...so i figured, if i can't beat 'em (with a five foot long candy cane), i should add my tragically flawed two cents to the pot (talk about mixed metaphors)...i've been sitting on this little piece for a while now, perhaps hoping it would hatch...so maybe it's really about easter? who knows...as always, i welcome feedback and suggestions...
All I Want for Christmas is a Pair of Kwanza Socks
It’s that time of year again, when my mother-in-law displays all of her mangers and hides the baby Jesuses until December 25th. Five years ago, I first inquired about his absence and Donna said, “He can’t come out until he’s born.” I was tempted to ask her whether she had a figurine of Mary in labor, perhaps a small tape recorder that produced Mary’s voice screaming, “We’re never having sex again!” I kept my mouth shut. I’d only been married to her son for a month. Since she believes in immaculate birth I’m sure she thought there was time to annul our union.
So this year, instead of saying anything, I’m just going to casually walk around the house and each time I come upon a manger—an average of three per room—I’m going to position Mary on her back, an anxious Joseph looking on. It’s not that I want to start trouble.In fact, I know I won’t. Donna won’t mention the changes; she’ll just quietly move Mary back to her position next to a nest of empty straw. Donna will convince herself the figurines simply fell over on accident. She’ll never accuse her daughter-in-law—a heathen from the west coast—of coming into her Southern Baptist home and messing with her savior.
Visiting my husband’s parents’ house for the week prior to Christmas is like going to Florida to watch whale mating. I feel as if I shouldn’t watch, shouldn’t meddle, but I can’t help myself.
Their church’s marquee regularly touts clever phrases. This year, as we pull into town after our eight hour drive, my husband says, “You think it’s hot here god,” and points to his parents’ church.
“Well, it is kinda hot for December,” I say, studying the marquee. “But why are they asking god about it? Is that some sort of prayer for snow? And where’s the question mark? Don’t those letter kits come with punctuation?”
Adam shakes his head. “No. It’s supposed to read: ‘You think it’s hot here? –God.’ You know, like they’re quoting god.”
“Does god say that in the bible?”
He’s bewildered that although I’m a college English professor I’ve never bothered to read the bible. I’ve preferred Milton and Dante instead. “No,” he says. “It’s a warning against hell.”
“Oh,” I say. “Ooooohhhh. Fire and brimstone. Sinners in the hands of an angry god. You think it’s hot here. I get it. Too bad they haven’t read Dante. At least they’d get some snow that way.”
Adam laughs. “Man. Here we go,” he says, smiling.
Themed trees have been a staple at my mother’s house since I was in high school. Her three daughters weren’t kids anymore so it was time for an adult Christmas. She started to plan in June, buying ornaments from Ebay and at garage sales. When stores began to carry wrapping paper in October she bought what matched the ornaments. Last year she named her tree White Christmas. “Why?” I said, inspecting it closely. “Are you joining the KKK? Where are the rebel flags and white hoods?”
“Ha. Ha,” she said. “It’s white because the tree is flocked. The ornaments and lights, all white. Get it?”
The first fetish tree was named Santa’s Toy Shop. She bought only ornaments that looked like toys—cars, bears, blocks, puzzle pieces—and in the empty places she hung candy canes and red and green mercury balls. From felt she created eight large elves and mounted them in an arch on the wall behind the tree. They seemed to be scrambling from branch to branch, little hammers in their hands.
Mom had clearly found a hobby.
The year after was Jamaican Christmas where she hung plastic fruit and drink umbrellas on the tree, and we all had to wear Hawaiian shirts to open our gifts. Then followed Jewish Christmas where the tree was drenched in tinsel and covered in blue and silver ornaments and lights. Then came Christmas Elegance, the tree trimmed all in gold-toned ornaments and clear lights. It looked like an evergreen chandelier. Victorian Christmas was next; a white tree with homemade quilted hearts and huge foam balls covered in the same fabric.For rustic Christmas Mom chose maroon mercury balls, hand-carved snow men, tiny sleds, tin stars and angels. Starry Night Christmas was adorned with oversized gold stars, origami crows, and deep blue balls—Mom’s homage to Van Gogh. Poinsettia Christmas should speak for itself. I quit asking about the trees at the ten year mark, when I found out Mom had been taking pictures of each one in different stages of décor, and had devoted an entire scrapbook to them. Books akin to the baby journals she kept for each of her infant daughters.
