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It’s beginning to look a lot like Hanukkah

29 Nov

It’s Christmas time! That holly jolly time of year that we await eagerly. Houses are decked, trees are lit. Children are half out of their minds with anticipation. Radio stations play carols around the clock. Every night, there’s another holiday special to watch.

And every year, Christmas makes me glad there is Hanukkah.

Hanukkah really shouldn’t be compared to Christmas but they happen at the same time of year so I guess it’s inevitable. Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, not like Yom Kippur, which is the heavyweight. Someone joked once that many of the Jewish holidays follow the same theme: “They tried to kill us; we won. Let’s eat.” Hanukkah is one of those holidays.

Christmas exhausts me.

I start thinking about Christmas gifts for friends and family some time in August. I do this not because I’m particularly organized, but because I can’t afford to make the entire Christmas sacrifice in a single month.

Hanukkah? We don’t do gifts at Hanukkah.  I tried doing treats for each night when my son was very young. Every night, he got some dumb little thing. On the ninth night at sundown, he said, “Where’s my present?”

Since then, the kids have had parties for Hanukkah; one year we made pretzels. This year, we’ll have a small dinner party with brisket and latkes. I might even make rugelach. I will make this dinner once, even though Hanukkah lasts eight days. My daughter is inviting her best friend. My son is inviting his girlfriend. My daughter’s friend is invited to sleepover, too. My son’s girlfriend is not.

Christmas decorating takes three days, but it takes me at least three weeks to build up the momentum to accomplish it. I keep all holiday decorations in big plastic bins in the crawlspace. Halloween has a bin, as do Passover, Easter and Chinese New Year. Christmas has eleven bins, not counting the box—large enough to hide a small body in—that contains the Christmas tree.

It takes at least four trips up and down the stairs from the basement to get all of the Christmas gear into the living room. Two people are needed to move the casket tree box. Every year, I’m afraid my husband or son will go tumbling down the staircase should the tree moving go horribly wrong.

Because my husband is Jewish I’m a control freak, only I can put the lights on the tree. It takes me at least three hours, after which my arms are shredded from winding strands of lights in and out of the tree’s branches. I always have either too much left when I get to the top, or too little. It can take me half an hour to get the top of the tree lit to my liking.

The next day, I put the ornaments on the tree. My daughter helps; my son says he does, but I can’t recall this phenomenon. Maybe this year, I’ll take pictures. My son’s greatest contribution to Christmas decorating is his insistence that my daughter and I cease listening to carols while we decorate because, as he says, “Christmas music is crap.” I respond with “Yes, of course it’s crap! But it’s Christmas crap. How else am I going to get in the mood to spend three days decorating the house?”

Decorating for Hanukkah? I bring the Hanukkah box up from the basement by myself. I take out the menorahs; we have one big family one and the kids each have their own. It is necessary for each child to have their own or Hanukkah turns from the Festival of Lights, to the Festival of Whining That He/She Lit The Shamash Last Night.

The extent of my outdoor Christmas decorating is hanging a festive wreath on the door. My inner Martha Stewart demands that an outdoor light display be artistic and neatly applied. This is impossible to achieve unless you are, indeed, Martha Stewart assisted by Santa’s Elves.

Photo: Martha Stewart Omnimedia

Hanukkah display? I’m all over that one with our driveway menorah. We start with one luminaria at the end of the drive near the house. Each night, we add another luminaria until, on the eighth night, there are eight luminarias lining the drive. It’s artistic, it’s neat and it’s easy.

I only have two problems with Hanukkah. Though we start the holiday with the best of intentions—that we will light the candles and say the blessings every night—invariably, we forget at least once.

The other Hanukkah problem is a matter of timing. Because it’s based on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah wanders all over December from year to year. Every year, I check the calendar and every year that Christmas minds its manners and stays away from Hanukkah, I breathe a sigh of relief.

I love Hanukkah because, like Christmas, it brings light to the darkest time of year. But more, I love Hanukkah because its more low-key festivities help me ease into the holiday spirit. This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown on December eighth. We’ll light the candles for eight nights. Then on December 17, I’ll polish the menorah, put it back in its velvet-lined box and be ready to begin the hoopla that is Christmas.

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Christmas Melts Down

13 Dec

Andy Williams is a liar. According to his famous Christmas tune, this is “the most wonderful time of the year, with kids jingle belling and everyone telling you ‘be of good cheer’.”

Be of good cheer, my sweet behind, Andy. Tell it to my dog. The poor thing just had to “do his business” with a 50 mile-per-hour North wind blowing straight up his nostrils. In Naperville, the wind is whipping down the former plains. So, no, Mr. Williams, I wouldn’t call this time of year wonderful.

