By Steve Hendrix
Thursday, November 27, 2008
The first thing I did when I ran Christmas was cancel the cookie-baking party.
Some fathers may decide otherwise, based on their individual home holiday needs, but I think most will find my logic unassailable: There are high-quality store-bought cookies to be had at reasonable prices throughout the holiday season. Their forms, unlike certain homemade efforts, are die-cast perfect, with bell-shaped bells and ideal triangular trees. They all taste exactly the same. They are never burned.
Why, then, add to the stress of the holidays by filling the kitchen with messy mixing bowls and messier neighbor children, just to create tray after tray of vaguely Santa-shaped blobs of smoking sugar?
No reason at all, as I pointed out to the children, explaining how our new streamlined Christmas would feature, among other improvements, more cookies with less effort.
Oh, they howled a bit. "Mommy always has the cookie party; Mommy always lets us add twice the chocolate chips; Mommy always laughs when we cover the dog in flour handprints."
Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.
Well kids, Mommy is not in charge of Christmas this year.
It was only October, but those two magazine editors were just full of holiday mirth when they told me their hilarious idea. They were both women, both mothers, and both thought it would just be a stitch to have a father in charge of Christmas!
The Two Magazine Editors just laughed and laughed.
Imagine! they said. A father! Have you ever?
Well, yes, I have. As a matter fact, I pretty much run Christmas in my house. Oh, my wife, Ann, is a help, of course. Christmas would be much more difficult without her. But I do all the really crucial parts, many of which require the use of hand tools.
I'm the one who hangs the lights along the front of the house each year (or, if I've efficiently left them up from the year before, I'm the one who plugs them back in).
Two weekends before the big day, I'm the one who marches the kids to the Takoma Park Volunteer Fire Department a few blocks from our house, where I bungee cord a Fraser fir onto our red Radio Flyer wagon and pull it home, trim the end (with a very sharp handsaw) and then screw it into the tree stand. Using pliers.
Needless to say, I'm in charge of stringing the lights on the tree and managing the three-pronged plug.
But I'm more than just a holiday handyman. On Dec. 24, I'm the one who throws the shrimp, corn, sausage and beer into the big stockpot for our traditional Christmas Eve shrimp boil. Prep time: 9 mins.
Voila! Another perfect Christmas, produced year after year for the pleasure of my family. I don't begrudge a minute of it, but, boy, am I exhausted when it's finally over.
The Two Magazine Editors looked at each other. That's it? they said. That's what you do for Christmas each year?
Well, if there is any grilling or fire lighting, I do that, too, I said.
What about the presents? they asked. What about the Christmas cards? What about the shopping, the decorating, the planning, the entertaining, the wrapping, the shipping, the baking?
Oh, I said, pondering those Christmas extras. I guess that's the part Ann takes care of.
If you've ever seen the faces of two detectives just as they finally capture a serial killer in the gruesome act, you've basically seen the faces of two female magazine editors who have confirmed their worst suspicions of male lameness. The expressions of appalled triumph are essentially identical.
In that case, the Two Magazine Editors said patiently, why don't you go home and ask Ann what she would think of you doing ev-erything for Christmas? Everything, they repeated, even her "part."
So I did. I went home and repeated their proposal to Ann.
And she laughed.
She laughed and laughed. She laughed just like the Two Magazine Editors did.
"You?" she said finally. "Do Christmas??"
I was beginning to detect a general misapprehension by women about one of Christendom's signature holidays. To us men, it's clear that Christmas is primarily a male happening. For one thing, all the principals are men: Jesus, George Bailey, Yukon Cornelius. And, of course, Mr. December himself. What could be more manly than a hotshot pilot with a beer belly and a beard who runs a billion-dollar enterprise by day and tomcats around all night? I have long suspected that Santa spends much of the off-season on a Harley somewhere.
Christmas is obviously built of man stuff: lumberjacking, electrical engineering, bicycle assembly and just-in-time cargo logistics. Remember, when what Jesus needed most was frankincense and myrrh, it wasn't the Three Wise Persons-of-Gender who showed up with the goods. It was the Three Wise . . . well, you get it.
