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Getting Their Donder Up

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

THE WORST NOEL

Hellish Holiday Tales

HarperCollins. 207 pp. $14.95

The holiday now bearing down upon us is, at its best, an utter joy: a celebration of faith, family and friendship, replete with everything from gifts to feasts to carols to grand festivities. But every silver lining must have its cloud. It's difficult to imagine that anyone who celebrates the holiday hasn't had a lousy Christmas at one time or another and, of course, those who do not celebrate it sometimes find themselves in odd, often uncomfortable circumstances when the rest of the country goes bonkers over it.

Sometimes Christmas turns sour because hopes or expectations aren't met. This may be especially true for people in their mid-teens, existing as they do on the fine line between childhood and adulthood; I remember all too well when, at 14 or 15, I found under the tree not new cars for my model railroad set but . . . a suitcase. Sometimes it turns lousy because you turn lousy; like one of the contributors to "The Worst Noel," I spent Christmas a few years back with a ghastly case of the heaves. Sometimes it's because you're where you don't want to be -- at your in-laws' house a thousand miles away, after a hellish trek through two airports and endless security backups -- or with whom you don't want to be: This is the Christmas that Uncle Fred and Aunt Marge finally decided to descend upon you, with their three Great Danes.

It is with these occasions in mind that someone has persuaded a dozen and a half people to contribute their "hellish holiday" memories to "The Worst Noel"; oddly, no editor is identified and no introduction puts the whole enterprise into any context. With a couple of exceptions (Louis Bayard and Ann Patchett), the contributors are writers about whom I know little or nothing, and in some cases it's a little difficult to figure out why they were chosen. But about a half-dozen of the pieces are amusing and/or revealing, which is about par for the course in collections such as this one.

Take, for starters, Patchett's "Birthdays." She begins with a variation on Tolstoy -- "Happy Christmases are all alike; every unhappy Christmas is unhappy in its own way" -- and then segues into an account of what Christmas can be like when one parent is half a continent away and the other parent (the one you live with) is married to someone for whom Christmas is a private and extremely personal nightmare, with the result that it turns into the same for everyone else in the household:

"The lion's share of the blame for this must rest on the shoulders of my stepfather, a good man who probably could not help but ruin the holidays for the rest of us because he himself had endured Christmases so biblically dreadful that he knew no other way. The [linchpin] of this entire story lies in the fact that my stepfather shared a birthday with the baby Jesus, and so spent his entire childhood without a birthday present or a birthday party or even a nice birthday wish from his mother. Every Christmas wreath and stocking and package wrapped in reindeer-covered paper dredged up the whole horrible memory for him again, so that by Christmas morning he was nothing but a blur of grief. There was always a good bit of weeping beneath the tree in Tennessee."

As is often true of people who find Christmas difficult, Patchett devised a survival strategy, but it didn't come easily. Christmas raises huge expectations and thus contains huge possibilities for disappointment, frustration and occasionally anger. For American Jews, this is especially true. Some, like Amy Krouse Rosenthal, roll with the punches: "As a Jewish adult living in a Christian world, I find that most people generally assume everyone celebrates Christmas. And that's okay. We get to wade in some of the joy and jingle without having to do any of the heavy lifting." Others, like Binnie Kirshenbaum, disregard the holiday's religious origins and go for the fun of it all:

"Some things to know: Yes, I am Jewish, and therefore it is fair to say that I have no business celebrating Christmas in the first place, but my mother's counter to that comment was always 'We celebrate Thanksgiving and we're not Pilgrims.' And, as is often the way with converts and infidels, we celebrated Christmas with all the hoopla as if we were to the manger born. True, there was no mention, or display, of this being a religious holiday. It was about Santa Claus and elves and stockings hung by the fireplace and good cheer and a big dinner and sugar cookies and gifts, gifts, and more gifts."

Kirshenbaum then tells how, on her "first Christmas in my own apartment in New York," living on a shoestring, she bought her boyfriend, Michael, a handsome leather jacket on a layaway plan. On Christmas Eve he rejected it and then presented her with his own, equally unwanted and unwelcome, gift: an iron. He stomped out. She thought it was the right time to have a good cry, but she didn't feel like it: "I'm in my own apartment in New York and my life is before me and anything can happen and the trees look as if they are made from glass and this is so . . . great" -- and, by the way, good riddance, Michael.

Louis Bayard's dreadful Christmas descended on him at that most vulnerable time, the beginning of his 16th year. Living in Northern Virginia, encouraged by the self-help guru to believe that Christmas is for the "children in all of us!," he went to Springfield Mall and volunteered to serve as Rudy the Reindeer, the mall's gesture toward the children dragged there by their parents. His interview, with a dour gentleman "who had likely tortured Viet Cong," turned into a gaffe from first question to last, an experience from which Bayard draws an amusing but far from inappropriate conclusion.

So it goes. Valerie Frankel, another whose Jewish family celebrated "the secular aspects" of Christmas, decided to spend it at what turned out to be an uncompleted ski lodge in Maine; everything went wrong from then on out. Mike Albo was given a chance to spend Christmas in Paris "with a totally hot guy," but the hot guy turned out to have eyes for another guy, leaving Albo in the lurch, miserable and mad. Roger Director, visiting the family of a college friend, found himself rooming with a world-champion snorer:

"I decided not to recoil from James's snoring, but to welcome it, accept it, treat it like part of the environment. I mentally catalogued his fascinating assortment of snores. A series of harsh, booming exhales, sort of like surfacing whales clearing their blowholes. Punctuated by raspy bleats like a bugler's call to charge. Then a long, excruciating tearing wail that sounded like a torso being fed through a mill saw."

Not exactly the sound of Santa sliding down the chimney, but a useful reminder that the sounds of Christmas take many forms, not all of them carols or shopping-mall Muzak. Merry Christmas to you, too.

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