It was a zoo. Not a very well supplied one, though. I’d even say, as zoos go, it was pretty embarrassing. The animals were there in mass—hungry hippos, roaring lions, and plenty of vultures—all of them hangry. The zoo keepers looked haggard, working since the crack of dawn without appreciation. Stalls were crowded, the place was out of water, the meat surplus was missing. I don’t know when I’ve seen worse conditions.
Oh. Now I remember. It was last Christmas. Honestly, grocery shopping during the holidays is a bear. And there’s still another week until Thanksgiving.
There’s so much to be thankful for that the celebration shouldn’t be eclipsed by its preparation. But expectations run high. Every tradition we cherish hangs in the balance while we run ourselves ragged so our families can make another memory together. I see you cringing—it’s like fingernails on chalkboard, isn’t it?
Well, there are so many things to consider. Will one turkey suffice, or should we buy two? Is it worth learning how to brine it Food Network style, or should I call State Farm to see if there’s a fire insurance rider for turkey fryers? Do I want help with the food this year? I’m pretty picky about my mashed potatoes. And stuffing. And cranberry relish. And pie. Especially the pie. It’s really no trouble if I do it all myself—that way, everything will taste the way I want it to and nobody will be disappointed. In the food. I think.
Every year, after the meal is finished and I'm left standing in the middle of the catastrophe I used to call my kitchen, I wonder why we do this to ourselves. I don't have to wait long for the answer.
And a mild case of masochism.
But mostly, tradition.
Sometimes I wonder if we should take a step back and reconsider our long-standing customs. Hey, I’m just like every other hangry hippo in that grocery store. This meal represents going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, bringing comforting memories along with it. And it’s not like we do this every day, so it’s worth all the exhaustion and stress, right? Hmmm. When I think about how frantic that store was today, it makes me wonder. And it makes my grown children wonder. Some of them have thrown out the turkey with the brining solution and opted instead to eat street tacos on Turkey Day so everyone including the woman of the house can relax and enjoy the day and being together.
It’s not traditional, but it’s so easy it leaves everyone feeling thankful.
I don’t think I’ve really touched on the most stressful part of our family holidays, though. It’s not the shopping or the cooking or the cleaning or the menu. It’s the family. As much as we love them, gathering everyone together for a much-cherished tradition like Thanksgiving has a tendency to bring out the worst in us. I don’t know of any other event in life that can so easily result in a terminal case of hives as this one. There’s always at least one relative in the bunch who can sink our carefully constructed ship and leave us worrying that family dynamics might blow the house apart faster than that turkey fryer.
If not for Hallmark movies and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I might lose my mind worrying about all the things that could go wrong while I try to make every celebration the Best Holiday Pageant Ever.
But, oh, honey, there’s more. Step away from the turkey and pour yourself some eggnog. This is just the warm-up to the main event—our very own Holly, Jolly Christmas. The worksheet for that one is longer than Santa’s naughty list. Buy the Christmas cards. Check. Stock up on wrapping paper. Check. Real tree or x-mas tree this year? Lights on the roof, candles on the mantle, presents all purchased, equity loan on the house applied for. Check, double check.
There is nothing simple about the holidays. Come to think of it, there’s not much that’s simple about anything in our lives anymore. All the conveniences that were supposed to make our lives better have, instead, complicated them. Smart phones are a good example. Did you know they keep our heads down so much chiropractors report a new injury they’ve dubbed Text Neck? Not only are we making less eye contact with other human beings, we’re picking up our portable internet devices on average fifteen hundred times a week and spending three and a quarter hours daily scrolling through Facebook, emails, text messages, and Words With Friends.
That hardly leaves any time for learning to brine a turkey.
And there’s something else. I really hate to admit this, but every year I start worrying about Christmas demands beginning in July. (Hard to believe I’d stress about a winter holiday when it’s a hundred and fifteen degrees outside.) There are all those presents to buy and wrap and mail—what if I fall behind? Why didn’t I figure out a better way to organize all the decorations when I stashed them all in the garage last year? Are the lights in the box on the bottom of the stack? Did I pack the stockings with the creche or are they on that shelf in my closet with all the other things I didn’t want to cook during our Arizona summers? Can we make that artificial tree last one more year or do we bring home a real one with its nostalgic scent and risk of a house fire?
The biggest stressor of all is that I’m not willing to scale down one single thing in order to simplify either Thanksgiving or Christmas. I want all the tradition. I want the cozy feelings. I want to make more memories. But once I pull all that Christmas stuff out of the garage and let it explode all over my house for the month of December, another countdown begins. In four weeks, I’ll have to gather it all back up and rearrange the house again so the neighbors don’t point and laugh at the last home on the block with the tree in the window. That’s when I want to convert to Catholicism and celebrate Epiphany along with Jesus’ birthday—the Christmas season doesn’t end for those guys until the middle of January.
Which one of you Protestants out there decided to cut Jesus out of His visit with the Magi just so you could get all those pine needles out of the carpet sooner?
Still, it’s worth the trouble. All it takes is time. A lot of time. It takes me a solid week to put all that stuff back in our garage again—the tree, the decorations, the lights, the stockings, the paintings on the wall, the manger scene on the front lawn, the Rudolph figurines on the piano, and the nativity set in the living room. Seriously. A solid week. And another two weeks after that to find and reassemble all the stuff I usually have around the house. When you throw in seven full days of turning my family room into our version of a Winter Wonderland, and another three weeks of baking and wrapping and buying and mailing, the amount of time I spend pulling off Christmas winds up at a grand total of about six weeks plus Thanksgiving, another ten pounds I’ll probably never lose, and a pinky promise I make to myself every January and break every November that I’m going to simplify my life and scale back.
It’s so sad. I could have spent all those hours earning my very own Text Neck.
So, this afternoon I stood in line at the sixty-seven thousand square foot zoo where I buy groceries, and settled for the full-price frozen turkey instead of the free one they would have given me if I’d agree to buy an overpriced ham, too. I couldn’t do that, of course, because the vultures had already snatched up all the free poultry. There was no distilled water anywhere on the shelves because, I assume, one must stock up on the stuff to put out flames from exploding turkey fryers. It wasn't all failure, though. I beat out a little old lady for the last two bags of cranberries. But in the end I was lost among the menagerie for so long, as I waited in line I nearly had a panic attack trying to remember where I parked my car.
I unloaded my cart onto the conveyor belt and looked at the weary clerk behind the counter who began to ring and bag it all up.
“How’s it going?” I asked her. “It seems pretty crazy around here.”
She smiled and ran my bags of sugar across the scanner. “I’m tired just like everybody else,” she answered. Then she leaned in conspiratorially. “But as long as we each keep our sense of humor, we might survive it all.” I smiled back, but she knew I wasn’t fooled for a minute by her little attempt at humor.
There’s a reason there are always monkeys in the zoo. They’re comic relief to the hangry hippos.
Thanks to Paris Buttfield-Addison for permission to use the photo above. The original can be viewed by following this link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/parisba/