My Holiday Traditions, Part 1

Thoughts & reflections regarding my personal holiday traditions have been rattling around my head for the last several weeks, so I decided to put it into writing. What follows is probably the most self-indulgent, least amusing bit of blogging/posting you will ever see out of me. And it comes in three parts, for triple the fun!

If the people that knew me best were to compile a list of adjectives to describe me, “sentimental” would rank pretty far down. Probably into the triple digits. Which is why it surprises people that I am a sucker for the time of year called “The Holidays.”

I think it may have its roots in my love of ritual, and my history buff’s appreciation for the power of tradition. I am an amateur folklorist, and a basically an overgrown (alcoholic) kid. All of these things combine to form a set of traditions I go through from October to December with the dogged tenacity of an autistic worker ant with OCD. Some are universal, some are deeply personal. And the scary thing is, more seem to get added from year to year, and very few fall away. Maybe soon I’ll experience that holiday “stress” people are always whining about.

First of all, I should probably start with my parameters of the term “holidays.” I stretch it slightly. Why not turn the last 3 months of the year into a party? To my mind, the holidays begin with the first appearance of Halloween stuff in the stores. Keep in mind, this is California, and it’s still around 85 degrees in the afternoon in early October, but with the first sign of candy corn in Target, I switch to holiday mode. I don’t necessarily do anything special at this time, I’m just in a generally better mood, I begin delaying major life decisions until “after the holidays,” and I begin taking things a little easier (if such a thing is possible.) It’s time for me to stop shaving and let the beard grow, and it’s also time for me and my sons to begin planning their costumes. A brilliant costume does not just throw itself together. Mail-ordering (if necessary), sizing, altering, and make-up tests, and repeat trips to the Halloween store take time, people. And if your community does not have a Halloween store, then you have truly been deprived. This year Cade’s “dead Victorian magician” (see the drowned corpse in The Prestige for a visual reference) was appropriately off-putting, and Cameron’s Venom could have stepped off the pages of a Marvel comic.

Which leads me to my first major holiday tradition: The viewing of one (or preferably several) of the classic Universal horror movies from the 1930s and 40s in the week leading up to Halloween. I have a set of three DVDs that not only have the original Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man, but also all of their increasingly shitty sequels. They wait patiently on the shelf all year, and only get trotted out during their designated time (Oct. 24-31).

The time period between the 29th and 31st is for carving pumpkins. (I can get away with indulging myself in this juvenile behavior because I have kids.) The boys design the faces; I do the hacking, and then roast the seeds. I usually have enough of these salty, dangerously sharp-hulled treats to last till Thanksgiving, because a few roasted pumpkin seeds go a long way. As much as I enjoy pumpkin-carving, I don’t much like trips to the pumpkin patch. Our most popular local patch, Bishop’s, is 20 miles away in Wheatland. It’s usually hot, dusty, crowded, and stinks to high heaven (they keep a variety of mangy, incontinent farm animals on display). So my pumpkin purchases take place at Bel Air, which sells pumpkins of equal or better quality without the pungent odor of goat shit.

Halloween night is given over to trick-or-treating, which mostly appeals to my kids. But I don’t mind walking them around. The weather has usually just begun to turn truly autumnal, and I enjoy a nice stroll. I also don’t mind door duty, i.e. candy distribution. Door duty for me generally involves the aforementioned Universal flicks, and a quality adult beverage. I generally live in low traffic areas, so I don’t have to get up too often to answer the door. After the kids have counted up their haul and headed off to bed, it’s time for a screening of either Ed Wood or Sleepy Hollow by Halloween aficionado Tim Burton. It’s also tradition for me to fall asleep before it’s over. Burton’s animation classic The Nightmare Before Christmas is left out because it wants to be both a Halloween and Christmas movie. Such artistic confusion violates my complex and completely arbitrary Holiday Tradition Rules, so my kids watch it with their mother or alone, but definitely without me.

The few weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving are also ripe with personal traditions. I usually have Veteran’s Day off, and for the past two years I have used the free time to make a pilgrimage to Woodland, the town where I grew up. Woodland is a good walking town, with blocks and blocks of huge sycamore trees (by this time of year, shedding copious amounts of orange leaves), hundred-year-old houses, and lots of ambiance. My family moved a lot from house to house in Woodland (in one case a move of only two blocks), until we moved away when I was 11. The business district, most of my old houses, my friends’ & relatives’ old houses, and my two elementary schools are within a three-mile radius, so it’s a simple (if tiring) way to spend a day off and stay in touch with my personal history.

The first really cool, rainy day after Halloween but before Thanksgiving is the day for screening Grumpy Old Men. (2008 Note: Sometimes there isn’t a really cool, rainy day between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Bummer.) Certainly no prize-winner for script or performance, I will not attempt to defend its merits as fine cinema. It’s the setting that makes this movie work: A small Minnesota town covered in thick snow, temperatures so cold the principal characters put on their full winter gear to get their mail, and ice-fishing. It allows a California native to get a visceral taste of a Midwestern winter. This movie succeeds on atmosphere alone. (Both the elderly Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau suffered cold-related health problems after location filming on this flick. Too bad it didn’t kill them before Out To Sea.)

Up next, Thanksgiving…and get your hands on the latest issue of the Idle Times zine (Issue #2) for more holiday ruminations.

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