This Christmas thing … I’m lost.
And I lose.
It’s not that I don’t understand Christmas. On an intellectual level, Christmas is clear as a bell. I understand its religious significance; I can relate to its meaning as a winter celebration, compared and contrasted to a number of other winter celebrations past and present. I certainly comprehend Christmas as a commercial event.
I just can’t get in the groove. I can’t catch that oft-noted “Christmas spirit.” I am out of touch with the vibe of the time.
Take, for example, Christmas trees. Can’t stand ’em. I’m aware of the symbolism; I get the connection with Germanic and Nordic myth. I know all about the appropriation of emblems, an ascendant cultural/religious movement taking over key elements of another culture in decline.
I just don’t want a tree in the front room. I don’t connect with the thing.
The best I can say about a Christmas tree is that it’s a fire hazard.
My attitude slides downhill from there.
Gift giving? OK, it’s a nice thing to do, but it is all too easy to let the activity careen out of control, for credit cards to be swiped so often and so fast you smell burning plastic.
As you can imagine, I am not a whole lot of fun — any time, actually, but definitely not during the Christmas season.
Two things invariably occur midwinter that deepen my sour demeanor.
First, I come home to find a Christmas tree. Year after year. Despite my constant protests, my persistent expressions of disdain, my invocations of less-than-sincere religious doubt about the item (idols and whatnot), come the second week of December, there’s the tree.
The second thing: gift pressure.
I am unable to deal with either.
This year, Phase 1 occurs Dec. 19. I park the truck in the garage and turn to enter the house. Next to the door — the tree.
Kathy is thrilled. I am considerably less than thrilled but I have, finally, learned my lesson. This year, I note the tree is a fire hazard only three or four times, and I make a big show of testing its needles a similar number of times. Restrained as I am, my actions nonetheless produce the desired reaction: Kathy asks me to leave the room. I go downstairs.
Kathy, meanwhile, saws the bottom end of the tree to allow for uptake of water, confident a dead tree is going to spring back to life. She puts the corpse in a rickety stand, fills the basin of the stand with vital fluids and gets to the job of decorating the beast.
An hour after my banishment, in the interest of peace, I creep upstairs and sit in the front room as Kathy fiddles with the tree. She has a CD of cheesy Christmas music playing. The disc is dirty or scratched so it skips constantly, which actually make the music more palatable. It sounds like rudimentary hip hop.
Finally, she does it. I know its coming. I’ve deliberately put myself in the crosshairs; I’ve done this for her.
“Here,” she says, “ extending her hand, a syrupy “oooh, we’re doing this together” look on her mug. She holds out an ornament, a glass facsimile of an icicle. “Hang this on the tree.”
It is a test. She delights in testing me.
After several decades of self-absorbed dumbassedness, I have finally learned to ask myself: “Is it really worth all the trouble to make a point here, Karl? Is it such a big deal, huh?”
No, it is not. I hang the little ornament on the tree.
Should be enough, eh?
“Here’s another one, sweetie.”
I am locked in. She is ecstatic. It’s family time; I halfway expect her to whip up some hot chocolate and break out a tray of cookies.
I end up teetering precariously on a dining room chair, affixing a feeble star to the topmost part of the tree. Kathy stands below, hands clasped, a sappy look on her face.
Phase two: Gifts. This year, I think I have the upper hand when what I actually have is a folksy and pathetic example of the classic philosophical problem of appearance versus reality.
“Honey, times are tough everywhere, money is tight. I think we need to put the clamp on spending this year.”
Something in the tone of her voice tells me she is not in sync with my suggestion.
“No, really, we need to draw a line, stay with a plan.”
“I propose we hold it to twenty-five dollars for gifts for the two of us — maybe even call it a day with a nice dinner at a restaurant. After, all, what do we need? Stretch the limit to thirty-five or so for Aurora Borealis, Ivy and Jon, and our granddaughter, Forest.”
“So, you agree?”
“Did you say something?”
