The Unofficial Christmas Countdown

Walking down the streets of New York City at Thanksgiving, I heard the pleasantly annoying clang of Salvation Army bells. In my mind, those bells signal official recognition that the annoying onslaught of activities that falls under the rebric of "holiday festivities" is about to begin.

Now, right off I will admit that I enjoy Christmas much more than Hannukah. I hate holidays that change dates from year to year; it is confusing enough to have Massachusetts celebrate Veterans Day three weeks later than the rest of the country, but Hannukah is a bit much. The only thing the holiday satisfies is my pyromaniac tendency--being the second of five kids, my opportunities to light the Hannukah candles may be limited now, but for a while there, I had the market cornered. For quite a while, you see, my older sister was afraid to light a match, so another sibling and I fought for the honors. So now with age, the only benefit of Hannukah is the nightly battle for the lighting position.

Christmas, on the other hand, has always maintained itself as a traditionalist's stronghold. Society may have dictated I am too old to visit the Macy's Santa, but my mind hasn't quite accepted the fact. I'm perfectly willing to take any stray sibling or neighborhood child, (in my geriatric neighborhood, quite a find) to see the Big Guy. At one point, I could even catalogue which department store Santa gave the best goodies.

The best deal I've ever come across in my vast experience as a Christmas maven was a local bank that took pictures of kids (any age) with Santa, then sent you packing with a gift, food and a candy cane pen. Although the pen has long since dried up, the food digested and the toy discarded, the family still has the pictures of Santa and the clan. Some things never change.

A born cynic, I never actually believed in Santa Claus, of course. There were just too many fat, cheery elves in stores and street corners for me to buy the notion that a single Santa ran the whole show. It wasn't until I got to Harvard that my roommates, fools that they were, were convinced by their parents that this red-suited troupe was only a paunch subalterns for the real thing, and that the head honcho would make his annual appearance down the chimney on Christmas Eve. (I also never believed than an amazingly fat man could squeen down ours and countless other chimneys in the course of a few hours. Foolish me.)

So the fun that I found in my annual drive down Park Ave. and up Madison Ave. came not from the outdoor Christmas trees (you've seen one evergreen, you've seen them all) nor in the Santas on every street-corner, but in seeing how many blocks we could make on one light. Once a cynic, always a cynic.

That pleasure disappeared when the family moved to a suburb of Washington, D.C. Instead my sisters and I now pile into the car every Christmas Eve to roam the various housing subdivisions near where I live, searching for this year's winner of the "Most Garishly Decorated House Award." Aluminum foil doors, wrapped to resemble Christmas gifts, and always a hot item with the locals.

Christmas is synonymous with trees, but my parents--how I don't know--have always resisted the inevitable childhood pleas for a fancy evergreen. They act like my older sister is--one of those serious types who gets very annoyed at the sight of the officially sanctioned "X-mas" tree in Mather dining hall. All her friends are waiting for her to spearhead an "Equal Time for Menorahs" movement. Who knows, it might catch on--but I hope not.

Tree-trimming is simply lots of fun. Now it strikes me as ironic that during my high school days, I was unfailingly assigned the task of decorating the tree at work, despite the fact I was the only Jew in the office. Maybe it rubbed off; now I spend my pre-Christmas days rushing from one friend's house to another helping to trim any tree in sight. Once I was able to decorate three trees in one afternoon--a North America record, as far as I know.

Of course, the ritual of the department store is fun, too. With most of my presents already bought (I begin with eager anticipation in July) and having sttod in the first of many lines to get my plane ticket home, I'm set. Strains of "Alvin and the Chipmunks sing the songs of Christmas" will soon be vying with Dad's classical music for stereo time; hte battle looms. I'm not climbing the walls to leave yet; but this weekend, when my roommate and I launch the first annual "Chocolate Chip Cookie Uncooked Dough and Finished Product" munch-out, the official count-down will begin. Unofficially, it's 16 days until Christmas.