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December 6, 2010

Helen Simonson: The Rituals of Christmas

Posted by Anonymous
HelenSimonson.jpgHelen Simonson --- whose brilliant debut, MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND, took the bestseller lists by storm last spring --- reflects on the irrationality and excesses of holiday rituals…and the magic of experiencing them year after year.
Christmas is such a call to ritual, to nostalgia, to faith and family, that to write about it is to risk being sucked into the well-worn paths of cliché and sentimentality. A response I once received to a blog post called this kind of writing “lyrical drivelizing.” It’s not a real word, but it was a good point.
I have long been a slave to Christmas ritual. As a writer, I adore the repetition of family traditions, the retelling of old stories, the passing back and forth of the gag gift --- in my husband’s family, this is an old LP called Stories for Quiet Listening. I love the great stories of the season –-- from Good King Wenceslas striding out in the snow to feed the poor, to Ebenezer Scrooge buying the big turkey in the butcher’s window. My teenage sons groan as I insist that we watch every version of Scrooge available on the TV –-- and this year we get an animated Jim Carey version, too! I begin my personal ritual with Miracle on 34th Street at Thanksgiving and insist on champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Every second year or so, we go to England for Christmas, and the expectations of the season are intensified by our flying in from over 3,000 miles away. I know my mother is already hurrying around the village, buying an extra large turkey, arranging a surprise Christmas tree for our holiday cottage rental, and lecturing my grown nephews on proper attire for Christmas with the American branch of the family. I bring unsuitably urban gifts wrapped in expensive, dull wrapping paper. They try to find us huge gifts (one year a six-foot-long shove-ha’penny board made of oak) so they can laugh at our attempts to carry them home on the plane. There are extra puddings, extra biscuit tins, extra beef roasts cooling on a window –-- because although we are family, our distance ratchets up the pressure on all of us to make everything perfect. 
As another Christmas approaches, I am fascinated by the idea that the more intense the rituals are, the more we may be hurt when we cannot fulfill them. My family in the UK misses us terribly those years we do not come, and my husband’s family misses us when we do go. I once worked on Boxing Day (which is not even a holiday in the US) and spent most of the day unaccountably crying in the ladies’ room. Every year we inch closer to the rationality of an artificial tree, but end up with a real one…which we forget to water. Every year, I’m thankful I gave up writing Christmas cards, but feel guilty when people send one to me. And I feel worse in January when I throw out the cards, along with all those photos of other people’s children. 
This year, I feel an urge towards restraint and rationality. I’d like to call for adaptation, for simplicity and an end to the heavy emotional pressure of some traditions. However, when I had the chance to put this into effect --- and to save many hundreds of dollars by flying to England one day later than planned on Christmas Eve --- I’m sorry to report that rationality had not a snowball’s chance. I have to be in my English cottage on Christmas Eve: I always have the entire family over for hors d’oeuvres and champagne. So merry Christmas, and pass the humbugs!

Check back in tomorrow and see what Katherine Howe has to say about Christmas…and how to avoid caving under the pressure of being a lady.