Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Holidays 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
A favorite book, “Crap at My Parent’s House,” has recycled among family and friends so often that it could be in Guam, for all I know. Its popularity resonates because it pokes fun at bizarre gifts and traditions, many associated with the holidays.
“One person’s trash is another’s treasure” never rings truer than this time of year, when normally sane folks untangle last year’s snarl of Christmas lights and decorations and try to one-up their neighbors. This seasonal roulette signals an “anything goes” mentality, and it all starts with the lights.
Somewhere along the evolution of house decorating, cave dwellers must have adorned the head of their latest dinner with colorful berries; the troglodyte across the trail grew jealous and lit his on fire, thus creating the first subdivision Christmas light competition. Ten thousand years later and nothing’s changed save the voltage — one house in our neighborhood surely shows up on government satellite photos.
Around the second weekend of December, we pile in the truck to witness some of the gaudiest outdoor decor on the planet. For some reason, Frosty and Santa standing arm-in-arm with Mary and Joseph while belting out “Silent Night” seems perfectly acceptable. We map out our route and make an evening of sipping hot chocolate while rating the “best” — which often means worst.
Decorations don’t stop outside, either; what lies within the bowels of some homes ranges from disturbing to nightmarish. Like weird Uncle Eddy’s Christmas clown collection, Grandma Milfred’s assortment of figurine elves, or your folks’ holiday potpourri, which they burn with an incessant need that would make Cheech & Chong proud.
After decorations and lights comes my favorite: traditions. Some folks draw names and make gag gifts for their chosen, unlucky soul, seizing an uninterrupted chance to roast a family member, while knowing their own number’s up shortly. Others hide things, like the popular — albeit creepy — Elf on a Shelf, who lurks in a new place each evening to report back to Santa who’s been naughty and nice.
At the Smith house, a certain small figurine that resembles both a toy soldier and a jester makes his annual appearance once the ornaments are hung. Years ago, my kids named him the Jokery. With rubber legs and arms, he clings to just about anything and can be molded into different shapes. The rules are that he can only be hidden somewhere on or under the tree, but not the manger, thanks to Nate, who, when he was 5, innocently displayed the Jokery gettin’ jiggy with one of the Wise Men.
We’ve hidden that darned thing in places no one would ever look. I even dissected a particular ugly ornament, put him inside, and taped it back together. Took the little cretins two weeks to find that one.
Lastly, holiday roulette isn’t complete without gifts, in all their confusing, overstated glory. Some are blessings, like when grandparents replace broken toys to appease grandkids (and, therefore, their parents), or necessities, like diapers, pacifiers, and more chicken-butt onesies because Junior soiled the last seven.
But with age comes practicality. Waiting all year for a new pair of waders to replace the ones that ripped last February while steelhead fishing makes little sense, so we buy what we need as the months pass. Therefore, gifts take on a more potentially hilarious, “I-think-he-could-use-this” tone.
Take the Winchester Model 94 lever-action my father-in-law gave me on Christmas shortly after I married his daughter. Jaw-dropping awesomeness is the only way to describe it. The very next gift was some fruit, followed by a six-person tent. And then there’s me, an emotional mess, all while imagining Big Daddy running around like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” after unwrapping his famous Red Ryder BB gun.
Whether decorations, lights, gifts or other holiday indulgences, they’re meaningful if they bring you closer to one another and the Lord — it is about Him, after all.
Sometimes, good-natured fun is the cornerstone this time of year; from a house lit up enough to serve as a beacon to orbiting spacecraft, to gifts from crazy but loving relatives, to traditions that run the gamut from wholesome to downright nasty.
Embrace them, laugh a little, and make some memories.