Heck, what is Christmas but history's longest-running boy's birthday party? Basically, it's a 2,000-year-old Chuck E. Cheese bash, with caroling.
Go ahead, name a major female Christmas figure. A big shout out to Mary, of course, and the virgin birth that still gets us all a week off each December. But once you've tipped your cap to the Mother of Christ, Mrs. Claus and Little Cindy Lou Who, you've pretty much exhausted the Christmas Female Hall of Fame.
And yet, women still lay their own claim to the holiday, one that seems to do with presents, cards and baked goods.
"Fine," I said to Ann. "I'll do all that, too. I'll do everything this year."
And she said, "Deal."
My initial response to being appointed Holiday Czar was to do . . . nothing. I've always opposed Christmas creep, the insidious expansion of the holidays ever backward into the calendar. Merchants may unroll the tinsel the morning after Halloween, but in my castle there would be no mention of the C-word before Dec. 1. No planning, no prep work, no premature playings of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." To every DVD, there is a season.
Ann presumed to protest. "You have no idea how much there is to do," she said when I announced my November embargo. "For the Hawaii and Georgia cousins alone, you've got to order the presents at least a month early if you want to receive them, wrap them and get them off in time."
Cousins? I wondered to myself. Mail?
"Have you organized the Secret Santa with the Delaware in-laws yet?" she went on. "Have you ordered the cards? Have you got a picture of the kids? Do you need to take a new one? Believe me, it all takes longer than you . . ."
I held up a hand.
"Christmas occurs in the fourth week of December," said I. "If I need any further advice, I will seek it when the month in question has begun."
And peace did reign for another two weeks. Actually, what with one thing and another, it was really more like Dec. 10 before I actually, like, did anything. That was when I asked Ann where we kept the Christmas decorations.
"We're going to be shamed and shunned," predicted Isabel, 11, as she watched me assemble the family creche. The creche, which we've been collecting piecemeal for years, is the hub of our holiday decor. It sprawls across a good square yard of tabletop and features four Baby Jesuses, several Marys, including a Nicaraguan one who looks like Carmen Miranda, and a lot of animals that are too-often neglected in the traditional telling of the miracle, such as a brass tyrannosaur from New Mexico and a menacing silver frog from Vietnam. My favorite part is a resin-cast set of characters from the TV classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," complete with furry white Abominable Snowmonster.
"You can't put the dentist elf next to Joseph," Isabel protested. "And does everything have to be in such straight lines? It looks like an army from the 'Lord of the Rings.' "
Since Christmas is really about the children, I relented, relegating Hermey to the outskirts of the scene and generally relaxing the adoring ranks. But I did insist on having the Snowmonster hold the star over the manger.
Isabel wasn't taking the change in Christmas regimes well. Her sister, Tyrie, 8, was more easily reassured, once she learned that a) she'd still be seeing her grandmother on Christmas day and b) the new order would not mean any slackening in the Christmas morning gift haul. In fact, she was pretty firmly in my camp as soon I told her she might actually get to select -- and even wrap! -- her own gifts this year. (That was one of the division-of-labor initiatives I was working on.)
And 2-year-old Harry was easily mollified with the robust supply of store-bought cookies I was bringing home.
But Isabel, as the oldest female-in-training, was convinced I was going to make a hash of the whole holiday. More than once in the early days of the month, I disturbed Isabel and her mother in furtive consultation. I overheard "garland" and "postage" and other mutinous whisperings.
Their biggest preoccupation was the sheaf of address lists and boxes of leftover cards that I continued to ignore each day, even as they mysteriously appeared in increasingly conspicuous places. On Dec. 15, I found them in my sock drawer.
"I'm thinking of doing an Evite for the cards this year," I announced casually at breakfast that morning. "Do you have an e-mail address for Grandma Wyllowdean?"