So much for having the upper hand. But, against my better judgment, I hope against hope that she has absorbed some of the message. I figure I’ll get her a scarf and a new teacup.
I can be so very, very wrong so very, very often.
The next day, the catalogs appear— on the dining room table, on side tables, on the kitchen counter, next to the bathroom sinks, on the bed.
Catalogs … with brightly-colored sticky notes on pages. The notes protrude from the edges of the catalogs like teeny, high-chroma wings. On each little wing, a message.
“Rori, beige or taupe.”
“Ivy, for the baby’s room.”
“Kathy, red or green, long sleeves.” “ For Kathy’s indoor garden project.” “New waffle iron for Kathy.” “Sewing machines, on sale, for Kathy.”
I begin to get the impression she is not fully sold on my cut-the-cost-plan.
I am beaten again!
But, all is not lost. Going back to my take on the holiday, I find something to look forward to. What emerges with great meaning, for me? What do I anticipate with glee?
Let’s see: Do you think it might be …food?
I was raised in a very secular atmosphere, so Christmas was a chance to greed up as many gifts as possible and an occasion to scarf as much great holiday food as possible. And, there’s plenty of traditional holiday foods out there this time of year. You name it, you can find it. And you can eat it. There’s probably even a Muslim winter fete that keeps the halal butcher shops open extra hours. There are many great foods associated with the holidays, and we should indulge them when we can.
If I think back, there was one event involving holiday foods I anticipated as much or more than any other, for a bunch of reasons. My father’s family took great pride in emphasizing the one-quarter of their heritage that was Swedish, largely ignoring the three-quarters of the heritage that made its way to the states in a blind panic from Germany and parts east.
Every Christmas Eve, it was off to Uncle Bud’s place for a “Swedish” Christmas Eve buffet.
It was great, the Swedish pretense lifting the delusion to the level of high art. Uncle Bud even painted Swedish holiday phrases on the windows next to his front door: Valkommen, God Jul, Ett Gott Nytt År.
I had to endure Bud’s family band — the cousins armed with musical instruments they could barely play (although my cousin, Cheri, turned out to be an accomplished, orchestral violist). And, there was a pack of nasty Chows that, finding their way to freedom from their prison in the basement, would attack my cousin Clifford and shred him and his special Swedish Christmas vest.
But, I endured the preliminaries in order to enjoy the buffet: korv, lefse, herring, meatballs, all manner of charcuterie and cheeses. The offerings were many, but one stood out to a certain gap-toothed, incredibly myopic “husky” guy: the scallop casserole.
I would call myself a Swede any day for a chance to dig into that casserole.
It is the simplest concoction imaginable: bay scallops, or larger scallops cut into bay-size pieces, salt, pepper, cream, bread crumbs and, in some cases, the most humble of ingredients — cracker crumbs.
Basically, the dish is scallop-perfumed cream, with stuff added to bind the two together.
What else do you need?
There are plenty of variations on the theme. You can find recipes that use mayonnaise and sour cream, that add shallots and mushrooms. I found one that uses Cheez Whiz.
Ignore all but the stripped-down model.
Get yourself a pound of bay scallops. Buy frozen scallops and thaw them under cold running water — these are better than the “fresh” scallops you find here in Siberia With a View.
You’ll need 3/4 cup bread crumbs, 1/4 cup crushed crackers (use Ritz crackers), 1/4-1/2 cup of cold butter, a cup of cream or half and half, a touch of salt and some pepper. I recommend full-race cream, oblivious as I am to imminent heart attacks and the like.
Butter a shallow casserole, line the bottom with the scallops (make sure they are dry), mix nuggets of cold butter with the breadcrumbs and crushed crackers, salt and pepper and put the crumb mix on the scallops. Pour the cream over the top of the crumbs and scallops and bake for 40 minutes or so at 350.
This is a swell dish to make for that holiday buffet (absent the Swedish sayings on the front window), for an appetizer at a special dinner, for a snack if you just happen to be at home alone and need to stoke the fires of memory.
Give it a try.
In the meantime, does anyone smell burning plastic?