I didn’t know it last year, but White Christmas was the last of the trees with which I would have my picture taken. Grandma died in October. While losing the matriarch of the family is no reason to stop taking pictures, to stop decorating Christmas trees, she was the reason I braved cross-country holiday travel. This year, I’ll be thousands of miles away, mourning Grandma, leaving Mom alone to celebrate the first Christmas without her mother.
I’ve received a pair of Christmas socks in my stocking for as long as I can remember. Last year—my sock drawer invaded by reindeer, elves, the abominable snowmen—I convinced Mom to get me a pair of Hanukah socks—grey wool with Stars of David and Menorahs woven into the fabric.
I wear them on the first day of Hanukah, which also marks the first full day of the holiday visit to my in-laws. My mother-in-law looks at them, and with an air of surprise says, “Are those menorahs on your socks?”
“Yep,” I say, raising my pant leg higher so she can get a good look at the golden Star of David on my ankle. “Tonight’s the first night of Hanukah. I thought I’d wear them. You know, show support and unity. I’m trying to find Kwanza socks this year.”
She won’t look me in the eye. Perhaps it’s the biblical verses stenciled on the wall behind her that cause this silent stand-off.
Her skepticism doesn’t derail my search for Kwanza socks. Online I’ve found Kwanza popcorn balls, Kwanza greeting cards, Kwanza stamps, and Kwanza gift cards. But no Kwanza socks.
“I wonder if I can find Ramadan socks,” I tell Adam, as we lay in bed in the small guestroom across the hall from my in-laws. I’ve just recounted my online quest and my fear that I may be thwarted when it comes to embracing-all-cultures holiday footwear.
“You won’t find those,” he says.
“Tell me about it. If I can’t find Kwanza socks…”
“No,” he says, “it’s an Islamic thing, showing the soles of your feet. Remember when that huge statue of Saddam Hussein fell and we all said, ‘Why are they hitting it with their shoes?’ It’s a huge insult.”
“But socks cover the soles,” I say.
“It’s a foot thing. They’re insulting. Why would they make flashy socks if showing their feet in public was an insult? Besides, Ramadan is in August.”
The next morning I look up this information online and find that Adam is partially correct.According to Islamic tradition, women should have their feet covered with socks while in prayer, but as of yet no one has marketed Ramadan socks. Probably because wool in August would make for a very stinky mosque.
On the second day of Hanukah I’m staring into my suitcase at all of my Christmas socks.I’m tempted to wear my menorah socks again, but since my mother-in-law called them out, it would be tacky to do so. She might think I forgot to pack any more socks. I choose a pair that are light blue and covered in reindeer. Nothing too off-putting, too holiday specific.
A pair Grandma bought me years ago.
I suppose I should stop trying to fool myself and admit I’m just like everyone else at the holidays: I miss my family. I miss my dead grandmother, her fragile bones pressed against my flabby body when we embraced, her knobby knees wobbling while she walked. I miss the hope she had for life, the denial she’d steeped herself in so she wouldn’t have to face the fact that she was dying.
And while I attempt to unpack my things at my in-laws’ house, I realize I’ve got no one who shares my grief, no one to whom I can say, “I miss my grandma. I miss hugging her, I miss smelling her, watching her smoke, feeling the cracked skin of her hand in mine. I miss her small body curled on the bed, napping while we were supposed to be watching a movie. I miss my grandma. I miss my grandma. I miss my grandma.”
Instead, I’m surrounded by a hoard of mute nativity characters. The one I’d expect to listen is missing-in-action.
I take my toiletries from my case and begin the arduous task of finding a clear space where I can put out my things. As if the room weren’t crowded enough with pictures covering the walls and bedside tables—snapshots of my husband and his brother through the years—the remaining flat surfaces are devoted to the days leading to Jesus’ birth. I shove aside the three nativities, mingling the wise men and making two Josephs widows, the other a polygamist. Now I have room atop the dresser for my cell phone, purse, and make-up.
That evening I notice Donna has moved the fallen nativities to the bathroom, arranging them just-so between the double sinks.
As we all sit down for a movie in the den, I prop my feet on the coffee table and inadvertently knock the interlocking puzzle nativity to the ground. “Sorry Jesus,” I chime, picking them up and trying to lock them all together again.
“No, He’s in the drawer,” Donna says. “It’s just the rest of them. Don’t worry about it.”
I’ve always celebrated Christmas and never thought twice about why I do it. I don’t consider myself a Christian. I don’t think Jesus was the only son of a god—I turn to Greek literature for evidence of that. Yet I still get caught up in the gift-giving and well wishes, in the quest for the perfect pair of holiday socks. I spend October through December in an anxious panic, wondering if I’ve purchased the right gifts. Will my sister like the purse I found? Will my step-father be able to wear the XXL sweatpants? Will my mother-in-law return everything I bought for her?
