I was in line behind a woman tightly wrapped in a Christmas sweater; strained eyes, pale face, the dry lips of a slightly manic and dehydrated overachiever. Panting ever-so-slightly, she hugged a packaged iPad to her chest and with an edge of madness, leaned in as if we were trench mates and announced triumphantly, "I got it! The last one! Thank God, cause I swear he'd flat out kill me if I didn't get him one for Christmas!"
And there it was. Christmas as a Bad Boyfriend:
1. Endless demands and you best meet them if you know what's good for you.
2. A certain mode of dress is expected (that sweater, those ornament earrings!) and it doesn't matter how you feel about it.
3. The house better look "the way it's supposed to!" (get those decorations up!).
4. Preferred music ("Deck the halls with... ") loops endlessly for his listening pleasure.
5. There's a presumption of copious gift giving and fawning attention (make sure those cards get out!).
6. The list of favored food and drink is long and laborious.
7. Regardless of attempts to calorically moderate, rich food is demanded.
8. The big gut is pretty hard to miss.
9. Stay cheerful regardless of mood or exhaustion.
10. No reciprocal demands accepted.
11. Of course, you clean up the mess after he's done.
12. Merry effin' Christmas, baby.
Yeah... right back at'cha.
Face it; we do have a complicated relationship with this holiday. There's grousing when decorations come out seconds after the turkey carcass is in the can but there's a skip in our step when we head to the mall for that first holiday visit. We complain about commercialization and consumerism, but there is no greater passion than shoppers sharing Christmas deals! The task list is long, obligation grows larger every year and for religious folk the balance between sacred and secular is an ongoing challenge. And yet... there's something kind of spirited about the whole thing, isn't there?
Quantum physics tells us time is an illusion. Explanations of that theorem make my head explode but let's go with it. Time is an illusion and over the eons of human existence it became clear that without time management, people meandered; lost track not only of the aging process but the definitive moment to eschew summer whites. So wise ones who understood both science and human nature came up with the calendar, that corralling of time based on astronomy. We named time (months, days), we partitioned it off (years); part of time became the past, part was the future; the stuff in the middle, the present, was where we lived. Very organized.
Since the point of calendaring was to create structure and meaning, marked events become ritual: traditions, holidays, those anointed and completely arbitrary moments celebrated at designated points on the calendar. They've changed and evolved over the centuries but they're important as time-markers and they give us reason to dress up in hats. We humans seem to appreciate that.
Certainly Christmas has been the most enduring. Oft debated and certainly controversial (see No, Virginia, There's No War On Christmas), it remains the most pivotal of shared events, varied and vaunted. But it seems, too, that the rabid commercialization of Christmas has succeeded in corrupting its aura; a fact that, frankly, sucks... but is wholly avoidable. If you were my friend sobbing about your Bad Boyfriend -- "What should I dooooooooo? He's so mean but I LOVE him!!" -- I'd say the same things I'm going to say right now. So quiet down, take off that goofy mistletoe scarf and listen up.
You cannot be taken advantage of unless you allow it. There is not one person on this earth who can blame anyone but themselves if Christmas has gone all BB on them. It's a choice. Just as we set our boundaries, hold our ground, and stand firm against unrealistic expectations in other relationships (needy friends, ex-spouses, PTA), we are capable of doing the same with this holiday. We can either design one that makes sense or succumb to craziness. You can either assess your ability to participate and act accordingly or you can capitulate to commercialism. Your call... it's doable. Here are my Seven Commandments of Christmas, for what it's worth:
1. Only entertain if you enjoy it. No one will notice if you don't. Entertain, that is.
2. Attend business parties as needed but network in the first hour so you can leave before mailroom guy or new temp starts hitting on you.
3. Stick to crudité and avoid heavy drinking. Minimal weight gain and consistent lack of vomiting go a long way toward a more enjoyable holiday.
4. Decorate only when, and as much, as you like. And only with items that actually have appeal. Blow-up plastic Santas and hideous front lawn snowmen are unnecessary and considered blight in some circles.
5. Don't be browbeaten into sending paper cards. It's a new world. A well-designed e-card sent with love and a sweet note is not only acceptable, it'll save thousands in redwoods and hundreds for you.
6. Don't travel unless you want to and can afford it. Both must apply. Obligation to fly the hell all over the place at the busiest and more stressful time of the year is counterproductive to cheer. You can just as easily visit on non-holidays; give yourselves permission to stay put. Or suggest -- if you're so inclined -- they come to you. Skype is useful.
7. GET VERY SELECTIVE ABOUT YOUR GIFT-GIVING. This is the deal-breaker. The burdensome expectation of "gifts all around!" is a Kool-Aid too many have imbibed and there is nothing more responsible for the fear and loathing of Christmas. We max out our credit cards, drive ourselves crazy "finding the right thing" for people who need nothing, we overdo with children who are so bombarded they have no idea what to play with next. We gut-churn over not giving as expensive as we got, guilty if we accept when we did not give, and the whole ridiculous exercise becomes as antithetical as the Black Friday nut job who pepper-sprayed her way to a video game or the frothing pack who stepped over a dead man to get to the sales table. STOP THE MADNESS! (And who but a Bad Boyfriend could've ever come up with Black Friday?)
I can already hear my friend caterwauling about how Bad Boyfriend would never stand for all that self-preserving, boundaried, sensible limitation. So a little primer for next year:
Long before the holidays roll in, make a decision about who in your circle of friends and family you'll be buying for. A short list. Then write a warm, loving email to EVERYONE involved announcing your decision. Something along the lines of "In our effort to keep the Holidays as stress-free and financially manageable as possible, we're limiting our gift-giving to ___________ (i.e., Mom and Dad, kids, etc.). We hope you understand and, of course, ask that you not send gifts to us. Cookies, however, are always welcome!" Be prepared for grumbling and criticism but hold firm. Over years of sticking to the program, the family will GET that you're serious and eventually come to appreciate the reciprocal unburdening. But remember: even if someone violates the request and sends gifts, thank them but DO NOT weaken. Ever. Break once and BB is right back; snapping his fingers, big gut resting on the table, wondering where the carols are and why isn't the prime rib ready?
I love my friends and family; I appreciate my colleagues, associates and collaborators. And when the holidays roll around, I look forward to the rituals and traditions that make this time of year different from the rest. I get out favorite decorations and make my Greek cookies. I acknowledge the holidays with artistic notes, maybe an open house; certainly those wonderful family gatherings where we enjoy being together, sharing a good meal and watching our select few open their gifts. It's lovely; manageable, affordable, and there's no weeping.
Just a Good Holiday... as it should be. Wishing you the same!