My family puts up a traditional Christmas tree. Well, not that traditional. A truly traditional Christmas tree would be paraded through town and then set on fire.
But Christmas is a festive time of year, a time when our shared pagan heritage is proudly on display, albeit via the yoke of Christianity. And, godless as I am, I always put up a Christmas tree, a real tree. I can’t abide plastic shrubbery when the sweet green smell of the forest is so desperately needed by city dwellers.
I have friends who put up their trees before the month of December, and for me this is much too early. And we prefer to wait until at least the 15th in our family, as our girls’ maternal grandfather’s birthday is the 14th, and we do not want to cloud that celebration any more than it already is by holiday circumstance.
Right after Thanksgiving, temporary outdoor Christmas tree shops set up on sidewalks in parking lots, and shopping areas throughout the city. In Inwood, Broadway near 207th Street was my place of choice and the people who often manned that shop had come down from Canada. Some come from Pennsylvania or Vermont or New Hampshire. Last year we bought our tree in the shopping center on Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway Service Road—not the most picturesque place to buy a tree but it got the job done and we went home with a nice tree.
Years ago when I was living alone in Ozone Park, I didn’t get around to getting a tree until Christmas Eve or the day before, and managed to get a $5 tree for $3. I tipped generously but never had that kind of luck again.
My three daughters and I set out on a mission to buy a tree this past Saturday, 10 days before Christmas. We drove to Douglaston, Queens, where a length of sidewalk beside a high church yard wall along Northern Boulevard was an impromptu Christmas tree store. We found parking down a side street and arrived at the tree stand to the sounds of Charlie Brown’s theme song being played over a PA system. The man who helped us with our tree gave candy canes to the girls. Within a few minutes I paid cash for the tree ($58, which is pricy for a tree but by New York City standards that’s a good deal), tipped the guy who helped us, and we were on our way back home.
Our Christmas tree has punk rock ornaments from awesome bands like The Spunk Lads, The Bullys, World War IX, Skum City, and (self-promotional plug here) Blackout Shoppers. And almost all of these come from Superfan Heather, New York’s best and possibly most prolific punk rock band photographer (her boyfriend, Admiral Yammomoto, would be a close second). These ornaments go on the tree every year, as do ornaments made my wife and her brother as children that date back to the 1970s.
Since three young children worked on decorating the tree, my wife had the foresight to separate the non-breakable ornaments and focus on using them to decorate the tree. We’ll have plenty of time to use the fragile ornaments when our girls are older.
With lights and a bit of silver garland, and a healthy heap of ornaments, our tree was ready pretty quickly. We’ll remember to water it and work to be worthy of its pagan heritage.
The holidays, as we collectively call them, start in earnest while we are still recovering from Halloween and preparing for Thanksgiving. Once Thanksgiving is over, all bets are off and we are surrounded by the Christmas season until we crawl back to work on January 2nd to the grim realities of our winter lives.
Holiday traditions are fine things, and for many years I took pride in my annual Bad Santa Party, which celebrated the greatest Christmas movie ever made, Bad Santa. Someday I will revive that tradition with a vengeance, but until that time it pays to find other holiday traditions that will celebrate the season without going to church or being part of a slack-jawed mob.
Of course, there are plenty of things to do that are not holiday related, but if you want to enjoy some yuletide spirit but not be surrounded by entitled ignoramuses or enormous crowds, here are some ways to observe the holiday season without losing your sanity or your edge.
Tree lightings abound. Mobs crowd Rockefeller Center and their tree is the most well-known in the city, but lots of other trees and menorahs have ceremonial lightings. Different parks, zoos and public gardens hold a host of lighting events and they are often a lot of fun. Go to one of those and you’ll get just as much craic as you would from going to some massive retail tree lighting and have a better time with smaller crowds as well.
Santa Claus for a better cause. You could certainly wait on a long line at a department store or shopping mall to put your sloppy toddler on that stranger’s lap, or you could explore an alternative venue where there won’t be as many elves or predatory photographers but the money will be going to a good cause. In my area, both the Queens Botanical Garden and the Lewis Latimer House have events where kids get to meet Santa Claus.
