Christmas Magic

I wish I could bottle up this feeling and make it last all year long.

Magic, that’s what it is. Absolute, utter magic. There’s just something to be said about the tree, the lights, the hazy feel of a Christmas morning, that gives me feels all the way from my head down to my toes.

The kids were up relatively late. 7:30 and later. Which was odd, but I guess makes a kind of sense. Because things are shifting here. Doubts are creeping in, doubts about the magic that threads it all together. I guess that’s just how it is when both kids are into double digits. It guess it was bound to happen.

But the magic endures. As I looked under the tree and saw all the gifts from Santa, I was reminded of it. I was reminded of snuggling up, cozy like, by a different tree, putting on the Santa hats, and tearing into our presents. I was reminded of the warm egg nog in my mug, of the photographs everyone had to take to memorialize each Christmas.

And for a moment, this morning, it was there again, the magic that I know still sits just below the surface, the magic of Christmas morning. Continue reading “Christmas Magic”

The Night Before Hanukkah

6a7bca5666cef1994e746fae893b779aThere’s nothing like the smell of hot apple cider on the stove, warmed up and waiting to go down smooth. The chill in the air contained to the outdoors, while frost coats the glass on the windows, straight from out of a Norman Rockwell painting. My fuzzy pajamas on all day long because there’s nothing else to do, so why not be comfortable? Lazy December days are the absolute best, especially when there’s something to look forward to on the horizon. Or a few somethings.

I am not Jewish, nor have I ever been. I want to put that out there straightaway so you’re not confused while reading this. But tonight I am rustling up my electric menorah, my four dreidels, my imitation chocolate gelt, and my imaginary Mensch On the Bench (why should the Elf have all the fun?) because tomorrow starts the eight crazy nights that constitute the least of the major Jewish holidays — Hanukkah.

While Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah have the fancy traditions, the pomp and circumstance, Hanukkah checks in as the “cool” holiday because it coincides pretty closely most times with the Christian idea of Christmas. It’s the reason so many say Happy Holidays now instead of Merry Christmas this time of year, so it has some cache. And more and more stores are stocking Hanukkah merchandise (good luck trying to find a pair of white pants for Yom Kippur, fellas).

There’s just something about Hanukkah that’s easy, that’s laid back like this time of year is anyway, something that helps it mesh perfectly with the idea of lazy, comfortable winter. The traditions are still there, but unlike Yom Kippur it’s not about giving up things, but instead about embracing miracles and celebrating the supernatural. It’s not often that we get a chance to celebrate the supernatural, to really focus on the Almighty’s gifts to us and to our ancestors.

hanukkahAnd unlike Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah is an ongoing celebration, for eight crazy nights, with so much that happens within its framework that it’s easy to think it will go on forever. Every single year, on the eighth night, I always think about how short it really felt, about how much I want it to keep going. Because, unlike the other high holy holidays, it’s a playful event, a chance to let our hair down and be ourselves while feeling the spirit at the same time.

Lexi likes to light the candles with me, to say the prayer that starts off each night. This year I’m going to teach her the ancient Hebrew words so that she can start to feel just how ancient these traditions are, how deep their roots. That’s what I love the most about Hanukkah — its accessibility. Lex has been following the tradition with me for five years now, and we both look forward to this time of year for more than just Christmas. I love that I have in my child a kindred spirit who has embraced the traditions as I have.

So tomorrow it begins again, the shamash, and the eight nights, and the celebration of the oil, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.


Groundhog Day

groundhog-day-not-free-to-use-or-shareYou know the tradition. It’s Punxsutawney’s sole claim to fame. For just one day every February people from all over gather at Gobbler’s Knob to celebrate the town’s most prestigious citizen: Phil. The groundhog. Now, absolutely no one would know what a groundhog even looked like if it wasn’t for this time-honored tradition. Yes indeed, he resembles a beaver, or as some have said, a giant rat. He’s dragged out, paraded around his “stump,” and he prognosticates for a moment before rendering a verdict…

Six more weeks of winter!

The tremors from that quake continue to shock us for the entire six extra weeks tacked onto what has already been the longest winter in history, or at least until the end of the day on February 2nd. And that illustrious day is a mere week away. Can you believe it’s been nearly an entire year since we got a look at Phil (who is the 20th — or so — incarnation of the original beast), and we’re once again looking for groundhog shadows?

