’Tis the season of giving — to me

by Matthew Singer

It is better to give than to receive? We should all be mature enough by now to realize how much crap is loaded into that crusty old axiom — not necessarily because the opposite is true (and it is) but because the sentiment behind it is false. It implies the joy someone else derives from having been given a gift is powerful enough to satisfy the needs of the giver. But seeing somebody happy is not the pull of gift-giving. If people actually enjoy the act of giving, it’s because they like how it reflects on them. It makes them look good, and the appreciation of the receiver validates their self-worth. In reality, giving is as much an egocentric action as stretching your arms out and screaming, “Gimme gimme gimme!” — except these serial givers are paying for the validation. It’s good-cheer prostitution.

So stop all this cloying, disingenuous rhetoric and admit it: receiving is better than giving. I should know. With the exception of the Christmas of my first paying job, I have never bought anything for anyone. And that one time I did, I did not feel measurably better than any of the other years when I only received presents. In fact, I felt slightly worse.

And let’s face it: Receiving gifts is pretty much all Christmas is about. There’s no religiosity left in it, unless you’re like my former neighbor who used to put a huge banner on her garage every December reading “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” And spending time with loved ones? That’s just the mile of broken glass you must crawl through to get to the presents.

As shallow and materialistic as this all sounds, at least I can say I’m better than my cousins. These two mooks, with whom I spent practically every Christmas growing up, would literally shred into their presents at the word go, ponder the gift for about three seconds, then toss it aside and continue throwing up a hailstorm of wrapping paper and packing peanuts. This drove our aunt insane. She would constantly try to orchestrate the present-opening in some orderly fashion so all would get their proper due, and my cousins would leap onto their piles like a pack of wolverines slaughtering a moose and be in the kitchen cramming pastries down their throats within five minutes, leaving nothing but bows and empty boxes in their wake. (What’s more, their parents always had to buy them pairs of everything because one would inevitably covet whatever the other got, leading to a whole lot of fighting and crying by the afternoon. This continued up until the last holiday I spent with them, which was three years ago.)

I, however, was willing to be patient, even though I hated the tortured process of the gift-opening ceremony: holding the item up, going “Ooooh,” making some comment about how great a gift it was and thanking whatever relative bought it for me. Of course, this calmer, more civilized method always took two hours, since our Christmases usually involved 10 to 12 people (and if there was a kid under the age of 10 there, forget it). But I preferred to draw it out, because once the excitement of the opening is gone, what’s left to do? Talk to the family? Watch my cousins play their new video game, waiting in vain for them to hand over the controller? If these are my options, I’ll let my 3-year-old cousin attempt to tear the wrapping off a doll house all day.

One year, though, I allowed my hunger for presents to overcome my better judgment. My sister and I woke up at 5 a.m., ran upstairs and ripped into our gifts, before our parents were awake. I got a CD player, the first (and only, shockingly) I’ve ever owned. Naturally, mother and father were not pleased. My dad is kind of an emotional guy — and by emotional I mean he is prone to yelling. He is one of those weirdos who wants to witness his children’s immediate reaction to opening something he gave them, and he laid down the hammer of the gods that day. I felt guilty — for a moment. Then I went down to my room, ate candy canes and listened to Nirvana.

That CD player itself is notable because it might be the only gift I’ve ever received that I was still using by the time the next Christmas rolled around. Looking back, as much as I loved receiving presents, I apparently found them utterly disposable. Every time the latest video game platform came out, for instance, I’d beg and plead for it, then once I had it, I’d beat the shitty games that came packaged with it and, since I had no income to buy more, the thing would be gathering dust atop my television set by March. When I was 12 I got an acoustic guitar, which I never learned to play. I haven’t even gotten all the way through last year’s Alfred Hitchcock DVD boxed set. Come to think of it, the only other thing that lasted as long as the CD player was a belt one of my uncles gave me — which is ironic, because this particular uncle just mails us cheap identical presents that are obviously picked out by his wife, which we’ve made a tradition of opening simultaneously and making fun of (worst one: three ridiculously oversized electric-blue Adidas T-shirts). Normally, they end up rotting in our closets, but I recall wearing that belt for a while, before the buckle inevitably fell off.

Reflecting on all this makes me lament the fact that I’m at an age where I have to accept only practical gifts, like bathmats and TV trays. Yeah, it’s stuff I can use, seeing as I’m finally living on my own, and it’s definitely better than paying for those things myself, but without the excitement of receiving cool shit, what is there left to enjoy about Christmas? Hmm, looks like I may have to start giving after all.

