Tuesday, December 13, 2005

So Be Good, For Goodness Sake

Here’s what getting the Christmas cards out looks like in our family. All voices are mine.

“I’m set. I finally found the cards I bought the day after Christmas last year, I got the pictures printed, and I have the holiday-themed stamps. For once, I am captain of my destiny.”

(A day later)

“Need more stamps.”

(A day later)

“Immediate family should get the cards with the picture inserted in the front. I need more of those.”

(A day later)

“Why didn’t I order enough pictures?”

(A day later)

“And we’re…done.”

(Ten minutes later)

“What is this three-page list, in my handwriting, of addresses in the ornament box? Why does it say “People who sent us cards in 2004 who must get cards in 2005?”

(An hour later)

“Well, what is the rush fee for getting the extra picture prints by tomorrow…are you kidding me?”

(A day later)

“You can’t be out of holiday stamps! No, I can’t use the hearts, those are wedding stamps and everyone will think I didn’t plan!”

Next year, I am putting a large sketch of Daughter outside the front door with the words “Happy Holidays” emblazoned underneath. If you drive by and happen to see it, consider it your card.

But the project easily taking the title of Most Time-Consuming this year is our project which began with the best intentions. To begin this, I must travel back in time.

When Daughter was small, I waffled long and hard on the whole Santa thing. It’s terribly sweet to watch them put out cookies and write laborious letters, but the more you play it up, the more you have a slightly-older child thinking “No, really, how could he possibly get to every house in one night?” and “I never did get a good answer about how he got into houses without fireplaces.”. At some point, the child figures out that she was lied to, and even in a sweet and well-meaning way, I just couldn’t get comfortable with that. Enough people in this world are going to lie to her; I want her to know her parents are the place where she gets the truth. On the other hand, denying Santa from the get-go seemed churlish.

When Daughter was a little over a year old, I had a flash of inspiration. She had noticed Santa in a book for the first time, and asked after this bearded man in the strange track suit.

I began, “That is Santa Claus. It is said that he lives at the North Pole…”

Did you catch that? With a simple addition of three words, I could live with myself. Daughter had the entire story, and could choose to believe it or not. I was neither espousing nor denying the story. I was merely passing along some interesting information I had heard.

This held us for several years. Daughter would see Santa somewhere and I would say something neutral like, “Yes, that certainly looks like the one we’ve seen in books”, even when the Santa in question more closely resembled Keith Richards.

A toy or two arrived from Santa on Christmas morning but Daughter, in the heated glaze of object accrual, seemed less interested in the big guy than in figuring out how to put Barbie’s new outfit on to her stuffed unicorn.

I do regret my Santa-lite strategy during the first three weeks in every December, when my friends with kids have the incredibly powerful threat: “if you don’t behave, I’m calling Santa!” Luckily, I still have my Scary Mother Look.

So this year I thought Daughter was old enough to start helping kids less fortunate than herself. To me, being charitable works something like writing thank-you notes; it only becomes reflexive if you start it really early. Also, if I presented it in terms of “being Santa for other people”, I could start moving her out of the idea of Santa as a magical philanthropist who does her bidding as long as she behaves herself, and into the idea that Santa represents the kindness anyone can express to others, no matter what age or religion.

Not long after Thanksgiving, we were at our local bookstore. They had a tree set up with ornament-shaped pieces of paper, each with the name and age of a local child who wouldn’t be expecting much at Christmas, and would love a book. Daughter chose a girl her age, and another younger than herself and we went to the shelves to choose a book for each. Daughter happily chose a glittery princess book for the girl her age and a cat book for the younger girl. She held them tightly to her chest all the way to the register, where she grudgingly gave them up and I paid. I handed over the tags; the man attached them to the correct books, and put them behind him, in the area reserved for these books. Daughter looked crestfallen; she had forgotten why we were doing this. We had a quick conversation about not everyone having a mountain of princess and cat books in their room followed by a brief and spirited conversation about how we didn’t need to buy Daughter duplicates of what we had just gotten.

No one ever said the first attempts at charity were any more attractive than the first attempts at thank-you notes.

A week later, our church was sponsoring a gift fair. One of the options was to buy a Christmas present for a child in the foster care system. On impulse, I grabbed the cards of two little girls. They both requested art supplies, which I thought were wonderful and easy things to get, and didn’t involve the Bratz dolls in any way.

