"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Hap, Hap, Happiest Holidays




One of my favorite anonymous essays, "The Bad and Worse Sides of Thanksgiving," appeared in The New Yorker, twenty - some years ago. I wish I knew who wrote it, but so far Google has not been able to help me track down this information. The unnamed satirist declares that "At last it is time to speak the truth about Thanksgiving. The truth is this: it is not a really great holiday. Consider the imagery. . . . Consider the participants. . . . Consider also the nowhereness of the time of the year. . . . Consider for a moment the Thanksgiving meal itself. . . . What of the good side to Thanksgiving, you ask. There is always a good side to everything. Not to Thanksgiving. There is only a bad side and then a worse side."

Maybe, out of context, these words sound cynical, but no -- you must believe me -- reading this essay always lifts my spirits! Let's backtrack to the second consideration:

" . . . the participants, the merrymakers. Men and women (also children) who have survived passably well through the years, mainly as a result of living at considerable distances from their dear parents and beloved siblings, who on the feast of feasts must apparently forgather . . . usually by circuitous routes, through heavy traffic, at a common meeting pace, where the very moods, distempers, and obtrusive personal habits that have kept them happily apart since adulthood are encouraged to slowly ferment beneath the cornhusks, and gradually rise with the aid of the terrible wine, and finally burst forth out of control under the stimulus of the cranberry jelly!" ("Notes and Comments" section of The New Yorker, November 1978; reprinted in the 8th edition of Assignments in Exposition, 201 - 02)

A humorously tender and well - acted version of this exact scenario plays itself out in my family's favorite Thanksgiving movie, Home for the Holidays (1989). The wacky, loving, conflicted and gratifyingly realistic clan (living in a gratifyingly realistic house) is so perfectly cast that I have to list almost everybody: Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Chaplin, Claire Danes, Robert Downey, Jr., Charles Durning, Steve Guttenburg, Holly Hunter, Dylan McDermott. When they "forgather" and drink the terrible wine and eat the terrible jelly, the result is precisely as described above, right down to the disastrous carving of the turkey and the final confrontation between the two feuding sisters: "Well, we don't have to like each other, Jo. We're family."

Garrison Keillor captures this same tension of home as where you live vs home as where you're from, in his sketch "Nine Lessons and Carols" (A Prairie Home Christmas). The "carols" are what you would expect: "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "No Christmas Like a Home Christmas," "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays," and so forth. The "lessons" are about an extended family planning their annual get - together. Despite all the well - intentioned over - organizing, the center does not hold. As all the old conflicts re-surface, the "sensitive" youngest sister Jessica exclaims woefully, "I want to go home!" And stressed - out, edgy older sister Janice reminds her curtly, "Oh, you are home. Just make the best of it!"

Another holiday favorite, filled with a litany of family - centered wisdom, is Chevy Chase's Christmas Vacation. Yes, we know it's ridiculous, but it's a keeper! The mom, Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) provides a role - model for how to live peaceably amidst a houseful of relatives: "I don't know what to say, except it's Christmas and we're all in misery" (i.e, "You are home, so make the best of it!").

The best lines come along when the holiday is crumbling apart, and the long - distance relatives decide to make an early departure. Clark / Chevy bars the way:

"Where do you think you're going? Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We're all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny f-----g Kaye. . . . Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where's the Tylenol?"

When Ben and Sam were little, I had a moment of misgiving about letting them hear Clark's use of the "f" word; but, otherwise, it was so much fun to watch this movie with them, I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. As they got older, I admitted my shame to them, but they were quick to reassure me that, having never been exposed to such diction before, they didn't even know that they'd just heard a bad word: "We just thought it was Danny Kaye's middle name!" (Yes, they also knew who Danny Kaye was thanks to numerous viewings of White Christmas."
In all of these narratives, the "worse side" is the family "melt - down." The "better side" is the hope of detente, if not resolution. Even the anonymous "Bad and Worse Sides of Thanksgiving," after the downward spiral, ends hopefully:

" . . . the gods are merciful . . . there is a grandeur to the feelings of finality and doom which usually settle on a house after the Thanksgiving celebration is over, for with the completion of Thanksgiving Day the year itself has been properly terminated . . . But then, overnight life once again begins to stir, emerging, even by the next morning, in the form of . . . window displays and . . . Christmas lighting . . . Thus, a new year dawns . . . the phoenix of Christmas can be observed as it slowly rises, beating its drumsticks, once again goggle-eyed with hope and unrealistic expectations."

I guess that explains why so many families have turkey for Christmas dinner, so soon after having it for Thanksgiving -- that roasted fowl piece de resistance is a symbolic Phoenix of Hope!

The Phoenix

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

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