My Dickensian Christmas

by Saundra Sorenson

Eight hundred dollars was too much to pay to leave Europe for the holidays. All of us temporary ex-pats were from warm climates that short-changed us around the holidays (except for Julie, who, as a Minnesota native, would technically be having a tropical island vacation by staying in the greater Britain area). Aside from our families, what was the attraction?

My Christmases had always been warm affairs where snow meant the cool aerosol stuff my parents sprayed on our multi-paned front windows (and by spring, vowed never to do it again). It meant wearing a short-sleeved dress to elementary school holiday pageants to perform half-assed renditions of “Feliz Navidad.”

But twenty years in, I tossed my palm frond-lined yuletide memories at the first sight of frost, favoring a nostalgia for a kind of Christmas I’d never known. It had already snowed by the time I was invited to a tree-trimming fete at the home of my screenwriting instructor, Steve Nallon (best known for making a career of his spot-on portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, specifically in Spitting Image, an early-’80s TV show featuring large, grotesque puppets. There he made us curry and poured us mulled wine. I took a train down to London to meet with old friends and hit the tourist traps I’d missed my first three times down there, and sitting in a West End Theater with my friend Petra, watching the love of our respective lives (the then-obscure Sean Bean) perform MacBeth opposite 007’s Miss Moneypenny, I knew: this was shaking out to be a truly enchanting Christmas.

In Birmingham, my urban family members dispersed: some to Eastern Europe, some to family they just happened to have in the area (my friend Ryan, a Canadian who held passports from the Philippines and the United Kingdom, flew out to see his Swedish relatives). So, on Christmas Eve I hopped on a train with my fussy Aussie friend Jason and Julie, the tall Minnesota beauty. We were bound for Bath, resort destination for so many Austen characters, that place of boundless Roman ruins and a centuries-old bathhouse. It was all rolling hills and Georgian architecture, and we lapped it up, whiling away the day by stopping in at bakeries and reading brass plaques on the side of buildings. I forced Jason and Julie to go to midnight Mass at Bath Abbey before we stopped off at a bar to watch Shakira videos projected over our cocktails.

And Christmas morning, at first blush, wasn’t so different from my Christmases in my motherland.

“It must be, like, 70 degrees!” I exclaimed as we walked to an early dinner. The TB-inducing weather of our Birmingham had given way to a sunny wonderland.

“Fifty,” Julie replied. “I checked.”

I called ahead to the pub that was set to serve us a traditional British Christmas feast — essentially our traditional Thanksgiving spread, minus the yams. But the pub had lost our reservation, and the host didn’t seem to understand the implications of giving us the brush off. In Bath, you can’t even slum it and make it a McD’s kind of evening. Absent groceries and a dinner reservation, well-meaning students suddenly become Dickensian street urchins, despondently looking through windows with thoughts of swiping a baked ham.

I suggested we find the most reasonably priced joint, but Jason was fixated on the unequal exchange rate between Oz and the UK. He was so obsessed with it, in fact, that it formed a regular humming background to all our conversations. At that point, it was three Australian dollars to the GB Pound Sterling.

“How much would this five-pound meal cost in Sydney?” we once asked him.

Fifteen dollars, he estimated.

Julie’s stony glare was far more ominous than if she’d gone ahead and strangled him.

And so we canvassed the suddenly stingy little city. A group of bar regulars greeted us with a plate of mincemeat pies, but otherwise couldn’t help. The trains had stopped running. We stopped a taxi driver and asked him what he’d charge to go to Bristol, because wasn’t Bristol just a couple of miles away? And wasn’t it a big city, more likely to have a crappy little pub that could accommodate us?

He told us that we couldn’t afford him, not on Christmas, but his sister was engaged to some bloke whose friend ran a Turkish restaurant, and they were most definitely open. We ought to mention his name, he added.

Gossipy though this recommendation was, we did find the restaurant, run by a family of Turkish men who seemed to sympathize. They knew how ridiculous the British holiday system appeared to an outsider. They offered us a table for a half-hour and explained apologetically that they had a busload of Greek tourists due any minute.

While I was prepared to rough it on cuisine far richer than my weak, mincemeat pie-ravaged stomach was prepared for, our waiter told us they were offering — one night only! — the traditional British turkey dinner.

I capped it off with a pina colada, figuring that my meal was eclectic enough anyway.

“Merry Christmas,” our young waiter murmured as he wrote down the drink order.

Our finicky but fed Aussie in tow, Julie and I jaunted through hillside residential neighborhoods that we referred to as “the Shire” and strolled on the University of Bath’s empty campus. When our turkey was properly digested, we stopped back to see our new best friends and order gyros to go.

