December 26, 2001
California Christmas


In California, everybody opens their Christmas presents in bed. That's the first thing I learned yesterday.

(Actually: first they get up and read their e-mail ... is that a feral pig behind me? then they make coffee, then they call their grumpy children to wake them up and wish them a 'Merry Christmas,' then they check their message forums ... and THEN they open their presents.)

They sit in the middle of the bed in their p.j.'s, with a big pile of wrapped gifts between them -- most of them postmarked TicTac -- and they open their presents, one by one. Calendars. Slipper socks. Candles. CD players. Hello Kitty Band-Aids. Guitar World gift certificates. Insanely expensive pearl necklaces. When they've finished opening the presents from other people, they open the gifts they got for each other. That's another difference: husbands and wives in California exchange gifts with each other! They give each other Motörhead T-shirts and cartoon videos and Simon & Garfunkel Boxed Sets ... stuff they know their spouse is going to like, mainly because they know their spouse, and because they pay attention, and because they take pleasure in making each other happy.

It's actually sorta nice.

Christmas Day moves a lot slower in California than it does in TicTac. I'm not sure why, exactly ... although I suspect it's because there isn't as much to do. No gigantic holiday meals to cook. No bloody Tot battles to referee. No Christmas Eve hangovers to nurse or camouflage or override. Once the presents are opened and the beds are made, in fact, the day turns into just another day-off from work for a little while ... hanging around the apartment together, burning CD's, eating frosted cinnamon rolls ... until it's time to get in the car and drive to the in-laws' house for Christmas dinner.

In California,wearing his motörhead t-shirt they make you go HIKING before Christmas dinner. They trick you into it, too: they tell you that you're only 'going for a walk' ... just to 'stretch your legs,' they say, and to 'get some fresh air,' and to 'work up an appetite. ' The next thing you know you're huffing and puffing, ankle-deep in mud and pig poop, up the side of a mountain. ("Oh!" they say, all wide-eyed innocence. "Did I forget to tell you about the feral pigs?") Once you get to the top of the trail, though, you have to admit that it is sort of cool. 

The view is spectacular. The air is pristine. The quiet is like balm on your frazzled spirit.

Plus you're ravenously hungry, by the time you finally wash the pig poop off your Reeboks and take your place at the dinner table. And that's another thing: Christmas dinner in California is actually served at a TABLE ... as opposed to a TV tray or a buffet or a spot in front of the big screen/the XBox/The Baby Boomer Chat Room. We're talking cloth napkins and centerpieces and Grandma's bone china. (True, it's not your Grandma's bone china.  But it's somebody's Grandma's bone china, and that's almost as good.)

You won't see gravy at Christmas dinner in California, apparently.  You won't see salad dressing or Cool Whip or butter or pasteurized cheese food products, either, although they do seem to be very fond of something called "garlic," which they pretty much put on everything, from the Christmas Eve tortellini to the Christmas Day prime rib.  (No Christmas turkey, by the way. So no Ten O'Clock Sandwich.)  If you're hungry before dinner, don't look for the Chex Party Mix: it's all about "vegetable crisps" and hummus. If you've got a yen for an ice-cold Pepsi with your dinner, better remember to bring your own: they frown on that sort of thing here. If, on the other hand, you're resigned to a big ol' slab of half-frozen supermarket cheesecake for dessert, you're in for a pleasant surprise. They make their cheesecake from scratch in California ... and once you've had the homemade kind, there is no going back.

Even the dinner conversation is different in California. Nobody talks about sports. Mostly they talk about Tehachapi Women's Prison, and about the stock market, and about how R.E.M. can jangle but they can't rock, and about how "Soylent Green" proves that even a really sucky movie can become a part of the pop cultural canon.  But at least they're not outside in the garage, calling each other "Fuckhead" and beating each other to a bloody pulp.

I was prepared for my first California Christmas to seem weird and foreign and different from the kind of Christmases I'm used to, and for me to feel sad and weepy and homesick a lot of the time, and for David to have to hand-hold me through the tricky spots.

It did, and I was, and he did.

Still, I think this year has helped me realize that in most of the ways that count, a California Christmas is every bit as warm and meaningful as Christmas anywhere. It's still about family. It's still about showing appreciation for the people in your life, near and far. It's still about giving more than receiving ... and about emotional significance more than material abundance ... and about passing traditions and values along to the next generation.

And you still find yourself breathing a gigantic sigh of relief when the whole &$#% thing is OVER with.

Even in California.



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no feral pig sightings ... but we DID see a coyote on the ridge.