When I was a kid, Christmas was a big deal because, presents, and it was a double big deal because, birthday. In those days getting shit was not an everyday occurrence. You basically had two days a year when you could get (hopefully but always disappointedly) toys and (predictably and disappointedly) new socks and underwear.
There was a magic to the Christmas season in those days, the magic of pure fantasy greed. You could imagine all the stuff you were going to get even though you weren’t going to get any of it. Stores got all festive and the everyday changed. You weren’t followed by the suspicious security guards who tracked you like the little kleptomaniac you were, you were followed by suspicious security guards wearing a Santa outfit.
The message of Christmas was always unlimited greed, i.e. The American Way, and it was a beautiful thing in which I wallowed.
Of course sometimes Christmas delivered, like the three times I rang the bell and got a bike, and the one time I rang the bell and got a surfboard, and the one time I rang the bell and got a pair of binoculars. The rest of the time, though, the promise of limitless greed was a horrible letdown and we had to content ourselves with family dinners and singing songs and listening to John Fahey’s Christmas album and massive anticipation followed by disappointment, kind of like teenage sexual encounters.
This disappointment turned to sourness as it dawned on me that no matter how infinitely greedy I was, my payout was fundamentally limited by having the two money days, Christmas and birthday, overlap. Other kids were always going to get more stuff and have more fun and be more special, and I was always going to spend my life having everyone say, “Your birthday is on Christmas? That sucks!”
This was way before people even said “That sucks.” In fact, the first time I heard anyone say “That sucks,” I thought they were talking about a vacuum cleaner.
So I turned into a grinch and over the years dispensed with 99% of all the useless nonsense associated with a celebration of the artificial insemination of an Invisible Friend commemorated by a diabetic elf who lives in solitude all year so that he can trespass one night and mete out gifts or coal to small children whose happiness depends on his generosity or lack thereof and who, even though he trespasses at night in Texas, has never once been killed by someone exercising their fake 2nd Amendment rights.
The horrible drudgery of picking out a Christmas tree screeched to a halt four years ago. It was the night before Christmas and we still hadn’t gotten a tree. I picked my Dad up from the airport and on the way back we stopped at a tree yard. “I bet I can get a good deal now,” I said. It was ten pm.
The Muslim tree dude and I haggled for half an hour over the $29.99 tree that looked like it had been used as the broom that cleaned the Augean Stables, and I got him down to $15.99, handed over the cash, and realized we had no stand. “How much for the stand?” I asked.
“$15.00,” he said, knowing he had me. “But for you? $20.”
I swore I would never buy another Christmas tree, and after that year I threw out all the Christmas tree crap. The lights, the ornaments I’d had since childhood, everything except the stockings. To hell with the whole stupid charade, I was so done.
So the next year when domestic pressure started building for some seasonal consumerism with a nod to alcoholism and over-consumption of fatty foods, I nipped it in the bud, and rather than waiting until the last minute I bopped over to the Von’s and picked up a little stone pine in a pot for $9.99. The pot wasn’t even extra.
“What is that?” asked my wife.
“It’s our Grinchmas bush,” I said, proudly.
“It is horribly ugly and we can’t put lights on it.”
“It’s alive and it cost $9.99.”
That year it was small enough to put on our coffee table, so after I got back from the annual Grinchmas Ride with Manslaughter and Pablo, we opened a few presents that had all been negotiated beforehand and enjoyed a cup of hot coffee together. The kids by then had been so inoculated against the Christmas virus that no one cared. Anyway, we buy shit all year long. No one expected anything, and I delivered.
The next day I set the Grinchmas bush out on the balcony in the sunshine. I would water it, and it grew. Slowly. The next year we brought it in and celebrated Grinchmas with it again as the centerpiece.
The root ball eventually expanded to fill the little pot so one day I took it over to Rich Stahlberg, the gardener. He repotted it in a big bucket. The Grinchmas bush kept growing the way I ride bikes.Slowly, consistently, doggedly. And as it got bigger, it got uglier.
I don’t know how or why, but some of its needles became huge, long, Ponderosa pine needles, and others remained short and stubby. It looked like a head of hair that randomly sports a crew cut in places and hippie dreadlocks in others. It grew off to one side, listing like one of those people in Costco riding a cart. Some of its branches died, but others grew vigorously. I faithfully watered it, and perhaps it wasn’t very pretty, but it was healthy, sturdy, richly green, thriving, alive.
Last night my daughter and grandson were over. “What about the Grinchmas bush?” she asked. “Is it coming in this year?”
I went outside and got it. My son laid out the Grinchmas mat and we set the bucket atop it. “I have some lights from Halloween,” my daughter said. She went back home and returned with them. We draped the bright orange candy-corn-shaped lights on the bush. My grandson watched intently.
Then we took out some ornaments that my daughter had brought with the light. We all huddled around the Grinchmas bush and carefully decorated it. We found an old yellow keychain and hung it on there, too. The rain was falling and our SoCal winter had arrived, cold and wet. My grandson watched intently.
Finally I went into the closet and took out a small paper bag from Helen’s bike shop. Inside were our family stockings, including the one for my dead brother, made when he was born, in 1962. There were the three handmade and embroidered stockings for each of my children, and mine, too.
I hung them on the wall, and when I finished, I plugged in the orange candy corn Halloween lights.
My grandson smiled and waved his arms in that happy way infants do, happy without knowing why, and without it mattering.
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