The one person I could never shop for was Grandma. She had everything. And what I wanted to buy her—a new set of lungs and the will to eat—I couldn’t. I knew whatever I gave her would remain wrapped in tissue, folded in the box, stacked inside her closet. These were her “nice things” she’d been given for years that she was saving for her next trip to Las Vegas. A trip that she constantly talked about, but never made. In my youth we all piled into her car three or four times a year so she could play the Blackjack tables. But as she grew more frail, the trips ended, and all she could do was prepare.
On the evening of the 25th, Donna runs around her house embarrassed that she’s forgotten to put baby Jesus in the manger. “I just completely forgot,” she says. “Can you imagine?Baby Jesus almost didn’t get born!” She plucks him from beside stored candlesticks, napkins, cans of creamed corn. After putting each one it his proper place beside his on-looking parents, Donna says, “Happy birthday Jesus.”
Stop me if this sounds familiar.
I go to bed wondering if this woman, someone twice my age, believes that we wouldn’t get our gifts if those figurines weren’t properly placed. Does she really think Jesus was born on December 25th, in a biting-cold manger? Certainly she’s been on the planet long enough to know that the so-called birth of Jesus was placed during the Roman Winter Solstice so Christians could celebrate their holiday, without condemnation, among the pagans. Also, isn’t the word “Christmas” an amalgam of the phrase Christ’s Mass, the Catholic day of prayer for Christ? Why must he be in the manger before he’s prayed for?
I’m asking my husband all of these things in whispers as we lay in bed Christmas evening.He yawns, rolls over, and says, “Does it really matter? Can’t she just be happy?”
I roll away from him, punch my pillow, and mumble, “Trees are pretty. They change. The mangers are the same every year.”
“Huh?” he says, half-asleep.
I don’t answer.
Perhaps I’m too literal with my ideas for the holidays. Maybe I find Donna’s behavior so odd simply because I’m not used to it. My family’s celebration focused on the tree, on the gifts. We had one manger scene and Jesus made his appearance right after Thanksgiving along with the rest of his posse. We rejoiced in true pagan fashion—presents for everyone, dancing and singing, celebrating the fact that we’d made it through another year without killing one another.
It’s a confusing dance my mother-in-law performs during the holidays, and it’s my only source of entertainment this year. I contemplate miss-matching the manger figurines so that when the day-after glow of Mary’s child-birthing wears off, the tiny ebony Jesus is lying in a bed of foam hay with his felt parents.
As for the Kwanza socks, I finally find a pair online that can be shipped world-wide. They are extremely tacky—yellow-brown with rainbow candles around the ankle and the sloganHappy Kwanza wrapping the toe. No one has cornered this market either. It seems that Christians are the only people who’ve perfected the art of crafting footwear to express the joy of the holidays.
I call Mom the day after Christmas to give her the news.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I didn’t get anyone socks.”
“What?” I stammer. “Why?”
“Well, none of you are here. You’re off with your own families now. So I’m going to Vegas.”
“But I love my socks.” I whine. But in the back of my head I can’t blame her. It’s fitting that she’ll spend the holiday inside a casino, a place Grandma loved so much.
“I’m sure you can buy a pair of socks on your own. It sounds like you’ve done enough work.”
A silence builds between us until I ask, “How’d your tree turn out?”
“It’s really pretty. I picked up some clear beads and teardrop crystals. I actually found strings of gold lights. It looks so nice. Like a marquee.”
“What’s it called?”
“Casino Christmas,” she says.
I could hear her smiling. “I thought so.”
We say our goodbyes and wish each other a Merry Christmas again. Tomorrow Mom will be sitting in front of a Vegas slot machine. Even if she is the only person there—which I doubt—she’ll be surrounded by bright lights and the tinkling melody of coins falling into a metal tray. An opportunity to nestle inside a life-sized version of her latest Christmas creation. This could be enough to get her through.
Not enough for me.
I sit for a long while in my in-laws’ Jesus-filled living room holding desperately to my phone.My eyes won’t focus on just one manger. How lonely these baby Jesuses must have felt tucked away in drawers, cut off from the people who love them. They missed out on the anticipation of Christmas morning, the people in good spirits, the kindnesses that should be present all year. They made their appearances for one day—just in time to see people ripping paper, stuffing themselves at the dinner table, mourning their losses. No wonder their eyes are closed as they nestle into the hay of his manger. I’d sleep through it all too. If I could.