Fathers, when you're planning your holiday, you should know in advance how much importance women put on the sending and receiving of Christmas cards. Forget the telephone, e-mail and every other advance in communication since the Pony Express. To the average mother, the entire social construct hangs on a once-a-year exchange of cardboard with best friends from third grade, long-ago piano teachers and cousins so far out on the family tree that they might be another branch of primates all together. And all the better if the missive includes a recent photo of the offspring (bonus points for one taken at a ski resort) and a whitewashed summary of the year's family news.
Ann sends cards to former work colleagues, fifth cousins she has never actually met and a woman she knew for two weeks in a Peace Corps training course. To the women I know, holiday cards are a way to stay connected with the outermost orbits of their social solar system. To the men they've married, cards are a way for, well, women to stay connected with the outermost orbits of their social solar systems and then pass on the two or three juiciest divorce stories.
"We are sending cards," Ann said flatly. "You agreed to do everything. That definitely includes Christmas cards."
A good Father Christmas has to pick his battles, and I could see that the card tradition would be harder to nix than the cookie party. And so I invented the Christmas card phone bank.
Later that day, I laid out three phones (our two house lines and a cell) and divided Ann's card list into three piles.
We started with my stepmother in Alabama, a kindly and patient woman. I dialed the number and passed the phone to Tyrie and Isabel in turn, who each chatted about the latest news. As Isabel wound down, I mouthed a reminder to her, "Tell her this is our Christmas card."
But she just said, "Okay, Grandma Wyllowdean, bye-bye. Love you."
Okay. I suggested writing out a script: "Well [NAME], it's been another great year for our family. We hope this holiest and happiest of seasons finds you equally healthy and prosperous. Here's wishing you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Steve, Ann, Isabel, Tyrie and Harry. Please note that this Season's Greetings Phone Call will serve as our official holiday communication."
But Isabel flatly refused the part. So did Tyrie. Ann wouldn't even sit down.
Harry said: "Cookie?"
It was a family-wide job action. I was forced to abandon the most groundbreaking holiday innovation since spray-on snow in favor of the 19th-century model: about 100 cards, all of which had to be signed and stuffed into 100 envelopes, all of which had to be addressed by hand.
I decided to let the children play a role in this stirring family ritual. It took Tyrie and Isabel five days, including after school and evenings, to address the envelopes. Then we all sat down for a signing blitz. I had planned to make each card identical, so we could put any card into any envelope, the way banks and doctors' offices do. But in direct defiance of my signatures-only dictate, Ann scribbled madly to personalize each one, so we had to match card to address. Or rather, Isabel and Tyrie did.
When they finally sealed the last envelope, I patted the impressive stack with satisfaction, turned to Ann and said, "Do we have any stamps?"
I got the cards mailed on the 21st (I lost another day by forgetting them in the back seat of my car), which Ann said "barely" counted as on time and was nearly a week later than her own worst performance. I'm pretty sure several of her personal notes made it clear who it was in charge of cards this year.
But at least they were done! Which was good, because I needed the time to tackle some other Christmas to-dos, such as buying the presents.
Here's how Ann shops for gifts each year: In October, when the catalogs start arriving, she has the kids circle things and make preliminary lists. By the middle of November, she's got the major items identified and sometimes even ordered. It's not unusual for some of the closets in our house to go off-limits before Thanksgiving.
This is on top of the "present box" she maintains in a secret corner of the basement, which she fills ALL YEAR LONG as she comes across good gifts. In my house, when we remember a neighbor child's birthday party at the last minute, my solution would be to wrap up the least dog-hair-encrusted Fisher Price product from under the couch. Ann's is to dip downstairs and reappear 30 seconds later with a brand-new Baby Einstein puzzle.
As December approaches, she's also working a crazy extended family gift-exchange matrix, which involves six brothers, sisters and spouses-in-law, 14 nieces and nephews, and about 3,500 possible configurations of who gets what for whom. It's all sorted out by some secret female council, and each grown-up ends up matched with another, while the children and grandparents get gifts from everybody. For three weeks, our spare bedroom looks like a UPS service center.
That's how Ann does presents. Here's how I do them: Borders Gift Cards.
"You are not giving gift certificates to all of our family," said Ann, putting her foot down. My tenure as Father Christmas was providing a good workout for Ann's foot. "Is that what we're going to give our children, too?"
