Boy, Christmas in Los Angeles nearly threw me for a loop.
I didn’t know that people outside cold climates celebrated Christmas until I saw Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Kevin McCallister’s entire posse had decided to go to Florida and hang bobbles on palm trees. This idea perplexed me as I had assumed that people in Florida and Mexico, the only other hot places on the planet, went elsewhere during December.
I grew up in an Episcopal household whose average beliefs rested somewhere left of the center of the political spectrum. I also grew up in a tiny town in the middle of the bible belt. This combination yielded a volatile, twelve year stretch of being pitted against children who hailed from Baptist families that loved their guns, loved their families more, and loved God the most. Everything my classmates learned about religion came from a very literal interpretation of what I suspected was a flawed system even from the very beginning.
My understanding of Christmas never seemed to be as steadfast as my classmate’s. The family of my second grade desk partner, Ty, hosted a holiday themed birthday party at the beginning of every December since kindergarten. That particular year I took Tyler aside to discuss the idea of Floridians celebrating Christmas at home.
“They have palm trees,” I said, “So where does the Christmas tree go? How does Santa find your house if you don’t have a Christmas tree?”
“Our pastor says Christmas is everywhere.”
“Yeah, but what about the places where you don’t have a chimney?”
“Come here, let me show you something.”
He led me down the hallway and pointed to a door.
“Go in there.”
“Is this the bathroom?”
“Just go in.”
I peered through the door and almost had to shield my eyes from the bright, flourescent glow coming from the top of the commode. To this day, it was one of the flashiest and most detailed nativity sets I have ever laid eyes on.
“Christmas is everywhere,” Tyler whispered from behind me, “Even on our toilet.”
Ok, so maybe Florida wasn’t that big of a deal.
During my second grade holiday party, a grown-up suggested that we all turn to the person beside us and tell them something we loved about Christmas. Ty wiped off the frosting head of his snowman cookie and jammed his finger into his mouth, audibly slurping the sugar as he mulled over the things he loved about the holidays. Finally, when he had collected his thoughts, he abruptly turned to me and asked,
“Jas, would you ever sacrifice your sister?”
“… No, I don’t think so.”
“What if God told you to?”
“Alright, alright; but what if Jesus told you to?”
“Jesus is a baby this time of year. He can’t tell me to do anything.”
“Why, would you?”
“If God tells you to do something you have to do it.”
(Ty was later taken out my elementary school when he contracted ecoli from the school lunch meat and found out that he had diabetes in the same week. His parents sent him to a private school where he learned that gay men roam the earth with their fingers permanently fixed in a gun like position so as not to miss any opportunities to violate an unsuspecting victim. He proposed to his now wife under a giant US flag at a mission church set up at the local American Legion. I can only assume that they both share the idea that it’s still socially acceptable to sacrifice their kin on an altar to honor God or to pray for something for something special for Christmas, like a BB gun. I believe they are expecting a baby.)
The constitution says something about the separation of church and state, but I grew up in the South where the constitution means whatever people want it to mean. My second grade Christmas party provided the perfect platform for Mrs. Andrews, my teacher, to preach the injustices of ambiguous holiday tidings.
“Children,” she said, opening up bag after bag of family sized cheese puffs as two parent helpers poured each student drinks from 2 liter bottles of Coca-Cola, “it’s just a shame that some of our school decorations say Xmas.”
I raised my hand.
“Why is the X so bad?”
My sincerity alarmed her. Xmas took a word that was already awesome and made it even more awesome by making it sound as though Jesus came to Earth through hyperspace instead of a virgin. The teacher’s disdainful look, however, spoke volumes. She pursed her lips and said,
“Because the word Christmas would not exist without my personal savior Jesus Christ.”
She scanned the room for understanding. Instead she faced five rows of idle stares.
“Christ,” she repeated. Then, almost rolling her eyes, said, “Jesus. Christmas. Kriste-mas.”
“Oooh,” came a murmur from the back of the classroom.