Anti SantaCon Pub Crawl. One of the more obnoxious holiday traditions in the city is SantaCon, a prolonged drunken stumble by perpetually unaware hollow men and their fawning female enablers. Sadly, SantaCon was once a fun and inspiring artistic event that became too popular and is now the corrupt antithesis of its founding ideals. But where there is a need for change, New Yorkers will step into the breech, and so bar owners in Brooklyn have started the Anti-SantaCon Gowanus Pub Crawl on Sunday, Dec. 9. You still get to dress up and drink in the holiday spirit, but absent the feeble stupidity that passes for holiday spirit among the current SantaCon crowd.
Literary birthday celebrations. Did you know that December 3 is Joseph Conrad’s birthday? Or that December 7 is the anniversary of Willa Cather’s birth? Shirley Jackson, Stanley Crouch, Edna O’Brien, Jane Austen, George Santayana, John Milton, and Mary Higgins Clark, among other literary lights, have birthdays in December. Why not have a party where you read their works?
Visit the New York Hall of Science. I have a tradition of visiting the New York Hall of Science on Christmas Eve with my daughters. It’s usually not crowded and our girls love science. It gives their mother a break from watching them for a while and she has time to wrap their gifts while they are away. It allows us to enjoy this popular public space in a bit of solitude and quiet.
There is no more New York thing to do than to carve out your own new tradition and celebration. The holidays give us these opportunities. Seize the day.
When the weather is bad, our family goes to the zoo. Our logic is this: Many of the indoor spaces will be overcrowded and the zoo will be sparsely populated. When you’ve lived in the city long enough, avoiding crowds is more important than avoiding pneumonia.
So this past weekend’s snowfall made our planned trip to Westchester unwise, but made a short drive to the zoo a piece of cake. The parking lot on 111th Street that is a chaotic mess and a graveyard of public parking dreams during the summer had plenty of spaces. I pulled into a space right near the ramp we would need for our youngest daughter’s stroller.
One of the goals for this weekend was to help give my wife time alone at home to prepare our home for Christmas. I was on my own for several hours with three children all under four years of age, and found myself pushing a stroller through a moderate snowfall in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on our way to the Queens Zoo. There was a small group of teenagers having a snowball fight when we got there, and one cyclist pedaled past us and shot me a strange look is if to be amazed he came across someone crazier than he was out in the snow.
While the children were equipped with proper hats and coats, one pair of mittens was inevitably quickly lost and our youngest got wet and hungry very fast. The snowfall was not bad. It was only one or two inches in the city and the snow did not stick to the streets very well. A few runs of a plow with some sand and salt made things OK. But cold kids make for cranky kids and herding three youngsters through the wet and cold is a chore with an additional distraction (snow) that is also a physical obstacle. The front wheels of the stroller would stop cutting through and spin in a sideways fashion, gathering reels of snow around themselves like some perverse cotton candy machine. Otherwise they would stop moving completely and I’d be essentially be operating the world’s most ineffective snow plow.
The Queens Zoo is a perfect place to bring kids because it’s relatively small compared with its larger and more famous counterpart The Bronx Zoo. It can be done thoroughly in a morning or afternoon. Arriving at the zoo after a snowfall revealed a hushed atmosphere covered in a gorgeous layer of fresh white powder that proved perfect for making snowballs. It was one of those days when you look around and can’t believe you are in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. A few times you would hear the rush of the highway or the sounds of people playing in the park outside the zoo’s fence, but it was desolate and beautiful and well worth the soggy feat and cold hands.
The zoo posts the times of the sea lion feeding and I had to hustle to get us there in time. When we got to the sea lions, there was one other couple there. This couple were the only other non-zoo employees we saw during our entire stay. They huddled under an umbrella while two of my daughters climbed a snow-covered rock and declared it their mountain and the other sat on the wet ground to have a better vantage point to scream her undefined infant rage at the world. That’s right, normal couple at the zoo: my children are many times tougher than you and earned the grudging respect of the animal kingdom.
We had an up-close view of the sea lion feeding up close but cut it short because we were all hungry. The Sea Lion Café offered a warm, dry refuge and sold hot coco and coffee among its souvenirs and snacks. We took our time eating before we bundled up again, only go head to a restroom where it was necessary to take coats off again. We easily killed 20 minutes in the restroom, making sure everyone either used the toilet or had a diaper change. Then back out into the snow.
The girls enjoyed looking at the animals but probably enjoyed handling the snow and stomping on puddles more. Even though my wife had packed more than adequate snacks for us, “snow burgers” became a much sought-after treat, and there was no keeping my young charges from indulging in them, only trying to police the color and source of the snow (only white snow, not from the ground).
