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Daniel Ruth

The anxieties of Christmas past

All the decorations have been lovingly set in place, the stockings hung with care. The mistletoe stands ready for all that bussing. And at last the most dysfunctional day on the family calendar is nearly here.

Ah, yes, memories. Memories abound of so many Christmases past — the turkey disasters, the slamming of doors and seething anger over ill-thought-of gifts. Spending time with family members whose ham-handed political beliefs range somewhere between a Bund meeting and Pol Pot waking up on the wrong side of the bed.

These are the moments when you begin to harbor secret yearnings to have been an orphan.

Good times. Good times.

It's not that all Yuletide episodes necessarily recall the Sunni Triangle of Death. To be sure, many a year has come and gone when life around the Christmas dinner was perfectly blissful.

But then there are those incidents, which tend to rise to the top of the family oral history, when what started out a Norman Rockwell painting somehow devolved into Edvard Munch's The Scream.

There was that "I'll Be Home for Christmas" event many years ago when my late father thought it would be a bully idea to give my mother a set of golf clubs for Christmas. That was a bit like thinking Paris Hilton would be thrilled to receive a circular saw.

My mother, whose idea of exercise was driving to the mall, was somewhat less than enamored with the prospect of sweating. So the rest of the day for celebrating the Baby Jesus was spent with the matriarch stewing over the holiday feast. If memory serves, it's possible the bird was carved with a butter knife, just to be on the safe side.

Let the record reflect those golf clubs remained untouched by human hands longer than the artifacts from the Titanic.

Still, my father wasn't all that indifferent to my mother's needs, insisting that each year Santa would also leave a flannel nightgown, a new heating pad and the latest literary potboiler under the tree. Who says romance is dead?

More recently, there was the Custeresque ill-fated decision to relocate our Christmas to Chicago. It ought to have been an omen this was going to turn out about as well as Robert Scott's effort to reach the South Pole, when I realized at the airport that I had forgotten to load the Bombshell of the Balkans' luggage in the car.

We landed in nearly subzero temperatures. But not to worry, it eventually warmed up to a balmy 3 degrees. Yet the fun, fun, fun was only just beginning.

Each holiday season seems to bring a raft of Christmas movies about extended families thrust together in all manner of highly stressful, often bizarre, sometimes comedic situations. Where, you might think, do these Rube Goldberg-like plots come from?

They come from "My Big Fat Greek Chicago Christmas," that's where.

It started off warm and fuzzy enough, with the entire Hellenic clan gathered around a restaurant dinner table. Good cheer permeated the evening — and then someone said something.

In the end, it matters not who offended whom, or even what was said, or more important, how it was said. What was interesting — from an in-law point of view — was how fast the moment went from White Christmas to Robert De Niro's banquet scene in The Untouchables.

I began to wonder if anyone was going to receive golf clubs the next morning. No good could come from this.

When these moments occur, I've learned a valuable lesson: (a) Don't even think of trying to get involved when Greeks are caught in the act of being Greek — after all these are people who are still mighty annoyed over the Ottoman Empire — and/or (b) Order another cocktail and wait things out.

While it is certainly true a Greek will hold a grudge against a Turk over a long-dead cousin being shortchanged on a dinner tip — three centuries ago — within the family, the restaurant imbroglio was pretty much forgotten by the next morning. Pretty much.

The rest of the Chicago Christmas went swimmingly, partly, I think, because it was now colder outside than Siberia meets Alex Sink's political future and no one wanted to run the risk of melodrama requiring storming out into the night.

We returned home after a long, arduous day of travel delays to discover that Charlie, the snowy blond standard poodle, much to the frustration of the dog-sitter we had hired, had figured out how to unlock and open the front door.

Furniture piled up against the doorway to prevent his escape had been scattered about the living room. And there he was — at about 1 in the morning — sitting in the driveway, waiting for us to come home.

White Christmases in Florida can come in some amazing ways.

The anxieties of Christmas past 12/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 23, 2010 6:06pm]

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