They have a name for me. They call me a Grinch, a curmudgeon, a Scrooge, and a grouch. The number of words available to describe me, and others like me, says something about how common we are. We are legion. And for good reason.
Christmas is an overblown, garish exercise in overindulgence. It promotes stress, reduces civility and encourages greed. Still, most people go merrily along with it, enduring its many traumas, and looking down their noses at people like me— people with the gall to call it like it is. Hum bug!
Yet for every Ebenezer Scrooge there is a Bob Cratchit, a winsome, guileless optimist who retains the joyous naivete of a six year old when it comes to the season. These people are as annoying as a continuous loop of Feliz Navidad. The only problem is that, for me, this person is my wife.
Marianne loves Christmas. And as is typical of her kind, she wants others to enjoy it too. For years she has been trying to get me to see what I’ve been missing, while I’ve been trying to break her of her pathology. Each season it’s a tug of war. First, I gain a little, and then she pulls back.
This year I hit on a solution. I found a way to persuade Marianne of the absurdity of the holiday, while appearing to be all bought in. My plan? To stuff so much Christmas into her figurative stocking she would choke on it, to stalk her with an overabundance of joy.
Here in Chicago we have a cornucopia of Christmas attractions on which to feast. But, like candy canes and gingerbread, indulging too much can be nauseating. It was my plan to go whole hog, to take on more than could be reasonably stomached, and to do it in a short period of time, just one and half days. We would see how much my wife liked Christmas then.
Cruising for a Bruising
Our Christmas binge began on Friday night when we boarded the Mystic Blue, a Lake Michigan party yacht docked at Navy Pier. Marianne’s employer had rented the boat for the annual office Christmas party, and the evening got off to a rocky start when Marianne, in her haste to leave the office, forgot the tickets. In the past this was the sort of thing that would’ve caused me anxiety, but given my devious plan, this was a winner no matter what. For if Marianne’s co-workers failed to discover her oversight and bring the tickets, we would not be permitted onboard, which meant we would get to go home and skip the gooey holiday cheer. But if they stepped up and saved her, she would be taking the first bites of what would soon become a gut-busting glut of Christmas indulgence, enough to break her.
They came through. We boarded. The boat was actually pretty fun. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and Marianne seemed at ease, enjoying the company of her colleagues, basking in the holiday glow. I snapped some pictures of the Chicago skyline at night, which looked nice, all made up for the holidays with red and green accents beneath a sickle moon. And as we headed home Marianne seemed content, pleased with her Christmas so far.
I reminded her, “When we get home we have to go to bed right away. We have a big day tomorrow.” She had no idea.
Running Around on the Holidays
We rolled out of bed at 6am and drove to Soldier Field. The temperature was 7 degrees. In the shadow of the stadium more than a thousand Santas had gathered. I was one of them.
I was participating in the Santa Hustle, a 5k Christmas-themed running race in which each runner wears a Santa cap and beard while running up and down the lakefront. Near the starting line Christmas music blared. Snowmen and elves cavorted. Hot cocoa and candy canes were being handed out. How festive!
Marianne was not participating but had come along to take pictures and provide moral support. For 30 minutes or so she would be standing around in the frigid weather, immersed in a sea of silly Santas, subjected to a barrage of relentless Christmas music. Surely she would feel the unwarranted nonsense of it all and begin to bend under the pressure.
But as I bounded through the starting gate, there she was, happily snapping pictures. The route was an out-and-back. It was cold as hell. I was a full mile into it before the numbness in my hands and feet began to subside. I could only imagine how my poor wife was faring, standing there, huddled against the chill, enduring Burl Ives singing Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.
When I crossed the finish line, I expected her to be gone, escaped to the car, seeking some semblance of warmth and normality, but she was there waiting for me, all smiles.
“Aren’t you cold?” I asked, trying to catch my breath.
“Freezing,” she said through chattering teeth, and then turned around and offered to assist a group of sweaty Santas who wanted their picture taken near the finish line.
On the way home she confessed, “I’m looking forward to a hot shower.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “But make it snappy. We have a lot to do. It’s the holidays and we are going to have so much fun.”