We marveled at how close the sea lions and the bison came to us, and followed with a mad dash to get to a restroom again. By the time we finished there and thought about returning to glimpse more animals, security guards looked to be closing the zoo for the day. It was just as well, my girls were showing signs of fatigue and by the time I got them back to our van and buckled in, they slept soundly for two hours while I went on a coffee-fueled road trip from Corona to Flushing and Bayside.
I returned home with three tired children to a home in much better order. Mission accomplished.
Thanksgiving is coming up and there are a lot of things to be thankful for. It is easy to look at the state of the world and feel that our generation got the short end of the stick and that things were better years ago. The human species has a habit of romanticizing the past to a fault. The present always looks lacking to Americans in general and New Yorkers in particular because we are an ambitious people who always see better possibilities.
But if we are living safely with food in our stomachs and a roof over our head, we should be thankful; there are a few billion people who would gladly trade places with us.
Here are some things I am particularly thankful for:
Family. I am lucky to not only have a wife and kids who love me but numerous other relatives and step-relatives who love me also. I can tap into the wisdom of several aunts and uncles, cousins, and my amazing grandmother, the indomitable matriarch who is our rock. My family has demonstrated time and again how to persevere through hardship and loss with grace and strength. I am lucky to be of such strong blood.
Health. No doubt my steady diet of weekend egg sandwiches has left me the worse for wear and my back is a scramble of slipped disks and strained muscles, but compared to many people, I am in very good health. I know too many family and friends who have suffered bad setbacks to take my health for granted.
Employment. While I have known great unemployment and underemployment in my time, I am currently gainfully employed at a stable company. Having worked as a journalist for nearly 15 years, I crossed over “to the dark side” of public relations last year. I landed in a good place with smart, friendly co-workers; a lot of people can’t say that.
Creative Ambition. One of the reasons I am lucky to have the family I do is that I’ve inherited my family’s desire to create. My family is full of writers, musicians, actors and more and I am honored to be among them. Being creative gives you a constant reason to live even when all else looks dismal.
America. While the American Empire is deep into its twilight, the America I grew up with and love is very much alive though casting a cautious eye towards the future. America is the greatest nation on Earth because it is my country. We have a lot of problems, but we have a lot of freedom that many people never see.
New York City. No city inspires as much simultaneous love and hatred from its inhabitants as New York. There is no other place on Earth that is constantly rewriting its own mythology and acts such a magnet for creativity and ambition. New York will outlive us all. As much as we hate to see New York change, we know it will never die as long as the Earth remains intact.
The endless salvos in the American cultural war normally give me a headache and are usually beneath the dignity of comment. But the latest jeremiad against a Fox News host about the race of Santa Claus was informative.
Megyn Kelly, on her program The Kelly File, remarked that Santa Claus is white. (She mentioned that Jesus Christ was white too, and while I’d love to discuss the colorful variations among the 12 tribes of Israel, I’ll instead point out that white people handed over the name Jesus to the Latinos a while ago.)
Kelly was of course buried in a brouhaha of accusations of racism and “look what she said” type coverage, but if you actually watch the damn video, her piece is actually discussing an article on Slate that advocates doing without a white Santa, or a human Santa entirely, and replace him with a penguin in the name of helping nonwhite children love Christmas. Slate’s cultural blogger Aisha Harris recounts her childhood angst at the ubiquity of peckerwood Santa Clauses and thinks that a penguin Santa is a win-win for everyone.
When I was a kid growing up in Yonkers, my brother and I were sent to an afterschool center on weekday afternoons in nearby Eastchester. The kids at the daycare center were mostly white, but sometimes our center would get together with a nearby black organization called CAP (Community Action Program). We would take trips with them and every year we went to their Christmas party.
At every CAP Christmas party Santa Claus appeared and gave out presents, and at CAP, Santa was black. Not only was their Santa black, but he was someone that worked there that the black kids all knew. They laughed hilariously at the black Santa, in part because it was someone they knew and also because it was so obviously NOT Santa Claus.
Like Aisha Harris mentions in her piece on Slate, a non-white Santa doesn’t look quite right, even to a sympathetic non-white audience. It’s an obviously pandering variation awkwardly hammered into place. And children, ever suspicious of adult manipulation into their world, resent such obvious engineering. Harris was right to take umbrage at the black Santa. Even though the adults in her life were doing it for her perceived benefit, it was too much adult interference and that just ain’t right.