“Understand now? You can’t have Christmas without Christ. And don’t tell me Happy Holidays unless you want a frownie face on your next quiz. That’s a cop-out.”
“I’m going to start saying Merry Christ-mas,” Tyler said proudly.
“No, no. You can’t say Christ-mas because that just sounds weird. Say Christmas like a normal person. Just know that Jesus is in there.”
As a child, you never exactly understand the idea of the “spirit” of Christmas. Most small children have a memory span like that of a goldfish until they turn three. Christmas becomes about how fun you can make it for the small children until, one day, those children aren’t so small anymore. They are ousted from their positions and Christmas becomes about teaching them to give. I remember the year that Mom showed my sister and I an ad for vitamin E eye-pellets from the Elizabeth Arden counter at Macy’s. I was nine and she was twelve.
“Get these for me,” she said, “Or I’m going to be really upset.”
We pooled our money and made it a joint gift. I would give anything to be the lady behind the counter who saw my chubby little child hand slide a crinkled piece of paper onto the counter with a wad of cash and change and say,
“Is this enough to get the eye pills in the picture?”
I don’t remember exactly which year that it happened, but at some point I transitioned from a child who bitched about receiving socks under the Christmas tree to an adolescent who sought acceptance through giving gifts to others and therefore to an adult that derived pleasure through giving things to others. I remember the first year that I realized I wanted to actually give gifts. I had about twenty dollars. The popular girls would hand out little gift baggies filled with miniature hair brushes and travel size bottles of Bath&Bodyworks lotion to those who they deemed worthy. Unable to afford to give such lavish gift bags to the amount of people I wanted to hang out with, I decided to do the next best thing and spent my twenty dollars on a kit that promised to make me a culinary genius. I learned how to make fudge.
I made so much fudge.
I made fudge for the teachers. I made fudge for the janitors. I made so many little bags of fudge that I had to take a separate bag to school to fit it all. I strode through the doors of my middle school and into my seventh grade class with tons of fudge. Most of the guys took it and ate it up, exclaiming how good it was. I figured that these awesome edible gifts would win me a coveted spot at the best lunch table in the cafeteria, but most of the girls awkwardly accepted the fudge and said,
“Oh… um. Your gift is at my house. I forgot it. Sorry!”
Three days later, one of the girls I gifted the fudge to approached me in home room with a small baggie.
“This is for you,” she said. It had a miniature hairbrush and a small bottle of scented hand sanitizer. I didn’t get to sit with her or her friends at lunch, but given the lack of response whatsoever from anyone else, I felt more that willing to call it a victory.
The next year I decided to make bath salts. The idea seemed novel, but the execution killed my plan before I even finished. My mother had walked into the makeshift bathroom-laboratory to discover food coloring had stained my fingertips and shoddy clumbs of salt littered the bathroom floor.
“What in the hell are you doing?” she asked, rubbing her temples.
“Making Christmas gifts.”
“With table salt? Jas, you can’t give people Morton’s and food coloring in a plastic bag.”
She thought about this.
“… Good question. If you don’t know the difference then they probably won’t, either.”
I had an off again, on again relationship with Christmas through the years and have since grown into more of a “Happy Holidays!” kind of person. I would eventually find my place among a circle of friends that still remains very important to me. I’d eventually learn how much better it felt to not worry so much about the gifts. My siblings would eventually procreate and I would discover the fun in having small children around at Christmas time who viewed the holiday with that fresh faced newness that I once did.
In a city where I have more aquaintances than I know what to do with and only a handful of people that I feel I can legitimately meet up with for deep rooted and social reasons, I find holiday comfort in knowing that I can go home to a family that is stoked to have me there and reminisce about the bizarre memories of the Christmases spent growing up in the country.
So I came home to Georgia.
Happy Holidays, tricksters.
* All that aside, there is one good thing about the holiday season in Los Angeles. I experienced this while walking down Melrose on my way back from a showcase. Prepare yourselves; it gets amazing at :36.
*Note: this is not the actual Los Angeles Party Bus to Hannukah. But it’s close.