Confessions of an Ex-Grinch: My Christmas Epiphany

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I went through a long period in my 20’s and early 30’s where I absolutely hated Christmas. I ended up marrying “Mrs Claus” so choose what you hate carefully. Karma is a bitch. I don’t know why I hated Christmas. My parents and especially my grandparents always went all out for Christmas. We’d go to bed and they’d drink and set up toys. I remember waking up one Christmas morning and excitedly coming down to the tree to find that “Santa” had brought my brother an I an army set of Union and Confederate soldiers. Not only did Santa bring us this awesome gift but the tiny plastic soldiers were actually arrayed in a mock battle scene in front of the tree. There were dozens of these tiny blue and grey soldiers and my drunken relatives had stayed up late, setting them up in this wildlly elaborate battle scene. Hats off to my relatives. We’d set out cookies and milk and once we went to bed my grandfather dutifully ate them. I always thought this was proof positive that Santa existed and oddly never suspected my parents of subterfuge.

Maybe that was my problem with Christmas. After years of huge spectacle it became a rather quiet and staid affair. I’d go over to mom and dad’s, my sainted grandparents having long since passed, and we’d eat and quietly exchange gifts. It was always just my parents and my brother and I. My brother and I were both single at the time and my brother remains so to this day.

My family is extremely hard to buy for. It probably didn’t help that I was somewhat distant if not estranged from my family for a long time. The 20’s are tough years for some of us. My brother remains a mystery to me to this day, although we’re a lot closer than we used to be. We finally made the effort to connect but that’s another story. I never know what to buy my brother for Christmas. The only thing I can think of to get him, that he’d truly enjoy, would probably violate the United Nations ban on human trafficking. Ahem. “Made in China” are his favorite words.

My mother and father have everything they’ve ever wanted. They literally are the human embodiment of “the man who has everything”. For years I spent money buying my father every garment you could think of with a KC Chiefs’ logo on it but quickly ran out of hats, coats and sweatshirts to buy for him. My sainted mother actually eschews us buying her anything at all, like she feels guilty accepting gifts from her children. One year she asked for a breadbasket. Why not just ask me to stop by the grocery store and pick up some rolls. I ask for a Christmas list every year and she turns into the Sphinx. All I get back is a riddle. “Oh, Kenny, you don’t have to get me anything, just come by the house once in a while.” Sigh.

There was no one in my life back then. Or more correctly, there was a revolving door of people in my life back then. This may have also been a factor in the “hating of Christmas”. My high school girlfriend and I should have broken up at Christmas my freshman year in college, but she waited to do me that favor until April Fool’s Day, which was actually very fitting. Oddly I went through a series of breakups after that and generally they always occurred before the holidays or during them. That always puts a damper on the festivities. I never bought a tree nor made any effort to decorate my apartment in any way. I lived on Kansas City’s famous Country Club Plaza and every year the buildings are outlined in luminous Christmas lights. They turn the lights on every year in a big celebration on Thanksgiving night. I figured that was enough Christmas decoration for anybody. My mother, to mock my holiday despair, bought me my lone Christmas ornament, a stuffed Grinch hanging by a Christmas wreath. My wife hangs in my entry way every year to this day.

One year, as usually happened, I broke up with someone right before Christmas. December 20th was the date, and oddly I remember it. More accurately, the Rock Chick broke up with me but again, that’s another story for another time. We ended up married, so you never know. So, as usual, I was to go to my parents on Christmas Eve, spend the night and then drive home at some point Christmas day. My brother was in town. It was a carbon copy of the prior year and the year before that and so on, and so on. Before I headed to my folks house I stopped in O’Dowd’s my local haunt and started ordering martini’s. “Bring one of these every 15 minutes until I look ready for Christmas…” After about an hour and a half in the bar I felt I’d steeled myself for the impending holiday and headed to my folks. It was my intention to sit in my parent’s darkened basement and stare at the secondary tree they kept down there. Yes, my parents have two Christmas trees… they literally have everything.

