My kids cannot completely comprehend how much different the people they call “Grandma” and “Grandpa” are than the people I call “Mom” and “Dad”; but before I can adequately describe how different the Christmas experience is for my children as compared to that of mine, it is important for me to describe to you the psychological torture that is a Lance Christmas (heretofore known as Lancemastm).
Obtaining the Tree
There was no such thing as a parking-lot tree for the Lance’s. Instead, we would bundle up and go looking for a tree in the woods. As a child it never really occurred to me, but I’m reasonably confident now that such forays almost had to be illegal…at least I don’t recall cash changing hands for the privilege of trudging through knee-deep-on-a-child snow in the Central New York winter to find the perfect tree…and I do mean perfect. No tree was precisely right. This is too short, that is too tall, long-needled pines were preferred over those with short, well balanced was a necessity, full branches dense with needles obviously, and of course an arrow-straight trunk. Mind you, this wasn’t something we dreaded; as testimony to how short our memories were, each year we were giddy to go our tree and started anew the transition from excitement to exhaustion to misery.
Decorating the Tree
Of course, once we’ve dragged home the perfect tree, trimmed it up properly, and stood it PERFECTLY LEVEL in the living room (a process that is not without it’s own nightmarish stories) it is, of course, time to decorate the tree. There is a process involved in hanging ornaments from the tree that is so intricate—so complex—so beyond mortal comprehension—that even 25 years of devoted instruction couldn’t yield unto us its secrets.
It begins with the tree topper; of which we always had two. An angel from my father’s youth and a star. Never once, in 31 Christmases, has that star made it to the top of the tree. Not once. It’s not that we didn’t LIKE the angel, but my brother and I desperately wanted nothing more than to see the fucking star atop the fucking tree just ONE DAMNED TIME!1
Next up is the ornamentation, which would seem to be a fairly simple, straight-forward process. Of course, if you thought that, you would be a complete idiot. There is a method, and it goes a little something like this:
Store-bought ornaments go on last, aside from those given as gifts…or those that have meaning…or those that aren’t generic…or those that are otherwise special. All ornaments are to be hung in a balanced manner around the tree. That means no ornaments too near one another, and certainly no similar ornaments near one another. What constitutes similarity between ornaments? It can’t be described to you, but I will assure you that when you get it wrong, you’ll be made aware. Obviously transparent or translucent ornaments should be hung in front of a light (save for where it would violate the “ornaments too near one another” rule), ornaments should be hung ALL THE WAY around the tree (but the “good” ones will be hung up front [unless it violates the aforementioned “ornaments too near one another” rule]). Oh, and don’t break one. Just don’t.
After the tears have been dried and the fights have been ended from the ornaments, it’s time for the tinsel. The tinsel is my special form of hell, because it must be hung one strand at a time.
I don’t think you can completely grasp the amount of tinsel that comes in one dollar-store card until you’ve had to cover a tree (tastefully) with three cards worth one strand at a time. Suffice to say, it’s a LOT.
The Interminable Wait
Lucky for my brother and I, my parents are notoriously early risers. On the other hand, my father is a notoriously sadistic human being who, I am reasonably confident, produced offspring solely to have two new people on which to experiment with his mind-games of evil. There is a routine that was followed, without deviation, every Christmas morning that was sure to drive my brother and I mad, and it went a little something like this (all times relative to wake time):
|:00||My parents exit their room. They mill about for a bit.||My brother and I start to get really, really excited.|
|+ :10||The smoking of the morning cigarette.||Impatient, we ask mom how long it will be. The answer is a derisive laugh.|
|+ :25||The making of (and consumption of) the first cup of coffee. During the actual brewing process one parent would head outside to retrieve the morning paper.||We…are…slowly…losing…our…minds…|
|+ :35||The first trip to the bathroom. At this point, the coffee and cigarette has clearly shaken something loose, so my father grabs a healthy section of the paper and heads for the bathroom for what can only be described as an endless period of colonic cleansing.||My brother shrieks in frustration…we fairly well BEG our mother to find a way to hustle dad along. Mom shrugs helplessly.|
|+ :55||Morning deuce-drop a success, dad comes out and starts up the fire in the woodstove because overnight, it has gotten cold in the house.||We could NOT GIVE LESS OF A FUCK how cold it is. If we were sitting in a SHACK IN SIBERIA, we wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about the fire, we just want to open presents.|
|+ 1:05||While the fire is being tended to, Dad ponders aloud if we should, perhaps, have a big breakfast before we open presents. Perhaps bacon and eggs? Oh, and should we get dressed? And perhaps a shower?||Oh sweet mother of god, what the hell are you doing? Now that we’ve rounded the one hour mark, it’s fair to say that we are both fairly well ready to vibrate across the floor, and still, no presents.|
|+ 1:20||The fire done, it’s time for another cigarette and another cup of coffee.||WHAT THE FUCK!|
|+ 1:25||Dad drags a footrest over in front of the pile of presents and prepares to start handing out gifts.||We are in significant danger of pissing ourselves. At long, long last, we are ready!|
|+ 1:26||Nope, false alarm. We can’t possibly start, there’s no Christmas music playing. Dad slowly rises to his feet and picks through his rather tremendous CD library in search of the PERFECT Christmas CDs for the occasion to load into the changer.||Are you kidding me? For 10 frigging years you’ve put the same 5 CDs in the changer. TEN YEARS!Just put Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, A Very Special Christmas 1, Chet Atkins, and Alabama in the damned CD player and move on! (As a side note, those CDs have absolutely become the soundtrack of Christmas to me)|
|+ 1:35||Well, all that moving around and coffee must have knocked some more loose, because it’s time for another trip to the bathroom, huge handful of the newspaper in tow.||SWEET MERCIFUL JESUS CHRIST, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? There cannot be more in there. It’s not physically possible. You might need a trip to the emergency room if you have to do that kind of bathroom wreckage again…but we can tend to that AFTER THE DAMNED PRESENTS!|
And at nearly two hours after their wakeup (typically some four hours after our wakeup) it is finally time to open gifts.1
Handing out the Gifts
Obviously, we can’t just dive into the presents. That wouldn’t be organized and torturous enough. We have a long standing tradition in which dad hands out the presents one at a time; slowly. Occasionally you would find him stopping in puzzlement because we appeared to be out of presents when, clearly, we were not. So…very…slowly. We were not allowed to get into the presents on our own, though. It was just flat-out not allowed. My brother and I both recall getting into them once…just one time…but neither of us recall what the results were. How horrifying must it have been if we can’t even recall what happened, but we knew enough never to touch the presents again.
Carrying on the Traditions
So what, of this, do my kids have to go through? They show up to a tree that is already up with lights on it and an angel on the top of the tree.2 They put the decorations on any way they want, and if I correct their decoration placement, I’m too controlling. They literally HURL tinsel at the tree in gigantic fist-fulls with no thought to making the strands appear to be delicate little icicles forming.
In the morning, they wake up and open their stockings. They move presents around. They eat chocolate. They suffer only a scant few minutes of torture before my father gives out the gifts. They even touch the presents.
If it sounds like I’m tattling, it’s because I am. Someone must be told! I tried to tell my parents, but they just look at me like I’m crazy.
I’m not crazy, right?
1 In later years, the addition of a home video camera setup was added to this…given many of our sarcastic and dry senses of humor, the camera plan did not last long, as plans go.
2This year, dad retired the old angel from the tree. What did he put up in its place? A NEW ANGEL. Not the star, A NEW ANGEL. That star will never see the top of our tree. Never!