In Keeping with Tradition

(Photo: Just hanging around is the easy job.)

This year it took 18 hours to put up my tree, and I’m happy to have broken my personal record for speed. Previously, the same over-abundant Victorian tree I’ve done for thirteen years has taken me half-again as long. All seven-and-a-half artificial feet, 2,400 branch tips, and 1,250 lights of her.

I’m thinking I got off easy. No mishaps were involved, no ornaments broke, and unlike every year at Lincoln Park Zoo Lights, no part of my tree looks like at some point I ran out of lights and had to stretch. I’m too much of a perfectionist (I lie, I’m really just too anal) for that.

In my defense, I showed some restraint with the cards this year. Since the early 1960s my mother saved her Christmas cards. I inherited them–and the tradition–by way of absconding when she died. It isn’t as if my siblings wanted them; as always, they were probably too drunk at the time to notice. The cards have festooned the crevice between wall and ceiling in every apartment I’ve lived in ever since then.

This year I selected a greatest-hits of them, mom’s cards and my own, about 125 in all. They only go partway into the kitchen and halfway down the hall. That’s a change from wondering how to keep them from getting wet if I hung them in the bathroom.

If I were really concerned about keeping them dry, I’d hang the cards on the balcony door where I used to hang the wreath until I learned the hard way about the humidity-killing properties of electric baseboard heat. As my 2006 wreath was falling, I thought it would break in half. Its shattering into dust made for a shocking, if vacuum-friendly, surprise.

I often describe myself as someone with a tabula rasa past. Raised as a white-bread American in a family of multi-ethnic European heritage, my whole life I’ve gotten to pick and choose the traditions to keep as my own. As a child, Christmas was a Peanuts Gang, Santa Claus, sleigh-bells experience, not a religious one. I couldn’t have cared less about the baby Jesus. But the wonder of the season read in the faces of friends and family, that’s what really sunk in.

That’s probably why the adult Buddhist that I am today holds so tightly to an opulent expression of a secular Christmas. The dissolution of my family after my mom died (and really, long before) is a clue to why, during the holidays, I go out of my way to spend them with my close friends and make sure no friend among them sits home alone from Thanksgiving on through New Year’s Day.

When I was still a Gothamite, I tended to be the holiday adoptee. I recally an early 2000s Christmas Eve with José and his extended Portuguese family in Queens. We caroled, cavorted, ate, drank, made cookies, and made merry until midnight. It was the beginning of a new tradition for me.

My childhood was spent on the opposite Christmas plan. The more American one wherein you put out milk and cookies for Santa Claus, shunt your kid to bed at the earliest opportunity, and then drag your collective behinds back out of bed at dawn for a bleary eyed present-peeling fest. The fact Christmas Eve could be in itself a time of celebration was revelatory for me.

Tonight it’s Christmas Eve again. My friend Barry is coming over to my Marina City high-rise holiday home. He would have otherwise sat alone in Evanston, wanting not to be. I’m glad he won’t be.

An hour ago I learned that pastry-chef-ex Chris will be alone this evening. His Christmas Eve plans fell through thanks to a forgetful friend and he swears he’s okay sitting at home baking Christmas cookies for his holiday potluck tomorrow. I wish he could be here, too. (At least, I am thrilled to report he has finally found a wonderful new roommate.)

I hope the five festive hours we spent together with blogosphere-friends Jasmine, Jeff, and Nite last night at the Music Box Christmas double-feature are enough to carry him through. I certainly never expected to enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life so thoroughly with an audience, and as corny as my New Yorker roots found the whole sing-to-the-screen affair, I knew instantly I had a new tradition to add to my holiday oeuvre from my adopted Second City home.

My neighbor, Jan, definitely won’t be alone this Christmas Eve.  A couple of weeks ago, her longtime boyfriend got down on one knee and promised to let her make an honest Ed out of him. While I was showing her my tree today, she was trying to figure out how to leave something equal to a ring under his tree tomorrow morning.  I suggested she put a bow on her head and roll herself under there, but after 10 years together Jan figured Ed would rather have something new to unwrap.

Tomorrow, we’ll all be with loved ones, if not tonight. I, a gigantic green-bean casserole, a homemade brie-en-croute, hip-suburban-chick Val, minister-in-training Joe, and about a dozen other people will descend on the pastry abode to share Christmas with Chris who will most decidedly not be alone tomorrow.

Some among the expected revelers have complained that Christmas seems hollow this year since we’re all well and soundly broke, thanks to the New Depression.  Phooey, I say! Anyone who thinks Christmas or any holiday from anyone’s tradition is dependent on money and our ability to afford things has got a definite case of rampant internalized commercialism. To them, I prescribe an immediate airing of Miracle on 34th Street, followed by a Charlie Brown Christmas chaser.

Whatever tradition you hew to, some things are universal. Faith defines our holidays. Love defines our holidays. Ultimately, our presence in each other’s lives defines our holidays. “Just as long as we have we,” as Dr. Seuss put it. He wasn’t kidding. Why, it’s a veritable feast of plenty open to all, no matter what’s in your bank account this season.

Just as long as you suspend your judgment long enough to open you heart. And with that, Happy Christmas to all.

And to all, a good night.

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