December 26, 2001
In California, everybody
opens their Christmas presents in bed. That's the first thing I learned
(Actually: first they
get up and read their e-mail ... 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
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
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
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,
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
Sandwich.) If you're hungry before dinner, don't look for the
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
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,
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
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
And you still
find yourself breathing a gigantic sigh of relief when the whole
&$#% thing is OVER
Even in California.
throw a rock