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December 10, 2003 - Christmas Time in the City

By: Jeff Shelley


Here in Salem, Mass., about a good 3-iron from Kernwood Country Club (ironically, for the purposes of this journal entry, a nearly all-Jewish private club), I am with my wife Anni at her Aunt Kay's house off Salt Wall Lane. The snow is still about 3 feet deep in the yards of this quiet neighborhood, the remnants of one of the Boston area's biggest pre-winter storms in history still very much in evidence. Not much golf in the forecast during our week-long sojourn in New England. But that's okay. Christmas is in the air.

Always my favorite holiday, Christmas has become one of my most ambivalent times of the year. That's quite the reverse from when I was a kid, when the days-long Eve and December 25th itself were unparalleled for excitement and anticipation. Like many Baby Boom-era American children, I found the Yule season bringing bright lights, jolly Santa Clauses, illuminated pine-scented trees, jingle bells, and big hopes for new toys.

With three sisters and a brother, I grew up in a solid middle-class family in Washington State. Born Methodists and later quasi-Episcopalians, we - with the exception of my father - religiously attended church as youngsters. My three sisters and I would get dressed up, climb into our 1950 Chevrolet wagon - the precursor to the SUV, and head off to church with Mom. The girls would sport white gloves, hats, black shoes with those white lace-topped socks, and the floral skirts of the day. I'd wear black pants and a white shirt - the front of my crew cut fortified and elevated by Butch Wax.

As a 7-year-old altar boy (though certainly not in the figurative sense), I spent most Sunday mornings as one of our minister's right-hand little men. In this role I did a lot of standing and sitting, helping dispense wafers and "the blood of Christ," lighting and extinguishing candles (the toughest and most dangerous part of the job), all before my beaming mother, who proudly sat in the front pew to watch her eldest son. I was also really into the singing part, cutting loose and belting out the hymns, something I still do today at funerals and weddings. There's something liberating about lending voice to these community choirs.

Besides the time I dove over a host of young females at my big sister's wedding to snatch the cherished bouquet - much to the horror of my mom and the bride, my best memory of church was at Christmas time. Though I worked a lot harder on lighting and dousing flames at this time of year because of the sheer quantity of the candles, the songs we sung were more joyous, the pitch of the congregation's voices higher and more attuned, and the minister's sermons more warming and less dire.

[In addition to the bouquet catch, there's another funny anecdote from these halcyon days. My sister Kay recently returned my long-lost first bible, as vital in the altar boy armamentarium as the pure white smock, though easier to maintain. In the upper-left-hand side is the immortal inscription:

"To Jeff,

With the best of luck.

God"

The "G" in God looks like the logo on a General Mills cereal box. A 7-year-old tends to blur his icons, I guess.]

Back to Christmas. Like many families, our Christmas mornings had traditions that didn't much waver much from year to year. Us kids were up at the crack of dawn bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to check out the tree and its attendant surprises. Mom and dad had to be cajoled from deep slumber to join the party. Their patient restoration of order - with full breakfast first, the sorting of the gifts (performed by the youngest child after considerable squabbling), followed by the unwrapping of the stocking goodies and THEN the opening of the big presents. This tradition has - in much the same form - carried over to my family as well as those of my siblings.

It seems as if my advancing age has coincided with the increasingly gross commercialization of Christmas. I put the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of my generation. We've taken what our parents helped spawn in their post-war affluence and created a retail monster for this most prominent of holidays.

At one point about a decade ago, there was considerable hue and cry over the insidious invasiveness of Christmas shopping. Rightly, to my thinking, many folks were upset that the clamor to "BUY BUY BUY" Christmas presents earlier and earlier had usurped Thanksgiving.

It's now official: Thanksgiving is now better merely the eve of the year's biggest shopping day. You'd better eat up on Thursday for the next day's 5:00 a.m. wake-up call and be primed to shove your way through the masses to get the best Christmas deals on the fabled "Friday After Thanksgiving."

In response to this Yuletide commercialism - one that generates such angst-inducing thoughts as "I hope to buy the appropriately valued present for (fill in the blanks)" - I now only get a couple of items for Anni and daughter Erica during my maximum two-day Christmas shopping "spree." This is usually executed a couple of days before the blessed event when the mall crowds are waning and the store clerks' eyes are glazed over. I do put some thought into my purchases, bearing lists for wool socks, sweets, funny day calendars (last year's weird 911 calls was good), sweaters for the girls, and any special requests.

Depending on the size of my bank account in December, my brother Doug and I also go to my friend Webb's warehouse - he co-owns a company called Toy Visions - and we stock up on quantities of unwrapped presents to deliver to Toys for Tots or the local Ronald McDonald House. In this spirit, both Anni and I are on the verge of making a complete transformation - donating the money we'd normally spend on each other to a charity of our choice in each other's name.

At the ripe old age of 53, I've decided that the essence of Christmas is not what you buy loved ones and friends. It's not a transactional analysis of suitable compensation for gifts given and received. It's not validated parking and 60 percent discounts (though those help, I'm sure). And it's certainly shouldn't be the ruination of a perfectly fine month-earlier holiday which still has its own merits.

To me, Christmas is colorful and more redolent coniferous trees, young children smitten with possibilities, and the exultant voices of people in soaring song.

Here's wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas. And Happy Hanukkah to the folks at Kernwood.