Like most families, ours tried out old and new practices this holiday season.
There was the fetching of the tree, a ritual that left us doubting the possibilities of good will toward men. There was the soaking of the presents, a new arrival. Another newcomer was the ruining of the wreath. It was followed by the stupid parental move, a holiday classic.
As usual, we fetched the tree on one of the coldest days of the year. As usual, there was factional fighting over which tree was the best. One faction lobbied for the shorter, but fatter, fir. Another liked the taller tree with one bad spot -- the eventual winner.
There was the struggle with the saw, in which male family members tussle over who fells the fir. This was followed by the transporting of the tree to the house. Of the three tree-transporting options -- forcing it into the trunk, strapping it to the roof or stuffing it inside the car -- I chose the third. That is because this year we drove a big station wagon. I figured if we folded down the back seats the tree would fit inside the car. It did, provided we opened the tailgate window. That meant we had to drive slowly because as soon as we picked up speed, the wind whipped in the open window in the back, freezing the occupants. Since we were driving home from a tree farm located about halfway to Pennsylvania, it was a long trip.
After three hours together, family nerves were frayed. Once the tree was in the house, upright and ringed with lights, I hid in the basement.
A few days later I initiated a new holiday practice in our house, the watering of the presents. This practice is connected to the watering of the tree.
It works like this. You pour massive amounts of water into the stand holding the Christmas tree. Somehow the sheet wrapped around the tree stand gets pushed into the water. The water soaks the sheet. The sheet soaks the presents sitting on it. The watering of the presents is followed by the scolding from the wife.
Another practice we started this year was the dehydration of the decorative door wreath. We bought a wreath made of fir branches, then kept it inside our heated house for seven days. This meant that by the time I got around to putting the wreath on the door, it greeted every visitor with a shower of dry pine needles, a nice holiday touch I thought.
It also meant that when the "wreath recyclers" -- thieves who steal decorations from front doors, presumably to sell the greenery elsewhere -- came through the neighborhood, they avoided our mangy wreath.
The stupid parental move is another holiday tradition. It is usually caused by exhaustion, stress and too many hours spent in toy stores. A few years ago, my stupid move was to buy one of the kids a slingshot complete with 75 steel balls for ammunition. My common sense returned before Christmas morning arrived. I substituted dry beans for the steel balls. The front windows still thank me.
This year the stupid parental move was to arrange to have five boys, in two opposing age groups, spend the night in our house a few days before Christmas. In one camp were the 12-year-olds, a group that basically wants to listen to loud music and stay up all night. In the other camp were the 8-year-olds, a contingent that wants to wrestle with, shout at and basically pester the 12-year-olds.
My wife and I tried to keep the groups on separate floors of our rowhouse. That line of defense held for a while, but it collapsed when the 8-year-olds tried to sneak upstairs. I ordered the shoeless 8-year-olds into the car and drove to a nearby video store and grabbed a copy of "The Christmas Story," Gene Shepherd's tale of his quest to get a BB gun for Christmas. Back home the 8-year-olds and the adults watched the hilarious tale. On an upper floor, the 12-year-olds made noises among themselves. By midnight everybody was asleep, or at least quiet. All was calm until morning, when hostilities resumed.
Older parents tell us that years from now when the house is quiet, my wife and I will look back on such raucous nights with fond memories.
Maybe so, but I already have a pretty good holiday memory. It happened on a Christmas morning, like this one, 13 years ago. I left Johns Hopkins Hospital and wandered into Attman's Deli on Lombard Street. As new fathers do, I boasted to the woman behind the counter that my wife had just given birth to a baby boy. "Mazel tov" she said, a traditional Jewish way of offering congratulation. To this day it remains my favorite Christmas Day greeting.