Everyone except my father had gone to bed and I was sitting in the basement, clutching my wine glass to keep myself centered. Christmas I hated, Holiday Drinking I loved. My father came down to sit in front of the tree with me, when his cell phone rang. I thought something was wrong, who would call at 11pm on Christmas Eve? “Come with me, I need your help” my father exclaimed as he jumped to his feet. I followed him up to the garage where he quickly opened up the garage door letting in the cold. There were two brand new, shiny, kiddy bicycles sitting in the garage. “Gee dad, you shouldn’t have…I think Craig and I are a little big for these.” My father, as usual, was not amused, “They’re not for you smart ass, I’m storing these for the neighbor. He bought them for his kids and since there is a foot of snow on the ground, you’re going to help take them to his house while I stay here in the warm house.”

At that exact moment, a guy about my age came shuffling through the snow and up the driveway. Only moments before I’d been sitting alone, lamenting the fact I’d always be alone. Now a guy my age appears as if to underscore the point, to grab two bikes for his kids. He thanked my father profusely and I grabbed one bike, and he grabbed the other and we set off down the road to his house. His excitement at playing Santa for his kids and giving them their bikes was palpable. As I pushed that bike through the snow, I look up at a the stars and the snow flurries in the air and his excitement began to stir something inside of me. I suddenly felt connected to Christmas again. I remember looking at the guy and thinking, this could be me. I could own a home and have a family. It’s not too late for me. This guy not only gave his kids bikes that year, he gave me something too. He gave me the key to Christmas.

We rolled the bikes into his living room and the place reminded me of my grandparent’s house when I was a kid. I was like the Grinch… I felt my heart, which had been three times smaller than everybody else, suddenly swell to three times bigger than normal. I felt the despair and dread of Christmas fall away. I walked back to my dad’s house slowly but oddly for me, joyfully. I finally realized what I’d been missing. It’s the giving and the doing for others. There are so many people who as Bill Murray says in “Scrooged” that are having “trouble making their miracle happen” that we can all help. (No wonder I always weep during that final scene in that movie, I was that guy.) The day after Christmas I sought out a couple of charitable organizations and I started volunteering. I donated some money, even though I really didn’t have a lot. I didn’t have my own family so I started giving to my community. This may have been fundamental for most folks but somehow I’d lost touch with that.

If you’re alone, if you have a big family, whoever you are and whatever your circumstance, don’t forget what I forgot – the Holidays are for helping those less fortunate than you. And believe me, there is always someone less fortunate than you are. Even small acts like dropping some change in the Salvation Army’s bucket can help. And the giving and the doing for others feels great… Again, as Bill Murray said in “Scrooged” you start to “want that feeling, you get hungry for it” and that spirit of Christmas can stay with you, year round.

Every year my wife hangs the Grinch ornament up. For me it serves as that little reminder of that night, years ago, when I pushed a couple of bicycles through the snow, the year I got to play Santa for the first time…. and I smile.

Happy Holidays and as always, Cheers!

XMas Playlist For Those Who Hate Xmas Music

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I always hated Christmas. I shouldn’t say I “always” hated Christmas. My parents and my grandparents were exceptional custodians of that particular holiday. Maybe that’s the problem. The Christmases of my childhood were so amazing that as an adult there was nothing that could match that. It got so bad in my early 30’s that my mother gave me a Christmas ornament, the only one I owned, of the Grinch. I never put up a tree but I would faithfully hang the Grinch in my apartment, some place prominently as if to say, “yes, I hate Christmas, what are you gonna do about it?”

I had a number of break ups that occurred right around the Christmas holidays. My first ever break up was on April Fool’s Day. It went something like this: “It’s over,” “April Fool’s, right babe?”, “Uh, no”. Awkward. But after that first break up, for reasons unclear my break ups usually happened over the holidays. My friend Lou always said, “break up before the holidays Pappy, no gifts to have to buy,” but that was Lou’s thing, not mine.

Christmas was just hard for me from my late teens until my mid 30’s. When I met the Rock Chick, as fate or perhaps karma would have it, she was Mrs. Claus. There is not a Christmas tradition she hasn’t embraced. Home made egg nog, holiday baking, and I think there are 3 trees in the house, all decorated. At one point during the decorating process the cats had more glitter on them than most strippers I’ve seen. Around the early time of knowing the Rock Chick I had a clarifying Christmas moment, that I’ll write about in a different post that turned my attitude around. To this day I still don’t know what the 12 days of Christmas are. I get Christmas and Christmas Eve, but what are the other 10? I think this year may have shed some light on this for me – ¬†one of them has to be Frank Sinatra’s Birthday 12/12 and the other has to be Keith Richards’ Birthday 12/18. But that still leaves eight days that are undefined for me.

