He’s bigger than he looks on TV!
It just isn’t Christmas if a stranger in a mall fails to bash the back of my knee with the corner of a cardboard box. It’s a nice way to remember this tender part of my body, which goes virtually ignored until it’s throbbing and bruised at Christmas time.
That hasn’t happened this year. It’s a tradition I miss. Sure it makes me cranky, put-upon, and indignant but that’s all part of the season. It’s the war wounds of shopping that prove your love and devotion to friends and family. Presents are always best when there’s a story behind them.
When my cousin Jenny and I were really small we wanted Ernie and Bert puppets for Christmas. They were hot Christmas toys for all the wee Sesame Street fans in 1973. We probably intended to ask Santa Claus for them; I don’t remember if I was brave enough to squeak out a word while perched atop his formidable knee. My grandparents and my aunt and uncle scoured every store to find those puppets. They had the added pressure of having to get a hold of four instead of just two.
My aunt, Julie, relayed the dramatic story on more than one occasion when I was a teenager. They had all but given up, every store had sold out and they had tried everywhere. It was December 23 and they had come up empty. A gentle snow had started to fall when my aunt ventured out to Canadian Tire for something else entirely. And there they were. On one of the end shelves two Ernies and two Berts peered out from their boxes. She grabbed them, clutched them to her chest, and marched straight to the checkout, completely abandoning her initial mission. Had anyone tried to take those puppets from her they would have been hospitalized.
In our respective houses, Jenny and I woke up to Ernie and Bert under the tree. Christmas was saved. Add a messed-up but loving family, an unrequited love story, one sibling struggling to make ends meet and another on the verge of divorce, all going home for Christmas and you’ve got yourself a modern Christmas movie.
Me, Ernie, and definitely not Bert.
In recent years, I’ve spent Christmas in New York City, which is so festive at this time of year. All of the communal traditions are alive and well. There are outdoor Christmas markets, Christmas shows at Radio City Music Hall, and fantastic window decorations at Macy’s, Tiffany’s and other retailers.
Christmas display windows used to be a big deal in Toronto too. A trip downtown was a must to see the Santa Claus parade, and the window displays at Simpsons and Eaton’s. The window displays are long gone, as are Simpsons and Eaton’s.
I am beginning to resent the way the world is changing without my consent. And each time I do I think of my grandparents or my dad waxing poetic about past Christmas traditions—lugging home the tree which one of the dogs would immediately pee on, overloading plugs and blowing fuses, getting an orange in the toe of a stocking, and of course those window displays.
For my grandmother, Isabel, the early Christmases she celebrated after arriving here from Liverpool shaped future festivities. One of her fondest yet sad memories was of her grandmother almost setting the house on fire as she attempted to navigate a narrow doorway while carrying a fiery Christmas pudding. That tradition came to an abrupt end after that first year in Canada.
I have traditions I enjoy, some of them relatively new like watching Love Actually while sipping on Bailey’s-infused hot chocolate or going to the Kitchener Symphony’s Yuletide Spectacular; some of my traditions are old like watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or listening to carols while decorating the tree.
But there were others I didn’t realize I had until now as they all but disappear. When I pull into the mall parking lot, it’s not as hard to find a parking space. I may not get a close one but I don’t have to follow someone walking through the lot to their space and annoy people behind me as I wait, with my signal on, for that person to load the trunk, get in, put on their seat belt, adjust the radio, and finally slowly back out, turn the wheel too late, and complete an eight-point turn before clearing the space.
The crowds aren’t what they used to be because online shopping is more convenient. I don’t want convenient. I want memories and tradition, even if they’re unpleasant in the moment. So much of what we do is solitary now. There’s something magnificent about being out in a crowd of people preparing to celebrate and make the most of their traditions as I do the same. That commonality between strangers in public places has become more rare.
And there they are! Magic.
Tony shops online whenever he can which means we have a daily parade of Purolater, Canpar, UPS and Canada Post trucks stopping in front of our house. Some of the drivers don’t care if we get the package. They knock, drop it on the porch and I watch them climb back into the truck and pull away, without so much as a glance, as I retrieve the box. Maybe the Christmas stories of the future will be about thwarting thieves from stealing our packages.
I’m reluctant to get into the whole online shopping business. You never really know what’s going to show up on your doorstep. Tony bought his oldest daughter Meghan a human skull—not a real one, he doesn’t shop on those sites—for photography. The seller said it was human size, and it would be if humans were the same size as cats. I guess it could be sent back but it just seems like more hassle than it’s worth.
I like to pick things up and examine them. I like to take a free sample of tea or chocolate from the stores that dole them out. And I’m willing to come home with the back of my knee throbbing because I love my family and friends. This is what I’m willing to do for them at Christmas so that the funny socks match, the arms on the sweater are the same length, and the cowbell for Tony’s drum kit isn’t more of a mousebell.
I’ll take my pre-Christmas stress at the mall or downtown shops instead of on my doorstep. When I sit down to drink that cup of boozy hot chocolate it will taste extra scrummy because I know what I bought is human size, it will be under the tree and not in a shipping warehouse, and it may, if I’m lucky, come with a great story.