Us white kids resented the black Santa, not because we were racist or hated blacks but because we were treated to a needless maiming of a cultural icon that was supposed to be race-neutral.
And this fear of a white Santa is a very telling sign on the part of the multicultural left that’s calling for the head of Megyn Kelly on a charger. Wanting to get rid of white Santa is a tacit acknowledgement of the failure and hopelessness of multiculturalism itself.
If you buy into the belief of Santa Claus and believe that he’s a kindly, saintly man who loves good children, then he certainly loves all the good children of the world and brings them all gifts. That nonwhite children are automatically aggrieved at the sight of a white Santa Claus means that the hopes of fostering an integrated, diverse society is hopeless. If all the races should be equally valued and accepted by everyone, then the traditional white Santa is for everyone too.
If my kids have to stand for a black President, why can’t black kids accept gifts from a white Santa Claus? If multiculturalism is for real, then it’s not a one-way street. If non-white children can’t accept a benevolent white saint who gives them presents out of love, then there’s not much racial harmony in America’s future.
Santa Claus, like many other holiday trappings, developed from European traditions that were adapted to Christianity as it spread westward from the Middle East. Saint Nicholas, the Catholic patron saint of children and sailors and generally agreed to as the basis of Santa Claus, was Greek. If white people invented Santa Claus, then it makes sense he’d be white.
And so even assuming that Kelly was being racially assertive, what makes wanting Santa to look like you wrong? If Aisha Harris’ Christmas penguin catches on, so be it. I’ll be one of the last white fathers telling his kids about the real white Santa Claus.
There are several great Christmas traditions that I refuse to surrender despite being a jaded, cynical atheist. I still give gifts to family and friends, I still buy a real Christmas tree and decorate it, and still I watch Bad Santa every year.
If you have not seen it, do so; you won’t be sorry. The 2003 movie stars Billy Bob Thorton as a thief who works as a department store Santa in order to gain easier access to the safe. You could argue that the movie is dated on that count—the most successful retail thieves these days do their work from laptops and the prevalence of credit and debit cards means store safes don’t hold as much cash as they used to—but that’s a minor point that will not detract from the movie.
Thorton is genius as the hard-drinking, serial-fornicating, foul-mouthed career criminal. The cast also includes John Ritter (RIP), Bernie Mac (RIP), Lauren Graham, Tony Cox and Ajay Naidu of Office Space fame as a “Hindustani Troublemaker.”
Bad Santa manages to both piss on the fraudulent cheer that comprises so much of what passes for holiday spirit while still offering a tale of redemption. His sneering delivery and drunken slurs give the holiday season the violent kick in the groin it rightfully deserves. He exudes contempt for the pampered children and jabbering housewives that expect him to be at their beck and call. He’s a champion to anyone who has ever had to work at a department store at Christmas time (I have; it sucks). He is a hardened predator among easy prey, a prisoner to his criminal profession, but willing to commit to violent street justice without hesitation to help his bullied host.
Cinema has given us no better Christmas hero than Billy Bob Thorton’s Willie.
Willie represents our great unbridled American spirit, unashamed to fornicate with strangers in department store changing rooms and tell shoppers to shove their holiday cheer right up their plus-sized asses.
I saw Bad Santa in the theater reluctantly the year it came out. The TV commercials didn’t make it look very good and I didn’t need another silly holiday comedy. But the movie won me over before the opening credits were through. I was blown away by the excellence of the film. It is at the same time incredibly depraved and inspiring. No other movie better captured the dual hatred and love we often feel towards the holidays.
The forced cheerfulness, the clueless do-gooder religious bleating, the consumerist fervor and the crowded conditions of our roads, trains and stores make all thinking men want to shit on the holidays with fiendish enthusiasm. Yet the undercurrent of holiday cheer is appealing. It is the end of the year harvest festival of the Roman Saturnalia, though colored by the pasted-on veneer of Christian myth. The silver lining to Christmas is that it promotes traditions that help strengthen the family, and it gets you gifts.
It’s for this reason that the next Christmas season I began a tradition of having a holiday party with watching Bad Santa the centerpiece of the event. This past weekend was no different, though many of my friends have now seen the move so many times that they didn’t pay as much attention to the movie, but it never fails to entertain.
If you’re going to watch a special movie for the holidays, there are many to choose from. Watch Bad Santa. It’s a holiday tradition you will want to continue.