In one of the Bond films, the evil villain, Blofeld, realizes he’s been duped and an important cassette he needs to activate his world-destroying laser has been switched out with a recording of the British Army Band playing some battle tune. Blofeld looks out at the horizon, as the awful military marching band plays, and says, cigarette holder clinched in his teeth,”I do so hate martial music…” in a resigned very British tone. That’s how I feel about Christmas music, well without the cigarette holder. I don’t smoke. It’s everywhere. You can’t go any place without hearing Christmas music, traditional or pop recordings, playing in the background. Even in some bars I used to hang around in. I believe it’s a plot to annoy me like drivers who talk on their cell phone while driving.

However, there is a small list of songs that even I, a hardened Christmas Grinch, actually like. There is a small handful of tunes that I’ve gathered on a playlist that I believe my old playlist pal Nancy would be proud of. Whenever I can, I slip this onto the stereo vs listening to Mariah Carey caterwauling or James Taylor attempting to lull me into a coma. These songs are by respected rock veterans, and I can actually get through this list of songs without retching.

So, without further adieu, these songs comprise my Xmas Playist for Those Who Hate Christmas Music:

  1. The Kinks, “Father Christmas”, a real rocker that subversively is a complaint about the commercialism surrounding Christmas.
  2. Elvis Presley, “Blue Christmas”, this may be the greatest Christmas song of all time. There is only 1 King in my house and his name is Elvis.
  3. Elvis Presley, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, again, give me Elvis over Bing Crosby or Perry Como any and every day.
  4. John Lennon, “So This Is Christmas (War is Over), yeah I’m a softy for songs about Peace. Who knew I’d feel this way?
  5. Bob Dylan, “Must Be Santa”, this one is just crazy. I laugh every time this comes on and the wife immediately rushes to the stereo to hit the “skip” button.
  6. Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, I was around in the 80’s when this came out and it still hits home with me. It’s about giving to the needy. This seems to encapsulate the real meaning of Christmas, “the giving season”.
  7. Paul McCartney, “Wonderful Christmastime”. John Lennon was on the playlist and it’s always nice to balance him out with some Paul. They’re so yin and yang.
  8. Elton John, “Step Into Christmas”, It’s upbeat and it’s Elton, what’s not to love.
  9. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Deck the Halls”, this one is hard to find, but it’s on the “Out In L.A.” greatest hits compilation. They forget the lyrics half way through the song.
  10. Eddie Vedder & Mike McCready, “Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time), Eddie Vedder could sing names from a phone book with McCready strumming a guitar in the background and I’d still listen.
  11. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Christmas All Over Again”, from the superb “Special Christmas”series.
  12. The Eagles, “Please Come Home For Christmas” b/w “Funky New Year”, the first song all longing, the second song a great song for a hangover. “My hair hurts” is my favorite line in this song. We’ve all been there.
  13. AC/DC, “Mistress For Christmas”, a hard rock Xmas song, who’d have thought?
  14. Bruce Springsteen, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, I still love this song. I had it on a vinyl single from the “Born In the USA” era.
  15. Train, “Shake Up Christmas”, I’m not a huge Train fan, but the wife turned me onto this little ditty. Catchy as hell.
  16. Paul Simon, “Getting Ready For Christmas Day”, love the loop of the old time preacher in the background. Simon sings about a nephew in Afghanistan for Christmas.
  17. Bruce Springsteen, “Merry Christmas Baby”, I first bought this song on a vinyl 12″ single. It was the B-side, the A-side was “Incident on 57th St” which was an outtake from the Live 1975-1985 album. Bootleg? I’m not sure.
  18. U2, “Baby Please Come Home”, is there anything U2 sings that isn’t full on passion?
  19. Lindsay Buckingham, “Holiday Road”, from the movie Christmas Vacation, which we watch every year on Xmas day.
  20. No Doubt, “Oi To the World”, every playlist has to have a weird song on it and this one is it.

Put it on, turn it up and enjoy that egg nog people. Happily I just found out egg nog has bourbon in it.

Cheers!