Within a few weeks I would find myself in a relationship with a UK native, and his family in Edinburgh would welcome me into a warm suburban home that could hang with the best of the finished products in any DIY improvement show on the BBC. With a pitch-perfect Christmas tree still in the corner, an adorable young cousin named Hannah would offer us homemade minestrone in a warm, neutral-toned dining room while snow pelted lightly against the windows and affable male relatives tranquilly enjoyed a football match on TV. It would be so. But in the meantime, Julie and I capped off our evening, ornery Aussie asleep upstairs, by joining a motley crew of travelers in the common room of our hostel. We watched Goodfellas, then went upstairs to quote the random ramblings of sketch comedy from Fast Show, kicking the bed above us whenever Jason grumbled. m

Dreidels, latkes and the holiday season

by Molly Freedenberg

When people find out I’m Jewish (and with a last name like Freedenberg, it usually doesn’t take that long), they assume this time of year is all about Hanukkah for me: dreidels and menorahs and eating at Chinese restaurants on Christmas day.

Which is when I have to explain two things. First, I’m half-Jewish, which means there’s a whole side of my family who know more about rosaries than Rosh Hashanah. And secondly, the Jewish side of my family weren’t exactly Hasidic.

When I was a kid, my dad always made an important distinction between Judaism as a culture and Judaism as a religion. He was always proud of the fact that being Jewish, unlike being Baptist or Mormon, meant you were associated with a community on both of these levels. I think it was also a justification for calling ourselves Jewish even though my Dad hardly ever went to temple, we never ate kosher, and we only occasionally celebrated Jewish holidays (and even then, it was according to books like Passover in Twenty Minutes).

Furthermore, there are photos of my Dad as a kid in Brooklyn celebrating Christmas with his full-Jewish family, a phenomenon I can only explain as a result of assimilation. (When my grandparents’ parents came to New York from Eastern Europe, they must have picked up the tradition of Christmas trees and gift-giving as a way to fit in with their neighbors, or embrace American culture, or — dare I think it? — to renounce the culture that caused their necessary flight from their homeland.) There are more family photos of my Woody Allen-esque dad, his mom, Martha, and his father, Harold, sitting around a Christmas tree than there are of them lighting menorahs or praying over Shabbat candles.

When I asked my Dad why this was, he would only say, “Christmas is a national holiday.”

That’s when I began to realize that so, in a sense, is Hanukkah.

The thing is, Hanukkah as a holiday isn’t really that big of a deal in Jewish culture — more like Arbor Day or maybe Memorial Day than Christmas. It’s only because of its proximity to Christmas (which, by the way, also was scheduled in December for its proximity to pagan winter solstice rituals) that it gets much attention at all. And so Hanukkah as the Jewish kids’ Christmas is really an American invention, one born either of (at best) the altruistic desire not to leave anyone out or (at worst) the capitalistic desire not to miss out on any marketing opportunities.

Sure, Jews across the world do celebrate the festival of lights. There are menorahs with one candle lit each night. There are dreidels (and the ubiquitous dreidel song). There are chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil (called “gelt,” the German/Yiddish word for “money”) and there are small gifts given.

But what most people think of as Hanukkah — a kind of Christmas celebration where the tree is decorated in blue and the mountain of gifts is opened over the course of a week instead of in one morning — is a fairly new, and very New World, phenomenon.

And so at my Dad’s house in December, we always had a Christmas tree — one of the kinds with stiff, flat branches — decorated in colored balls, candy canes, tinsel and the occasional menorah or dreidel ornament. There were stockings hanging from the fireplace. Outside, the eaves and the bushes were decorated with Hanukkah-blue lights. Inside, menorahs sat alongside red-and-green candlesticks. Some years we’d have a lighting ceremony or two, though hardly ever eight in a row. Other years, we’d celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas together on Christmas Day — the pile of presents wrapped in poinsettia-themed paper were for Christmas, and the one or two small boxes (usually Jewish-themed jewelry) wrapped in silver or blue were for Hanukkah. And if it was a really special year, perhaps my stepmom would make latkes (potato pancakes) or my grandmother would make strudel, or maybe we’d spend one night of Hanukkah at the house of Jewish family friends (who, I suspected, were just as sporadic and “reform” about their Hanukkahs as we were.)

Neither celebration was particularly religious. But both were profoundly cultural. One connected us to the culture we’re living in; and one connected us to the culture we came from — if only in an abstract, symbolic way.

Now that my dad has died and I’m an adult, my Winter holiday leanings tend more towards Christmas than Hanukkah. But I still feel a sense of connection, ownership and pride when it comes to the latter. Whether I choose to acknowledge the holiday or not, the fact that I have that choice is a reminder that I belong to a special, rare group of people: to my particular family, to the American Jews throughout history who have improvised and adapted to incorporate their traditions with their new culture, and to the Jews throughout time.