My idea of a wonderful time of year is late May. The irises and roses are blooming in my garden. Last year, for the first time, a climbing rose I’ve allowed to grow despite never producing a bloom, bloomed in a profusion of cherry red. It was gloriously beautiful against the deep purple of the iris my dad gave me when we moved here.

I brought the rose with me from a prior garden. Actually, I brought a lot of roses from the old house to this garden. They grow like weeds for me. Within a week of planting at the new house, every one of my roses was gone, sheared to the ground by the local gang, Hell’s Bunnies.

Naperville rabbits are a rapacious lot. Whatever went into the ground went into them, thorns and all. I imagined them hopping around the neighborhood, my roses hanging from their bloody bunny mouths. I planted again, they ate again. I planted, they ate. Plant, eat. Plant, eat. Finally, I gave up on roses. I researched. I found plants that both grow like weeds and are poisonous to rabbits.

I was content with my garden full of noxious flora. Then, one day two years after moving here, I noticed a rose growing at the back of one of the beds. I left it, knowing the hellions would be through to mow it down shortly. They didn’t come. The Circle of Life seemed to have finally found its way to my yard. Now, where there once were fat, juicy bunnies by the hundreds, there is the occasional rabbit and the more than occasional hawk.

The rose grew undisturbed as I showered it with neglect. I left it alone. It did nothing. I thought I had acquired another teenager. But then this year, it bloomed. Lots and lots of fluffy, fragrant blooms, each as red as the bunny blood I imagine spilled by the neighborhood predators.

The rose has long since gone dormant. The apple trees are right now being whipped around by a blizzard force wind. The ornamental grasses are bent in half by it. I fear for my beautiful Japanese maple.

The weather sucks. I’m freezing. I’ve got the house to decorate, presents to buy, presents to make, meals to plan, cookies to cut out and cakes to bake. Because I’m not earning any money, all of this has to be done with masking tape, yarn and bag of flour.

I could handle all of the Christmas pressure with my usual aplomb, if I had a usual aplomb. Instead, I handle it with my annual Christmas Meltdown.

The Christmas Meltdown usually occurs on the day the house gets decorated. Every year, beginning in about September, one of the children will want to know when we will be decorating the Christmas tree. My daughter will ask me if we can finally have Christmas lights on our house like everyone else. I point out to her that we have luminaria in our driveway at Hanukkah, but apparently real flames are not garish enough.

Finally, the day will come when we have ushered Hanukkah out the door and Christmas decorating can begin. This year, I prepared my family for Christmas Decorating Day. I gave them a schedule of the day’s events. My family would be coming for lunch to see our tree. We need to get the tree set up before they come, I said.  We need to get the lights on. We need to put the ornaments on.

No one remembered. I decided, in my usual mature way, that I would do everything myself. Christmas is an ideal time to become a martyr, I reasoned. Reason went out the window when I couldn’t get the Christmas tree box from the basement by myself. I would have to ask one of them for help. I went with the son, as the husband was nowhere to be found.

With the tree box in the living room, I began the Christmas Mood preparations. I was, after all, creating a lifetime of memories for my children. I set my laptop to Pandora’s “Swinging Christmas” station and started putting the tree together. My son came through the room, rolled his eyes and said, “You’re NOT listening to Jazz Christmas songs.” He didn’t wait for a reply. My husband wouldn’t know what I was listening to. He was sitting less than 10 feet away, working at his own laptop, wearing his $400 noise-cancelling headphones.

I was undaunted, though. I had my eyes on that lifetime of Christmas memories prize. Then my daughter danced through the room, pronounced the undecorated tree “ugly” and pirouetted away. “She’s right,” I thought. “It’s ugly. Christmas is ugly. I’m ugly.”

I did what any Christmas-crazed overwhelmed woman would do. I got in my car and drove to my happy place. There was no line, so once I had my tall, skim, no-whip hot chocolate, I drove to my other happy place. I sat in the car, in the rain, staring out at the prairie wetlands. I cried. I cried and drank my hot chocolate until I felt like an idiot. Then, I drove back home. Meltdown accomplished; Christmas pressure released.

No, this is not my most wonderful time of the year. My son, though, is down with Andy. He loves winter.

“It’s blowing fifty miles an hour out there,” I said to him recently.

“Yeah!” he said. “This is great weather.”

“Prove it,” I said. “Go outside and then tell me this is great weather.” He grabs at any chance to show Mom how wrong she is so he ran out onto the deck. Realizing his shirt was on inside out, he took it off, did his best impersonation of Captain America and put the shirt back on. He came back in the house, still warm. By this time, I was laughing out loud.

The weather outside is frightful, but as long as I can laugh out loud now and then, it may not be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can be just fine.