On the way home from church, Daughter and I stopped at Michael’s craft store. Why did it not occur to me that a Sunday afternoon, the first week of December, would be a hugely stupid time to go to Michael’s? We were hemmed in on all sides by women pushing carts precariously filled with gilded pinecones and fake poinsettias, fifteen scrapbook kits swaying dangerously on top. At one point, I nearly lost Daughter to an avalanche of Glitter Glue bottles. I wanted to leave, but we had very little time to get the presents back to the church for the kids. We got into a checkout line behind a woman who was buying enough unpainted birdhouses to build the avian Levittown. Daughter stared longingly at the candy, placed directly in a small child’s eye-line.

“I like Red Vines.”

“I know.”

“Those are Red Vines. Right there, next to the peppermints.”

“I see them.”

“So, may I have them?”

“No, sweetie.”

(Two minutes pass. I shoot mental rays at the woman, three people ahead of us, who appears to be trying to pay with Latvian food stamps.)

“How about half the Red Vines now, and half after dinner?”

“I’m not negotiating.”

(Time passes. Daughter strokes the Red Vines until I catch her at it, and shake my head fiercely. I’m not getting suckered into buying them just because she mauls them into the “Damaged” bin)

“Mommy, I have an idea. You can put the needlepoint kit back, and I’ll take the Red Vines instead.”

She forgot again the presents weren’t for her. A frank exchange of views followed.

We got the presents home, and I wrapped them and sent them off. Daughter had experienced her first charitable acts, and while it wasn’t flawless, I thought it boded well for next year.

Two days ago, an envelope came addressed to me. The sender was someone called Santa Knows Where You Are Sleeping, which struck me as somewhat threatening until I opened the package, and found a cover letter, and it all came hurtling back to me. Not long after Katrina, a charity was set up for people to become Secret Santas for children living in the afflicted region, children whose parents were spending every available dollar on survival. Back in September, I had signed up for this, thinking this would be a good way to introduce Daughter to the gift of giving. Being me, I had then totally forgotten doing it.

I now had an elementary school boy’s letter, telling Santa in spidery printing that he really liked Legos.

Daughter had given until it hurt, and I didn’t want her to think of charity as an unpleasant act. I would be in this one alone.

Santa got her car keys.

Santa went to Toys R Us in December.

I try to avoid Toys R Us as much as humanly possible. Each store combines the depressing qualities of a huge, soul-devouring warehouse outlet with the grimy, beaten-up ambiance of a poorly-run daycare center. I end up standing in the middle of the aisle holding up a toy in a dented box saying plaintively to some guy in a red vest, “Is it possible you have one in the back without pudding fingerprints?” I especially avoid it in December, because be it Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa, we’re all under the same hideous ticking clock, and not one of us is a better person for it.

But, my giftee wanted Bionicles, and I wanted the nearest store. I bought the winsome Toa Vakama Hordika, the fetching Toa Whenua Hordika and the captivating Toa Matau Hordika (all of the Shaker Heights Hordikas, I presume). I wrapped them in patented Quinn fashion, which is when you put a bow wherever the tape looks the lumpiest, stuck them in a box and mailed them off.

I’d really like to think this is the end of it. But if I could forget signing up for Santa Knows back in September, I might have forgotten signing up for several charities as well. It is possible that, even now, children are unknowingly stuck with the Amnesia Secret Santa. The reminder cards will arrive on December 23rd.

If you see me in a Rite-Aid on Christmas Eve, holding up a box of suppositories and ranting to no one in particular, “Kids like these, right?...Five to seven?” simply get me hydrated and wish me luck.

3 Comments:

Blogger houseband00 said...

Merry Christmas, Quinn! =D

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Melissa said...

My brother told me that got his holiday cards completed the first weekend in December. He took a digital photo of his 2 kids, uploaded it to the Costco website, where he could preview exactly what the photo cards would look like, order them, and pick them up within 24 hours. And knowing that type of person, he probably had his address labels already printed from a computer program that he spends just minutes each month updating so it's ready to go each December. I seriously question whether we are blood siblings - I got my holiday cards out a year ago last July, and they were only 4 years overdue (with kid photos from 2 prior years that had been ordered and printed, but never sent). Whether I even attempt cards or not this year is anyone's guess - no wonder I don't get many cards any more.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Sage Tyrtle said...

We do winter solstice, not Christmas, so I haven't done cards since I was 8 - but I do have a friend who takes the money she'd spend on cards and donates it to a charity every year. I think it's a wonderful idea.

2:26 AM  

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