Carrying a torch for the holidays

by Yule Heibel on June 24, 2005

A neglect of holidays has become the norm in my life lately, and I can’t quite figure out whether there’s something else going on, or whether I’m just reverting to my old curmudgeonly self. The child-me was a sight to behold: I hated all holidays, never had a party for my birthday (how could I, given that it fell between xmas & new years?), and questioned the intelligence of people who stuck to collective ritual. Yet when my kids were younger, I developed a full-blown case of super-mom syndrome, learning as much as is possible to learn about civilised human behaviour from any book I could get my hands on. I confess here, dear solitary imaginary reader, that it began, when I was pregnant with the first-born, with a book called Having a Baby, co-authored by …Danielle Steel. Ok, I must protest (and add) that I didn’t know at the time who in heck Danielle Steel was, and I just happened to chance on the book in the Brookline Public Library. But it grabbed my attention almost immediately, alternately infuriating and beguiling me.

It was totally bizarre to read these first-person accounts of women who had normal-ish (albeit comfortably middle-class and upper-middle-class) lives, who told funny stories of the effect pregnancy-related foot swelling had on post-pedicure procedure, who argued that smoking a bit of pot wasn’t going to have an effect on their unborn kid, who professed natural childbirth, who proclaimed that epidurals were the only way to go, who would rather suck rocks than suckle babies, who planned to nurse until the kid was 3 or 4, and so on and so forth. Most of all, they weren’t embarassed that “having a baby” was a central and consuming event in their lives. This made them annoying at times, but it also brought things down from the lofty man-sphere of abstract thought and noble ideals — the one I thought I felt so comfortable in. (You know, as in “Having a baby isn’t going to change anything in my life. I will continue to go on changing and improving the world!” …because the world, not my kid, is what’s important. )

Well, addled as I was by pregnancy hormones, the book’s happy-happy, here-and-now ideology got its hooks in me, and before I knew it, I was celebrating Thanksgiving. It seemed innocuous enough to start with — a nice, non-religious holiday, a long weekend, the beginning of winter in New England. But then it got worse: in 1991, I bought a xmas tree. The next year I started making ornaments — from a Martha Stewart book. Augh. By the time my kids were in preschool, I carved pumpkins and decorated the porch with skeletons. I had a birthday party for both kids every single year, complete with entertainment. My house hosted giant anacondas, lizards, scorpions, and cadillac-sized cockroaches, all in the name of entertaining the tykes. I bought huge sugary cakes decorated with …purple dinosaurs. Eventually the parties moved to ever more elaborate off-site locales and involved roller blades or laser guns and professional animatrixes. I competed with my neighbours (incidentally Jewish) over who could do the best outdoor xmas lights and put on the most lovely Easter egg hunts. Seriously.

I loathe Easter.

Unless you live in Italy or California (or North Africa), it’s a terrible time of year, typically full of miserable rain and damp cold.

As for outdoor xmas lights in New England: how do you spell i-n-s-a-n-e? Without fail, the winter’s icy grip was at its worst in January or February when it was finally and indisputably time to take the damn lights off the house. Because of course Valentine’s Day was coming. There we’d be, hanging on to ladders for our lives, as we struggled in blizzard-style winds, to get the last of the frosticle lights off the eaves. The husband’s mantra has always been “I’m software, not hardware,” so guess who got to hang from the eaves? One year, again inspired by Martha, I wove white lights around all the main trunks of the six or seven huge rhododendrons, which I’d pruned floribunda style, that surrounded the wrap-around porch. Then I interlaced the top branches with coloured (mainly red) lights. It looked fabulous. Some of those light strings are no doubt still on the rhodies because I just gave up trying to get them off during the endless winter. Then summer came and the heat and humidity drove all thought from my brain.

As for Valentine’s Day: there was a reason the guy was shot through with arrows. (This has nothing to do with the fact that the son’s middle name is V., without the “e” at the end. I didn’t yet hate Valentine’s Day, nor think of Valentine’s-Day-the-holiday, when we named him.) Valentine’s Day will in my mind be forever linked to the nasty ritual of having to make or sign, on behalf of my kindergartner or first- or second- or third-grader, a gazillion cheap little cards because the director of my kids’s school had put it into her head that each child had to give a Valentine to every other child in the school. Luckily, this was a small school. But just try scrambling to put together 80+ cards at the last moment. Hand me my arrows, I want to shoot someone!

Then we moved back to Canada, back to the West Coast, back to The Island. I know Victorians celebrate holidays, but here I just don’t feel as much pressure to do so as I felt in the US. First, Canadian Thanksgiving is on a Monday in October (on what’s called Columbus Day in the States). This is a silly time for Thanksgiving. Mondays are not good days for major holidays, which should always fall at the beginning of a weekend, so you can sleep it off on Saturday & Sunday. It has therefore become very difficult to march to the beat as regards Thanksgiving. I suspect, in fact, that many Canadians have the big meal on Sunday, and eat leftovers on the holiday itself. Sad. American Thanksgiving, on a Thursday, is perfectly placed: the big meal is on Thursday, the leftovers are on Friday — no cooking. For those lucky enough not to have McJobs in 24-7 retail, it’s a wonderful long weekend. If you are really good, you DO NOT go shopping on the Friday following Thanksgiving. You instead savour the langour of a true long weekend. (Of course, Martha starts baking and making plum puddings….) The other major holidays also sneak by without much fanfare. Very few people in my neighbourhood put lights on their houses or balconies for xmas, and you could almost miss the holiday completely, even though the city does try to make a meal of it downtown, with choral events doubtlessly meant for the benefit of Victoria’s touristy image as “Victorian olde England.” Valentine’s Day? Easter? Non-events. Victoria Day? I’m told there’s a parade. Canada Day? No big deal.

There are major local festivals that draw huge crowds — Luminara comes to mind, as do other numerous outdoor concerts during festival weeks. But it’s easy to escape their pull of collectivity. Right now the streets are clogged with gawkers of tall ships, some examples of which are absolutely fantastic, but the streets are more like an orchestrated theme park than a holiday.

Today was a majorly spectacular holiday in Quebec, of course: St. Jean Baptiste Day, also known as La FĂȘte Nationale. Montrealers will have climbed to the top of Mount Royal with torches, and they’ll have made a huge bonfire. Nearly thirty years ago I trudged up the hill with them, on the one hand enthralled by the spectacle, and on the other thinking to myself, “Why am I doing this? It’s so stupid!” Little did I know that I’d one day serve birthday cakes the size of a child’s crib mattress, or for no apparent reason get competitive about holiday decorating….

Or that, for equally evanescent reasons, the rituals would simply go away. There was something pleasurable woven into all the competitive collectivity, the permission to go overboard for some holiday preparation. Maybe permission was a by-product, but it’s a by-product I miss. Could be it’s what made all that silly ritual so fun, too.

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