes it hard for us to be here and not there.”

“And I get that. I appreciate your coming here and honoring my request because I know you have other options. But I figure at Christmas time you can spend time with the other side of your families.”

“What do you do for Christmas?” Winston asked.

“No! Why did you ask?” Tim cringed.

“I’ll tell you later. Everyone’s waiting to eat,” Barry responded.

“Let’s eat, then!” Tim added.

Winston smiled in response but he reserved the right to still worry about his father-in-law even though Sherry had told him in complete confidence what Barry did every Christmas Day since Lydia moved out. He even thought it was perhaps one of the more endearing qualities and the fact that he did it anonymously gave his children and their spouses more cause to love and respect the patriarch of their extended family even more. He didn’t play Santa but instead became a surrogate.

Barry waited for everyone to be seated at the table before he began. “And here we are again, all of you.” He paused long enough to meet the eyes of everyone around the table but his eyes finally focused on Tim who was seated between Cindy, his wife, and Sherry, his baby sister. Then he glanced toward Winston who was seated to Sherry’s right on the other side of little Lydia, Brenda’s daughter who was using a booster chair but insisted on sitting close to her gram, finally old enough to eat at the ‘big people’s’ table.

Suddenly a cup scooted across the floor and Winston scooped it up and handed it to Brenda who begged forgiveness of her daughter exuberance.

“It happens. She’s excited, as well she should be,” Barry said. “I know I’m excited and very grateful for this day of thanks and sharing everything about our great and constantly growing family. I know and appreciate the personal sacrifices involved in assembling us together for another year here in my home. Once again Tim and his wonderful wife Cindy have brought their family here from the west coast to join us, making their effort the greatest distance. I really do appreciate all of you being here. I have always wanted for this to be about us. We are missing a few usual members of the gathering. Let us not forget to remember Kenneth and Bart who are serving in the United States Marine Corps. May God protect them and bring them home to us soon.”

He paused for several moments while everyone, even the children, reflected on his words.

“I know there are some hardships in coming here year after year.”

“Mostly, it’s cold here,” Tim interrupted to complain.

“But here you can dress for it,” Barry said in response as he smiled at his only son. “California is another matter entirely. It’s far too cold there in many places during the summer. It’s just people from the rest of the country don’t realize it until they get there.”

Tim glanced at his wife as she slipped her hand into his. She had never been comfortable with being singled out every year at the family gathering but she still appreciated everything what Barry had done for her, even those few times he had sent her some money to pay bills or buy things for the kids, unbeknownst to Tim.

“I know everyone’s hungry,” Barry said. “That’s some of what this holiday’s about. But I think it’s mainly about being together and being thankful in knowing who you can count on when you can’t count on anyone else.”

Barry looked around the room. Every eye was focused on him to a person except for some of the youngest ones of the Woods tribe. Each of his children and his nieces and nephews knew full well that without his nudge and support at times they would have struggled more often and failed many more times. Still Barry never once asked them for anything in return except flying or driving to Connecticut each year at Thanksgiving so he could see the ever-burgeoning assemblage of his and his two deceased siblings’ progeny.

“I guess I need to tell you that there is no one in this room that I don’t love, admire and adore. I’m very thankful for having the privilege to know each one of you. I mean that from the bottom of my heart and depths of my soul. We are truly blessed to be together on this one day and I thank God for the gifts of this life we share.” He paused as he looked around the table at all the faces and bright eyes, some of them welling tears. “Other than that just eat until you can’t eat anymore! There’s always enough for everyone!”

Brenda and Sherry smiled as their father sat down, they each took the hands of their chosen partners in life and were gratified when Barry made eye contact with first one and then the other, including their spouses.

Each of them waited in anticipation that maybe this was the first time in a long time that their father would eat dinner with them. But then he stood up and walked around the table, ensuring that everyone was satisfied with the quality if not the enormity of the spread. Then he excused himself from the room, just as he always had for the past few years.

But for the first time it was Tim who stood up, not the usual suspect in condemnation of Barry’s inexplicably consistent behavior. In passing Tim leaned over and whispered in his mother’s ear. “I got it, this time you can stay and eat.”

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#family #thanksgiving #dysfunction #writing #story