You’d think by now there would be some high tech alternative to freezing our bums off in a tiny little Pennsylvania hamlet with a host of people we don’t know (and who are probably high, to boot), like an app that shows a groundhog sniffing for its shadow. The probabilities could be pre-programmed into the app and we wouldn’t have to leave our homes to get the to-the-moment info about a possible early spring. In fact, I bet someone’s already figured that all out and the app is available in the app store, but I’m too lazy to check into it.

The holiday got an infusion, though, when the movie starring Bill Murray was released in 1993 to much acclaim. Of course it had less to do with the groundhog than it did with the redemption of a sad sack individual. Oh, and with the repetition of a single day. I don’t think Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” will ever sound the same to me again without the connotation of an alarm clock slamming to the floor and the song ending in a crash.

But I love the holiday notwithstanding all the kitschy tradition that goes along with it. I actually spent a February 2nd “chilling” in Punxsutawney one year just to say I did it. That’s not happening this year but only because I know what’s going to happen ahead of time. Phil will emerge from his box, sniff the air like a sage meteorologist, see his shadow (because most times he sees it — check the data), and predict six more weeks of winter. What a bright chap he undoubtedly is, but I’ll leave the joy of his pronouncement to the hordes of people who still make the trek to Gobbler’s Knob every year at this time.

I’ll be checking from the comfort and warmth of my own home instead.


Written in the Cards

merry_christmas_cardI received a Christmas card from my mother today. In it were two photographs — one of my nephew from his graduation party, and the other of my children, a copy of a photo my wife sent her earlier this year. On the back of the picture is the caption, “Alexa and Maddie, ages 8 + 5.” I did a double take because I recognized the picture automatically and I wondered why it was returning home. My wife realized the full portents of that image before I did, explaining how my mother sent out cards to everyone with pictures of her grandkids because she is proud of them. We were simply included in the mass mailing. I just had to laugh because it sounds exactly like something I would do, or something I have done before. The apple truly doesn’t fall far from the tree.

It’s all about convenience, I guess you could say, which is fine. My mother likes to get all her ducks in a row, so she probably copied all of the photos at the same time, signed all the cards at the same time, and mailed them all out with two weeks to go before the big day, assuring that they arrived on time, even to the remotest of places. She probably even picked out the stamps in the most auspicious way, by asking to see each of them in turn and choosing the most festive style. That in turn makes it all convenient, the whole process, once you break it down into its component parts, and that’s also why she didn’t pause for a second when sliding those photos into the cards to remember that we sent her the photo in the first place.

I find as I get older that I’m all about convenience more and more too. It’s so much easier to do mass mailings, to slot in names instead of writing out individual messages to each person. After all, who really reads the card anyway? And if you’re that important to me I would have personally talked to you several times between the time you sent out the card and the time I received it. So the people who know I care despite the mass mailing don’t mind it at all, and the people who are fringe anyway get some lovely photos and don’t even recognize that it’s a mass mailing. Win-win.

Which reminds me, we haven’t mailed off our cards yet. Last year I think we waited until the very last possible minute, standing in a long line at the post office on the 20th or 21st with our fingers crossed that they would arrive when they needed to and not a moment too late. There’s nothing worse than knowing the cards you sent out are spending the holidays in post office boxes around the country instead of on mantels or on dressers, brightening someone’s day. We do have a variety of cards too, some for people who we’re close with like family and close friends, some for others who are relative acquaintances, and still more for those who we knew way back when who send us cards every year so we reciprocate. We’re cool like that.

And guess what? That first level of close friends and family will receive heartfelt messages from us in their cards, while the second and third groups will instead get a lovely printed message and our names signed at the end. But everyone gets photos, so congratulations if you made the cut. Alexa and Maddie are 8 and 5, respectively.


Christmas Memories: 2001

IMG_0081-CopyThe refrigerator hummed louder than it should have in the silent, lukewarm air of the apartment like a cat purring for its breakfast. It was an odd feeling, waking up to its rumbling and nothing more, an absence of sound so intense it made me do a double take before I finally rose from the rumpled bed to face the day. There was no actual cat in the apartment, though there had been less than two weeks earlier, but it was gone and I was left behind with so many pots that used to hold plants. The air must have been somewhat cold outside because the glass on the sliding doors was slightly fogged, as if God had breathed on it for a moment.

I ambled out into the living room and was firmly ensconced in my computer chair before I realized what day it was, and I sighed under my breath. It was my first Christmas alone, and I knew I wouldn’t see anyone at all that day, at least not for any kind of celebration. The apartment wasn’t decorated at all, either, unless you counted the red coffeemaker, which I didn’t. I turned on the television set as background noise while I rifled through my emails, most of which were school related, and wondered what had happened to my life. Suddenly it seemed like time to make a statement.

