Monday, December 8, 2008

Ready Or Not, It's Christmas

Here in the City of Angels, the Christmas spirit is hard to come by. Of course, watching the news lately strangles everyone's good time but LA is unique in its suffering. First of all, we had no autumn. OK, I see the jokes on the horizon. "In LA you know it's autumn because the smog changes color."

Yes, the seasons are not so pronounced here. However, the week before Thanksgiving featured triple-digit temps. The hot dry Santa Ana Winds fanned three area fires leaving hundreds of cinder piles where homes once stood. Ash fell out of the sky for three days. The sun was an orange disk cloaked in the murk. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, huh? Not.

With LA's famed Endless Summer reluctant to leave, with more families showing up at homeless shelters and charity holiday meals due to economic woes or having lost everything to the flames, no one is ready for the holidays.

The lovely Robin and I threw our annual Christmas Kick-Off party this last weekend. Our official date is the first Saturday in December (or DeCember as it's spelled around here) because nobody else is crazy enough to mount another major food shindig so close to Thanksgiving. Therefore, we expect a high turnout because we're the only game in town. Lethargy was our competition this year and we lost.

About 16 people showed up when our usual turnout is 50. Everyone still around left in a conga line at 10:30 pm. Robin and I were dumbfounded. Last year, the house rocked with laughter, music and good times.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not crabbing about the lack of turnout. Hey, I have a refrigerator stocked with enough food to feed 34 no-shows. It was still a very nice party and I enjoyed everyone's company immensely. Rather, I worry about what we choose to live without in these tough times.

The television news relates stories of shoppers cutting back on gift-giving. Robin tells me more than one of her co-workers told her only their young children will receive gifts. Fewer than usual, too. Okay, we all have less disposable income but Christmas is here, ready or not. So lets all quit being bummed because Santa can't give Johnny and Jane an X-Box this year. Let's get back to the basics and remember what this season is all about.

My best childhood Christmas recollections do not focus on the gifts but the people. Seeing all my cousins at my grandparents on Christmas Eve. My Uncle Sam teasing my youngest cousin Valerie about Santa getting hit by a car on the way to her house. It sounds mean on your computer screen but it was wickedly funny to the rest of us in 1965. Mind you, this went on for years. Uncle Sam added a new twist every year and Valerie fell for it again and again. We still laugh at the thought.

The traditional Italian-American Christmas Eve revolves around fish. Catholicism before Vatican II required a meatless meal on either December 23rd or the 24th for everyone over seven years old. Anyone who knows me more than five minutes knows I hate fish. Sorry, but I know what we put into the ocean so I'm not eating anything coming out of it. Besides, I never understood the whole fish thing. People like fish but they don't like it if it tastes too fishy? What is the point, then? When one eats a steak, one hopes it tastes really steak-y. Anyway, I made do with the spaghetti and clam sauce, straining the clams out by drawing individual spaghetti strands through my teeth.

What I remember most is the amount of love and laughter in that kitchen. My grandfather and grandmother were legends in their neighborhood. They really didn't say much on Christmas Eve. Usually they just sat there and beamed. The love and respect they gave their family and friends returned to them a hundredfold. The family and the in-laws all got along incredibly well.

The adults exchanged small gifts. Grandpa augmented his cigar supply. Uncle Sam got another dress shirt for work. Small quantities of cologne or fancy soap changed hands. A box of Russell Stover chocolates might make an appearance. My family was never a "stuff" family. Christmas for the adults was more about the hugs and kisses than the goodies. Santa was always good to me, though.

As we got older, the Catholic Church forgot about meatless days but the tradition remained so my recently-departed Aunt Agnes made me a baked stuffed pork chop. Every year I looked forward to that baked stuffed pork chop because it meant I was once again in the bosom of my family on Christmas Eve. December 24th was the only time I ever ate them. Doing so any other day might dilute the significance.

These people love to laugh. The table groaning with food and the happy boisterous voices ringing out greetings or jokes or opinions about some current event still rattle around in my head. Unfortunately, I live far away from most of my family so our little yearly soirée with our best friends laughing and the kids chasing after the cats gives me a small taste of that atmosphere. It's why I look forward to it and why I won't let any outside forces ruin it.

The next couple of years will strain this country more than any time since World War II. Time to strip Christmas back to the basics. Everybody is bummed over something this year. So forget the X-Box or the set of Calloway woods and get together with family and friends. Don't miss the parties because you're not in the mood. Be proactive. The parties and family gatherings are mood-altering substances. Hugs and kisses and laughter are free. It's what you'll remember 30 years after the toys and trinkets are forgotten.

No comments: