Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
Three for the Holidays
[p.108]Sensitivity training, consciousness raising, heightened awareness—I’m for all of them. But just for the record, may I say they do complicate holiday gift-giving.
I first noticed this phenomenon several decades ago when I joined the Mormon church and foreswore liquor and tobacco. Well, actually, I didn’t have to foreswear them for myself, since the closest I’d come to liquor was the rum-sodden Christmas fruitcake made by our dorm mother, and my main consumption of tobacco consisted of breathing in the fumes of dorm-mates’ cigarettes during all-night cram sessions for the Humanities 101 exam.
But in the years B.C. (before conversion), I always felt kindly towards liquor and tobacco for one simple reason: they were the only presents I could ever think of for my father, the only things I knew he liked and would use—short of his own schooner to [p.109]sail down the Gulf of California and away from it all. In the years A.D. (you figure it out), I was never again able to buy him a present—for birthday, Christmas, Father’s Day, St. David’s Day (we’re Welsh)—with any kind of confidence at all. Scruples cast a haze over the spirit of generosity then, and the fog has only thickened since.
My little niece came along a couple of years A.D., and she was a delight to buy for. She was a tiny, beautiful little creature, delicate of features and sweet of disposition. (She is still delicate and sweet, but since she has twice made me a great-aunt, causing me to put myself in the same musty pigeonhole as Dickens’s Miss Haversham, I view her with a somewhat more jaundiced eye.) I bought her the frilliest pink dresses and the frothiest pink dolls and the cutest little Junior Miss mock makeup kits and the most cunning toy kitchen sets—and then it all came to a screeching halt. A decade after I got Religion, I got Feminist Consciousness. So much for pink dresses and froufrou dolls. I don’t think Carrie ever did figure out about the carpentry sets, the soccer ball, and the flowers I sent on the day she first started to menstruate.
I sent my parents, and selected other friends, boxes of Cummings chocolates for several years, until Mother made it quite clear that neither of them were eating sweets or chocolate at all any more. Another friend loved nothing better than a tender steak, so I sent him special gourmet Christmas boxes of Iowa filet—only to find out he had gone off red meat altogether and was starting to look squint-eyed at chicken.
You try it. Try Buying American, checking to make sure no endangered animal has given its life for your present, making sure the toys you buy for kids won’t lodge in their throats or trigger latent criminal violence, double-checking to see that your gifts aren’t sexist, Freudian, or sub-consciously hostile. Try not thinking about the forests that made the supreme sacrifice for your gift-wrapping; try ignoring the thought of the emaciated kids in Africa who could live a week on what that gift-wrapping costs.
I almost bought a piece of crystal the other day, a lovely sculpture of a cluster of grapes. Almost. Then the ghost of Cesar Chavez rose to haunt me, and I declined. Shopping takes longer and longer these days, doesn’t it?
[p.110]You hear it every year. People inevitably bring it up. “The real holiday spirit.” Do you have it? Have we got it? Where has it gone? Does anybody have it anymore, etc. I’ve come to dislike the phrase, and now I think I know why.
The problem isn’t with the holidays; it’s that word “real.” I’ve noticed that that word is being used a lot these days, more and more often as a club, or at least as a barb.
Almost every group seems tempted to do an Us-and-Them polarization, and that word “real” lies at the heart—or heartlessness— of the division. Real men don’t do X,Y, or Z. Real women respond this way, or that. Group M aren’t real Christians, no matter what they profess. In Israel, if I understand it correctly, some are claiming that Group J aren’t real Jews.
In every profession, there are those who want to keep the blue-chip label for an exclusive few. LPNs aren’t real nurses; Rogerians aren’t real therapists; we even get instructions about who are real realtors—pardon me: Realtors. If some poor kid in the Schmidlap family messes up, some kinsman will be sure to say, “Well, he’s not a real Schmidlap.”
And the real holiday spirit? Well, C. S. Lewis wrote that the confirmed nature lover doesn’t necessarily go searching for beautiful vistas and overlooks, but simply enjoys being in nature, whatever that nature is at the moment, that the nature-lover loves the totality, the richness of what Nature is, in all her variety. I suspect what most of us mean by the real holiday spirit is a feeling we once had under very particular circumstances, or a feeling we think we had, or a feeling other people tell us we ought to have, or have a right to, or something on that order.
For me, the real holiday spirit is the spirit that one is genuinely feeling at a given moment during the holidays. That feeling may be melancholy, nostalgia, joy, affection, longing, aspiration, mourning, joviality, kinship, disappointment, gratitude, grief, the whole lexicon. We expect the happier emotions to prevail during the holidays, and certainly we can rejoice when they do. But to say that the darker emotions have no place, are not also the real spirit of the occasion, is to reduce holidays, with their rich possibilities of complex personal and community ritual, myth, and archetype, to a scripted, one-dimensional TV sit-com.
Well, it’s that time of year again. How’s Claus holding up? Has he solved the union problems there? How did the affirmative action thing work out; have you had to build a new dorm for the women workers? (I understand they don’t like the word “elves” any more.) I heard that some of the animal rights people were giving C. trouble about the teams, also. Thanks for the photo you sent in the Christmas card. Claus looks great—how much has he lost now? He’s going to end up looking like the European branch of the family. You, of course, look marvelous as always.
As to my list this year, any or all of the following would be appreciated, old friend:
1. Moisture—rain, snow, whatever you’ve got. The trout in the Provo River need it, the watershed needs it, the ski industry needs it. Send it via native rainmaker, cloud-seeding, or the old-fashioned way, but send it.
2. Clean, invisible air. Last February was a real Valentine, dear heart. Can you manage it again? And the League of Women Voters have been such good little girls in Utah County; they may actually get the poisons out of our valley, so send them all something lovely. Maybe a class action suit, tailor-made.
3. A sense of priorities. Lots of people in this state seem eager to get certain books out of the schools, but precious few are concerned about getting books into the schools-textbooks, and the other luxuries, such as equipment, supplies, up-to-date office machines, and that ultimate luxury, teachers.
Guess that’s it for this year, friend. Give my love to Claus and the staff. I’ll leave the porch light burning on the Big Night, and some Wheat-Thins and Perrier by the fireplace. Stay warm up there, and stay well. We need you.