California Christmas

Excuse me, but must they call it a “Hanukkah Bush?”

Don’t misunderstand.  It is not the idea of cross-fertilizing traditions that I have trouble with.  If you ask me, everybody can string lights, burn up a yule log, exchange gifts, and leave out milk and cookies for Santa Claus.  After all, there is nothing religious about any of these things.  They are all secular at best and pagan at worst.

It is the word itself.  Didn’t anybody realize how flaccid BUSH sounds in this context? Inevitably compared to the Christmas TREE, it ends up sounding feebly determined to avoid even the possibility of giving offense.

Dreck!  (And speaking of tone-deaf word choices, don’t get me started on “Homeland Security!”)

The reason I don’t object to mixing traditions (normally I am a ferocious traditionalist) is that I understand that one of the goals behind mixing traditions is to keep kids from feeling left out.  Having vivid memories of just how painful it can be for a child to feel different or left out, I say more power to ‘em.  Besides, we owe many, if not most of our favorite images of the typical American Christmas to the productions of the original movie moguls, almost all of whom were immigrants and Jewish (except Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox when they made Miracle on 34th Street, who was a Christian from Wahoo, Nebraska – go figure).

Think for a moment about all of those images they imprinted upon the American psyche.  What is Christmas like?  Christmas is a time of jolly Santa Clauses at Macy’s, children so bundled up they are almost spherical, roaring fires in the fireplace, snowmen in the front yards, sleigh-bells jingling as the horses trot through the snow and…

Wait a minute.  I’m getting a common thread here.  All of the images those moguls impressed upon us so vividly were from the movies they created in their Southern California sound stages.  And they were all straight out of the depths of winter….Back East!

Now I don’t want to sound too petty about all this, but I can still remember as a kid having a real problem relating to all of those lovely images.  Sure, they were straight off Currier and Ives cards, but that’s not enough.  For one thing, I’m not quite old enough to have been raised in the heyday of Currier and Ives (roughly 1850).  For another, I grew up in Southern California where we didn’t have Macy’s, didn’t bundle our children into layers, lived in ranch-style bungalows without fireplaces, didn’t use sleighs and didn’t have snow for them to run on nor to make snowmen with.

In short, a lot of those wonderful images were pretty foreign to us Southern California kids.  Oh, we still absorbed them.  We were acculturated to the downtown scenes of tenements and skyscrapers.  We even knew about the rivalry between Macy’s and Gimbel’s.  But our reality lacked brownstones  …and chestnuts …and streetcars.

But most of all it lacked snow.

I should mention that both sides of my family were from Minnesota.  Good, honest Swedes and Germans and Irish left their homes across the sea and settled in that beautiful land of lakes.  There, ignoring the risk of the clouds of mosquitoes carrying off your children in summer and the risk of those children turning into cherubic popsicles in winter, they settled down, married each other and produced families.

One of which produced me.  I was born in a little suburb of Minneapolis.

However, while I was still in my infancy my parents had one of those moments of clarity and one turned to the other and asked –have you noticed how it is miserably hot and muggy and buggy here in the summer?  The other nodded and asked –and have you noticed how miserably cold and icy it gets here in winter and how heavy snow is to shovel?  The other nodded in return.

So while I was still an infant, they packed up their two children and headed West.  My brother was old enough to have personally experienced being painstakingly bundled into layers of clothing just prior to realizing he had to go to the bathroom.  I was not.  He had experienced the joys of providing nourishment to countless flying bloodsuckers.  I had not.  What with one thing and another, there were quite a lot of things he had experienced that I had not.

I knew, as a matter of academic fact, that I had lots of relatives Back East.  One of the reasons I knew that was because my parents liked to send them annual photographs of children splashing in someone’s pool, carefully labeled “Christmas, 19__.”  Another was because those Back East would get a peculiar revenge by sending us, every year, a strange, weighty, and completely inedible gift called a “Fruit Cake.”

But watching all of those Hollywood scenes of Christmas Back East, I must admit I rather resented my parent’s choice.  No matter how many presents I was given or how bright the lights on the tree, I somehow felt that I had missed the real Christmas, the one just like the movies.

I wanted to go ride in a sleigh.  I wanted to make a snowman in the yard.  I wanted to go build a snow fort and have a snowball fight with the other boys.  I wanted snow, snow, and more snow.

Just like in the movies.

My parents found an interesting cure for this particular envy.  They permanently adjusted my ideas about Minnesota, Back East, and snow.  They did it by prominently posting a clipping that we received from one of the relatives back in Minnesota.  As I remember, it stayed up for years.

It was from one of the local papers and it showed a picture of a little boy, properly bundled up so as to be nearly spherical, leaning on the top of a wide post in the middle of a vast field of snow.  It looked bleak and bloody cold.  The caption informed us that the “post” was actually the top of a telephone pole.

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