Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas: A Report from the Front

The best film to come out in the past ten years, The Incredibles, has a line toward the end where the bratty kid says "I love my family!" It's a sweet and funny moment with which many of us can identify. When you finally mature out of your sour teenage years and grow up and have a family of your own, that moment may come when you take a look around the Christmas table and are finally seeing everyone eye-to-eye, seeing everyone for who they are. And for all the crinks and nuances, somehow you stayed together and the day finally came where everyone was laughing and everyone was enjoying each other. It's worth the wait.

My "I love my family" moment came this year after Christmas dinner when we performed our traditional singing of the "Twelve Days of Christmas," a tradition that started in 2003. Back then, it was the first Christmas with my new wife in tow, and the first Christmas spent in Vegas with my sister's family. She had just moved there and was feeling somewhat lonely, so was glad to have us all around the table. She really does up the place for the holidays, and had purchased twelve hand-painted wine glasses, each with an illustration of one of the verses from the annoying and endless song. After a few glasses of wine, someone suggested that we actually go around the table and sing the thing, and that you had to sing the verse of the glass you were holding. There was some reticent discussion about it, and then someone hastily launched everyone into a rollicking rendition of it: On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me... The children stood there, mouths agape at their silly parents, and that may have been the reason why we all just kept singing. It occurred to me at the time that this is the way the song was meant to be sung -with everyone fumbling over a different verse, late to the rhythm and in a different pitch- and the only way it could be enjoyed. Even my Dad, who I'd never heard sing a word of any song in my entire life, joined in. We were all laughing and yelling and cheering... It would be the last time most of us would spend with my Dad before he died a month later. None of us will ever forget it.

So we've sung it every year since. This year we only had ten people, so we were short a few verses. We did a go-round and the kids happily picked up the slack and it was fun, as usual. A bit later, a distant family member called in to wish everyone well and we all got to talking -so you can see where this is going. My brother-in-law gets on the horn and begins drunk-dialing everyone in the family. He set up an 800 number conference call and the phones were set to 'Speaker' and placed on the table, next to the roast beast. People started calling in: "What verse am I?" You're number ten! "Which verse is that?" Look, it's your responsibility to figure it out, OKAY GO! --"On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to meeeee..."

It was hilarious. There would be a pause between verses, a bit of distant static from the other side of the country, and then "6 LORDS A-LEAPING" followed by fall-down laughter on our side because everyone knows it's "6 geese a-laying" (referring to the 6 days of creation). We worked our way through the whole song, everyone finally getting it right the twelfth go-round (it helps when you have the glass in hand, which is the pleasure received only by those physically in attendance). We're pretty sure some family members called in late to the song, heard the ruckus being raised, and either sat there in silent awe, or hung up immediately. It was awesome. You had to be there.

So that was the 5th singing of the song. There's almost always a newcomer to the feast, and when this particular holiday element rolls around there's always some pushing away from the table and some shaking of the head -but once the old wagon starts rolling down the hill there's no stopping it, and it's a joy to watch and a joy to sing (like a banshee.)

The rest of Christmas was ho-hum gift unwrapping. Mrs. Ditchman spoke with a friend who had so many presents for her little two-year old to unwrap, that they were forced to sustain the gifts over a few days, everyone suffering from unwrapping fatigue. There is no such ailment in my family, as we go full-bore marathon style. I have 5 brothers and sisters, 6 nephews and nieces, and that's just the immediate family. If you count the in-laws, the roll call goes into the 30s and 40s (no one has ever really counted.) There were 10 of us at this Christmas. If everyone brought each other only one gift, it's about a hundred gifts to unwrap, but everyone gives several gifts. And then there's Santa. It takes all day. We break for lunch.

I know many people who are annoyed and dismayed by all the gifting and I can't understand it. There's so many gifts going around that no one in my family is ever bothered if so-and-so didn't get them something, or so-and-so got you something you didn't like. There are all different income levels and no expectations. And there's a lot of This doesn't fit, don't you know my size by now? And, Would you wear that in public -I can see right through it! And, Look, Grandma wrapped the gift without putting the thing in the box! Again! We all laugh about it, have a good time, and thank each other. The good gifts are the ones we make for one another; pictures in frames, home movies, drawings from the kids. They're wonderful and cherished all year. It really is about the giving.

But I suppose the best gift we all get in my family is the happy, mutual tolerance we share. We accept each other now. There was a time when there was a lot of irritable holiday bickering and so forth, but perhaps we have grown out of it. I guess as you grow older and begin to see your own faults, you realize you're lucky to have anyone accept you at all. So in the Spirit of Christmas, you show up, you give what you can, and you let it all go.