So, Merry Christmas and l’chaim. And to all a good night.

Unwrapping the past

The gift of the unexpected

By Stacey Wiebe

Dad lies like a turtle a turtle on its back, legs and arms sprawled helplessly as he’s attacked by the equivalent of his own shell — in this case, a three-wheeled Honda all-terrain bike.

Below him is the sandy soil of the open field, above him a static December sky painted charcoal and dabbed with chunks of low fog. Before my sister and I have time to wonder if it’s our job to pull the bike, all humming motor and slowly spinning tires, from on top of our father, he heaves it off with a grunt and stands, dusting clumps of moist, sandy earth from his worn blue jeans and the elbows of his shirt.

“That’s why you can’t go up a hill like that in fourth gear,” he says, gesturing at the bike, which had flipped backwards on top of him after he’d thumbed the ignition, full throttle, up the little embankment separating our acreage from the sweet-potato field next door.

This exhilarating and terrifying Christmas — when I was 11 and my sister, Shannon, 10 — began a few weeks earlier, when my mother asked, with that glint in her eye she reserves for those times when she’s about to do something particularly naughty — things like driving way too fast or pretending she’s going to drop me off at school, but taking me shopping instead (Yeah, Mom!) — how we felt about three-wheelers.

“Your dad and I were thinking about getting you each a three-wheeler,” she said, vibrating with excitement.

“What’s that?” I asked.

It’s not like I was afraid of cars. I’d had an obsession with learning to drive since the age of 5. When I was 8, I read the DMV how-to book and tried to convince my mom that I was ready. It didn’t work. When I was almost 11, Mom started to let me drive our truck, an old ’73 Ford, up and down the length of the farm — but she may as well have been speaking Chinese with this whole “three-wheeler” thing.

“It’s like a motorcycle, but it has three wheels,” she said, flashing one of her secretive smiles, the ones that let you know that you better buckle yourself in. (Mom, it’s important to note, once used a motorcycle to outrun a cop when she was 18. It was clear to me, even at 11, that she didn’t fear death at high speeds in quite the same way everyone else does. This made me nervous.)

“It’s so much fun,” she said. “You’ll love it.”

“Motorcyles?”

Sitting on the three-wheeler for the very first time felt as foreign as a tamale in an igloo. The motor’s rough thrum, the way the whole bike jerked when popped out of neutral and into first gear, the way it responded to even the slightest caress of the thumb on the insignificant-looking throttle. I didn’t know it yet, but my love affair with the three-wheeler had begun with a few uncomfortable jerks and a noisy climb to second gear.

“Take your thumb off the gas,” Dad said, “and — quick — shift up with your foot.” Oh, the sound of the three-wheeler popping into high gear. More gas, no gas, shift up, shift down. Automatic clutches made learning even easier, and the concept of shifting — of revving and red-lining RPMs and the sound of a motor ready to climb higher — made learning to drive a stick shift easier in the coming years.

The first several times, I rode with my dad — he in front, I in back — as he explained why you can’t leave your thumb on the throttle when you shift, why you can’t downshift at high speeds (I later learned this the hard way after nearly eating dirt a few times) and why you must, at all costs, respect the engine and tame the road. It was the best Christmas ever.

Then again, I’ve always been into Christmas. Sure, it’s all about buying, blah, blah, blah, no heart, blah, blah, blah, but I’ve always felt something unavoidably magical about a time when so many people are looking forward to the same thing. It can be palpably exciting or achingly depressing, but the Christmas season is something, one way or another.

Over the years, I learned that Christmas could take almost any form. Some years, the gifts showered down in remarkable torrents; other years, there were no gifts at all. Though the Christmas season seemed representative of a holiday wheel of fortune, it was always good, for reasons I can’t and don’t want to explain.

The year of the three-wheelers was a good one because, well, three-wheelers rock! But we were also together and having fun, and it isn’t always that way. Now, I like to give my parents gifts that make them as happy as they’ve made me — but the truth is that gifts that good don’t really exist.

I rode those three-wheelers, with my parents, sister and a handful of our friends, until I was about 20 years old. Every time those days cross my mind, of so many summers spent riding through almond orchards and racing alongside canal banks, I want to do it all again. There are so many stories of building dirt roads and jumping dirt piles and near-misses and full-on accidents attached to those bikes that there’s no time and no room to tell them all. Later on, I intermittently rode a quad and taught new friends and coworkers how to do the same. It was always fun to watch the terror on their faces morph into smiles, and to struggle with trusting them enough to put them in the driver’s seat.

If there was ever a gift that made me more of who I am — and also more like my parents — the three-wheeler was it. It was that unexpected gift that changed my life in unexpected ways, and made me willing to accept, and expect, more of the same.