In the bathroom cabinet I found my razor container, which included the razor with various interchangeable blades, oil to clean it, and a tiny brush to sweep off the hairs after use. I had purchased the set when none of the barbers in Knoxville felt comfortable cutting my hair, but I hadn’t used it in a couple of months, so my hair was shaggy like wool and a bit out of control, the perfect microcosm for my life at that exact moment. On a sudden whim I took the set down from its place on the shelf and carried it with me into the living room, the shadows following me all the way like phantom children. Five minutes later the carpet was littered with dead hair, sloughed off in despair, disappointment, and frustration, and my newly shaved head was inhaling the new day. Merry Christmas to me. It became lucky then that I wasn’t going outside.

choppe-choppe-milk-and-cookies1The phone wasn’t going to ring because I was estranged from both my mother and my wife, ironic since one estrangement was because of the other person, but I wasn’t dwelling on that right then. Instead I got up and went through my videotape collection until I found my homemade copies of Friends episodes that spanned ten tapes. I put in the first one, dropped onto the couch, and quickly got lost in the world of Central Perk. For the next eight hours. Every hour or so I wandered into the kitchen where I had milk and cookies, as if I had been waiting for Santa overnight, but I ate and drank it all instead of saving it for the jolly elf, and it made my stomach sick by afternoon, another excuse to sit there like a vegetable.

I tucked my legs up underneath me on the loveseat, as uncertain about my future as I ever had been, but with a new lease on life compliments of my new haircut. It was only when I went back into the bathroom and looked in the mirror that I noticed I had left several patches of hair intact. And I thought, “it figures,” but I left them that way because they said more about my state of mind than any words ever could. I promised myself in the morning I would pick up some eggnog to go with my cookies. Anything would beat milk.


Sam’s Weekly Water Cooler Musings: On Holidays, Cards, and Being Left Out

Holidays have a much bigger role in our society than they used to, at least that’s what we decided in our latest chat session near the water cooler. You can tell this primarily through the build-up to them, or at least to the major ones. Time was when no one thought about Christmas until after Thanksgiving. It was like a mad rush between being thankful and being selfish (I know. I know. Christmas is about giving too). In that three week period the smell of nutmeg and ginger wafted through every shop we went into. People went in groups through their neighborhoods singing carols (of the primarily Christian variety), and before you knew it, Christmas Eve was upon us with mugs of warm cider and fresh gingerbread cooling on the stove. But that was then, and this is now. The Christmas rush starts at Halloween now, and in some places even sooner, consuming more time, more space, and more… MONEY. And that’s the key to holidays these days. Money.

“The more money we spend on a holiday, the more important it is to us.”

The more money we spend on a holiday, the more important it is to us, at least according to my cooler crew (that name just might stick). Case in point, the holidays that we spend the most money on are, again, according to the crew — and don’t forget, we work in retail):

1. Christmas

2. Mother’s Day

3. Valentine’s Day

4. Easter

5. Halloween

Of these, only Christmas and Mother’s Day are official holidays, as recognized by the U.S. What does this mean? It means that we, as a society, have created holidays for the express purpose of spending money on each other and on ourselves. And the biggest industry to benefit from these created holidays is — you guessed it — the card industry! Christmas cards are numerous and varied, cards ranging from $1.99 to $8.99, and sometimes above, if you want sound, or fancy card stock, or an oddly shaped card. Then there are the packages of cards that we can send out to our family and friends, which are also very expensive. Then there’s the cost of stamps too… for a card that will probably be up on someone’s mantel for three weeks, then it will head to file 13 (the garbage). Seems like such a waste, right? But it’s a social construct, and we observe it because we’re social beings, and we bend the knee to all social constructs, or at least the ones to which our family and friends give credence.

Some day, a long time ago, someone said to herself, “You know, it would be really cool if we had one day where we could appreciate our mothers.” And what has Mother’s Day morphed into now? Now, if you don’t send your mother a bouquet of flowers that have been marked up so you can get them on “sale,” you’re a loser who doesn’t love your mother. It doesn’t matter if you do things for her all year around, if there isn’t a card and flowers on Mother’s Day — boom. That was the sound of the door slamming in your face. Seems pretty arbitrary to me, and yet I still give my mom a card and flowers for Mother’s Day, and I’m sure you do too.

No one likes to be left out. Even if they don’t quite get why they should be doing it.


Sam’s Weekly Water Cooler Musings: The Archive

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