Of course not. For them I was thinking of Harry & David fruit and salami baskets.
"The deluxe ones," I explained. "With the individual foil-wrapped pears."
This time, presumably to distribute the wear and tear, she put her other foot down. She might as well have been on a Stairmaster.
Because I was obviously going to be making some actual material purchases, I cast back for some positive Shopper Dad role models. My own father took care of buying for his grandkids by giving me -- well, Ann -- his Visa number each year and telling us to go hog wild (up to a certain per-child limit that varied each year with the stock market). My father-in-law was more hands-on. Each year, he would find one promising item and buy eight of them for each of his children and their spouses. One year, we all got identical green rain parkas featuring a map of Bermuda on the lining. Another, it was million-candlepower portable spotlights.
I briefly considered reviving my grandfather's time-tested approach to gift-giving. But I decided the Nintendo generation wouldn't appreciate a ruffle of the hair and a quarter for some hard candy.
And so, with the overnight shipping deadline drawing dangerously near, I humbly asked Ann to accompany me to a place I hadn't visited in December since I was a teenager: a mall.
Before this, my most common experience with present-buying for children was in airport gift shops and typically lasted no longer than your average final boarding call. Those were Zen tea ceremonies compared to Prince George's Plaza the week before Christmas.
"Do I even know all of these children?" I asked, scanning the endless list of vaguely familiar nieces and nephews. "I can certainly think of a great present for their parents, if they gift-wrap birth control prescriptions."
Ann left the final decisions to me, but her advice became more pointed as the day wore on. Doug is a college senior; he doesn't want a Spider-Man lunchbox. Sammy's mother won't let him have an electric drill. It would cost too much to mail a bowling ball to California.
"How about these?" she said finally, rapidly holding up a baseball mitt for a certain nephew, a bat for a niece. "Fine," I said, to one after another. "Fine. Fine. Oh, that's perfect. Fine. Which one is Emily?"
We had almost filled two carts before I pulled a shopping muscle and begged for the checkout line. But we, I mean I, was done.
Next, the presents were wrapped and mailed.
[Note to the Two Magazine Editors: I know I agreed to do it all. But if Ann hadn't intervened in the wrapping and mailing, we faced Total Holiday System Failure. When the calendar hit Dec. 20, and I still hadn't taken the packages out of the trunk, Ann invoked an Emergency Intervention Clause that only she knew about. Turns out, she viewed my Christmas authority as a kind of student pilot arrangement and reserved the right to grab the controls if I was about to fly our good family name into a cliff. I'm sorry. There's just a limit to how much one person can do. A male person, at any rate.]
Otherwise, I was still the Man, and I was careening to a grand finale.
By the 24th, the tree was up and decorated. At least half of the flat surfaces in our house featured a candle, candy cane or sprig of Fraser fir. I had even kept our social lives at a fine holiday pitch through another innovation of mine: Accept every invitation; offer none. (Ann insisted we save at least a bit of face by having some folks over for our Christmas Eve shrimp boil.)
My own family's gifts were well in hand. Since buying a present for Ann is usually pretty much the only one I'm responsible for, I have a good system in place for that one. (Amazon.com. One-day shipping.)
And for the kids, well, Santa brings those presents, of course. And, as always, Santa would do just fine. (Although I happen to know he blew his cool, well after midnight, with the assembly instructions for a ridiculously complex foosball table, which were apparently written by dyslexic Chinese elves.)
Still, it was a triumphant Father Christmas who finally climbed into bed a few hours before dawn on the big day. The shrimp shells were settled in for their long winter's compost, and all my holiday labors were about to bear fruit in the usual berserker morning of box-shaking and paper-ripping.
I had done it. In my time at the helm, I felt I had gotten much closer to the real meaning of Christmas, which is, basically, that my wife is a lot better at it than I am.
Ann stirred as I got into bed.
"Is everything ready?" she murmured. "Did you finish the stockings?"
Steve Hendrix is a reporter for The Post's Metro section. He last wrote for the Magazine about serving as a judge for a national barbecue contest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.