STANDING AROUND the piano singing Christmas carols? Trimming the tree with popcorn garlands? Eggnog? Fruitcake? Big family dinner? Let's get real.
I'm sure that lots of folks revel in these seasonal traditions. I don't know how many, but I can guesstimate from the zillions of catalogues hawking red-velvet dresses, honey-baked hams and table settings decked with holly. Still, for many of us, the holidays are marked by other rituals--the kind you never see on a greeting card or the Care Bears' Christmas special.
"One of our holiday traditions is going to Toys 'R' Us and having a nervous breakdown," my friend Marjorie says. "It's so crowded, people actually crash their carts. You never go until it's too late, and you're going for the thing they ran out of the day before. It's Hell 'R' Us."
I wouldn't know. From Thanksgiving to New Year's, I avoid any store bigger than my living room. I can't feel good will to men if I'm being attacked by a swarm of harpies spraying bad perfume.
Still, friends tell me that going to the mall can be an important holiday ritual. "Fred hates to pick out my presents," Claire says. "So a couple of days before Christmas, when the stores are packed with people and there's not much left, he takes me on a forced march and asks what I want. Then he has me turn my back while he charges it and hands me the package to carry home."
The media would have us believe that holiday customs are delightful and pleasant, all play and very little work. But many Christmas activities seem designed to maximize stress. Who could possibly remain cheery after cutting out and baking 15 dozen sugar cookies or outlining a two-story house in twinkling colored lights (and that's after you untangle the cords)?
Actually, anything you do in December is difficult. "I don't celebrate Christmas," says Katie, who is Jewish. "I send cards, and that's basically it. But every year I search high and low to find a general card that's right for every religion. And then I have to find Hanukkah cards for my family. And then, if it's for a mixed marriage, I have to find something in between."
You can drive yourself crazy trying to please everybody. Or just drive.
"Both Elise's family and my family are freeway-close," Rusty says. "And my parents are divorced, plus we have two sets of living grandparents, not to mention aunts and uncles. So that's three or four houses we have to visit and two or three others that aren't mandatory, but we'd lose a lot of Brownie points if we didn't stop by. Every November, we start this informal dickering where we kind of strike deals."
Maybe he should consider getting an agent. "For 10 years, we've had an asphalt Christmas," he says. "We've done stuff like drive to Riverside for a Christmas Eve party, open presents, drive to Palos Verdes, spend the night, open more presents, see the cousins in Huntington Beach and then drive to Thousand Oaks for Christmas dinner. Every year we say we should get on a plane and go to Mexico."
I say go for it, but you can't go by me. My most sacred holiday ritual is to leave town. This is a legacy from my Jewish father, who found it less stressful to take three kids on vacation than to explain why we couldn't have a tree. I grew up convinced that there was no such thing as Santa because if there was, I would have seen him Christmas Eve from the window of the plane.
Luckily, my husband, Duke, doesn't mind giving up his cherished holiday tradition--going to the octoplex, spending the day switching theaters. "I've spent several happy Christmases doing that," Duke informs me. But I prefer a total escape from holiday reality.
My sister, Laurie, understands. "Christmas is the time to fight," she says. "In the stores, people are fighting about how much to spend on Aunt Myrtle. At home, they're fighting about who's going to put the toys together, who's going to wrap the presents. I've even yelled at people because they don't have enough Christmas spirit."
Funny, every December, Duke and I have the same argument: What time should we leave for the airport? "The airlines just tell you to be there early to express their control," he says. But I hate to feel rushed.
So I have developed another tradition--I lie about our departure time. Last year, Duke thought our flight to Bali left at 8 p.m. (and mind you, we didn't have seat assignments yet). He came home from work around 7:15, blithely finished packing and then, on the way to the airport, stopped at the bank to get some money. "Admit it," he said, when we finally arrived at LAX and found the usual Christmas crush. "The plane leaves at 9, right?"
"Wrong," I smiled. "It leaves at 10."
"I guess I underestimated you, honey," Duke said. He doesn't know it, but this year he's going to underestimate me again. So I'm going to have a happy holiday. And I hope you do, too. Any way you celebrate.