Oy, Tannenbaum

6 Dec

I am old enough to be my daughter’s best friend’s grandmother. This does not humble me, but it proves that certain arguments are ageless. You see, the mother of said best friend, separated from me by a generation, has the same memory of why we had artificial Christmas trees growing up: our parents had one of the worst fights we can recall while shopping for the tree. The next year and every year after, our families each had a fake tree.

I remember something about a very cold night and a JayCees tree sale in a parking lot. I can picture my mother vividly: pursed lips, dagger-flinging eyes, her arms crossed tightly over her body, purse clutched to her stomach as she stomped to the car. I remember being very cold and the trees being very imperfect. My mother was from Georgia and liked everything just so. You do the math.

I had real Christmas trees once I was on my own. Granted, most of them were pretty “Charley-Browny,” scraggly things that I somehow managed to convince myself looked pretty good covered with pink and aqua glass balls and tiny white lights. Hey, it was the 80s.

Once I was married, the combined incomes meant bigger, nicer Christmas trees. Our first Christmas, we lived in the heart of the city and shopped like big city Christmas tree shoppers. We went to a local garden center and bought a beautiful balsam fir after just a few minutes of blissfully agreeable tree inspection. The garden center then delivered the tree and set it up exactly where we wanted it. Where was the fighting?

The next year, we no longer lived near the magic garden center with the incredible Christmas-tree-setting-up elves, but we found a nice lot and bought a nice tree. We took it home. It was then that I realized something I should have known all along. My husband had no idea what to do with a Christmas tree. Of course not, he’s Jewish. Why would he know? The year before, his lack of Christmas knowledge wasn’t an issue. Without the magic tree elves, though, it was pushed to the fore. I was on my own in Christmas tree setting up.

While I felt sorry for myself, married to the Christmas clueless, my friends and relatives had the opposite problem. Their husbands thought they knew everything.

Consider the woman who reports that every year, for many years, her husband would insist that their giant tree would fit into the discount marketer Christmas tree stand. Most people who have Christmas trees have this stand. I believe it is made in China at a wok factory. Every October, the wok factories in China retrofit thousands of woks, painting them bright red, adding green legs and three eyebolts and selling them to unsuspecting Americans for $12.95. My friend’s husband would insist that the tree would fit in the stand, that the tree would not fall over. My friend would say “It will fall over.” My friend would take bets. Her husband would put up the tree, balance it, and then the two of them would watch it come down, at first slowly, then with increasing velocity. My friend would laugh uproariously. Her husband would curse.

My sister’s family regularly put a tree at least 12 feet wide into the wok every year. Why? Because a proper Christmas tree stand, one that will safely hold up a tree more than 6 feet tall, costs at least $100 and has things like Army-grade straps and ratcheting gears. My sister now owns one. So does my bet-taking friend. I have another friend whose husband nails their wok stand to a large piece of plywood, hoping to stave off the military Christmas tree stand. It’s only a matter of time, though. Their trees are often 15 feet tall.

Over the years, it became clear to me that, if we had a tree or we didn’t, my husband would be fine. There would be no gaping hole in his December if a large evergreen were not sacrificed in the interest of holiday décor. With my typical maturity, I decided to pout. Well, I thought, if it isn’t important to him, then I’ll just do it without him.

One year, my son and I accompanied my sister’s family on their annual “Cut your own” foray. It was fun. I have a terrific picture of my brother-in-law helping my son cut down a tree. Another year, Mr. Christmas Clueless came with us. Naturally, that was the coldest year since we’d begun cutting our own tree. On the way to the lot, our son came down with a fever. But, he didn’t want to leave without a tree. So, we got him to the car, laid him down on the back seat and brought pre-cut trees to the car for him to select.

Though I had gotten my husband back into the selection process, I still didn’t have a Christmas-savvy set up assistant. I was still on my own in struggling with the wok, testing the strands of lights, replacing burnt out bulbs, etc., etc., etc. The pity party continued.

Then the pre-lit tree was invented. I swallowed my real-tree insistence and bought one. I was in Christmas purgatory. Not quite heaven, because my husband still thought the tree was just “nice,” but no longer in the hell of setting it up all by myself.

Last year, the lights failed. No biggie, I thought, I’ll take the old ones off and put new ones on. That’ll be cheaper than buying a whole new tree. And, it was. Though I lost an entire day and a few ounces of skin as I clipped away the wires, scratching my arms on every branch. The tree looked pretty good with its colorful new lights.

This year, I realized, I had been released from the tyranny of the pre-lit tree. Though they are convenient, pre-lits are also expensive. If you’ve got one, you’re going to use it. And you’re going to have the same tree every year. The exact same branches in the exact same places at exactly the same height.  Every year. This year, I can buy a real tree if I want to. And maybe I will. I know my husband won’t argue. In fact, he’ll probably say it’s “nice.”

Copywrite © 2010 by Janice Lindegard. All rights reserved.

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