After showering, we hustled over to the Lincoln Park Conservatory to take in the poinsettia show. Each year the 1920’s era hothouse in Chicago’s prettiest park features a colorful array of Christmas spurges in their characteristic bright red, as well as orange, cream and pink varieties. Winding through the flower arrangements are model trains, and nestled between them are miniature buildings set amidst whimsical water features.
We strolled along. I encouraged Marianne to take it all in, to take her time, knowing that soon the pressure of our overstuffed Yule Tide schedule would begin to weigh on her, making her anxious and out of sorts, the way I usually feel around the holidays.
Marianne likes flowers but she preferred not to linger. She reminded me we had a lot to do. We needed to buy a Christmas tree and Christmas decorations. After all, I had big plans.
As part of my scheme I had suggested going full bore, decorating the house with Christmas lights and a festive figure. At first Marianne had hesitated. We had never decorated the house before. But I pointed out that perhaps my lack of holiday spirit had to do with the cheerless half measures we had employed in the past. “We needed to really get after it,” I told her. “Do it up right for a change.”
She happily relented.
A Forlorn Festive Figure
So we headed over to the Whole Foods Market, but Marianne didn’t like the trees there, so we went to Home Depot. This was good. She was fussing over the tree, which would waste time and create pressure leading to stress that would expose the ludicrous futility of it all.
But once she found a tree she liked she seemed appeased and happy. Even the prolonged search for a proper festive figure couldn’t unnerve her. “I want a plastic snowman,” I said.
“I prefer a wire deer,” she said, “but you get whatever you want.”
“Don’t just brush this off,” I grumbled. “We should to do this together. It’s Christmas.”
“Okay,” she said. “I would like a wire deer.”
“They’re all out of wire deers,” I pointed out.
“Here’s one,” she said. “It’s a grazing wire deer, with its head down, as opposed to an alert wire deer, with its head up.”
“A grazing wire deer?” I said. “Who puts out a grazing wire deer?” The box had been opened and retaped. Someone had returned it. The whole thing was sort of forlorn, not festive at all.
“It’ll be fine,” she said. “We’ll be different.” She gave me a sweet smile, which melted my annoyance away.
What did I care, anyway? The festive figure was her thing. Christmas was her thing. I should be taking it all in stride. She should be the one cracking under the pressure. Only she wasn’t.
Frustration on Display
Back at home we tackled the lights. Marianne had bought icicle lights, which feature an extra strand every six inches that hangs down. They come out of the box like a tangled rat’s nest. She saw me struggling with them and showed me how to straighten them out and get them to hang right.
Then the twist ties were too short for the porch railings. Then we were short on outlets. Then the plugs didn’t work with the extension cords, and the whole thing was beginning to grate on us. Even Marianne was beginning to become irritated. To make matters worse, we still had to put up the Christmas tree and decorate it before heading back downtown to go shopping on State Street before heading out to dinner and the ballet. The pressure was on. And then the wire deer fell over.
Marianne snapped. She complained bitterly about the festive figure and the uncooperative lights and the Chinese workers who made them. She denigrated the American consumer who demands cheap Chinese junk and the American businesses that kowtow to them. She was a hair’s breadth away from condemning Christmas and the whole idiotic self-flagellation of it. She was trembling on the edge. I could sense it.
Here was my chance to push her over the edge, to provoke a full blown tirade and get her to see the folly of her ways and end this Christmas nonsense once and for all. But I couldn’t do it. She’d been such a good sport, going along with me on all of this. I didn’t want to make her sad.
I went over and crouched down and stood the wire deer up again. I resumed trying to stake it to the ground. Marianne came over and helped. She noticed that the wire stems at the base of the neck were not fitted into the sockets at the top of the withers. She fitted them in and just like that the figure stood up.
She suggested we postpone putting up our Christmas display until the next day, and I took pity on her. After all, we still had a lot to do. We had a big day ahead of us. Marianne has about a million ornaments and loves hanging them on the tree. Usually she does it all by herself. But not this time because I had an agenda.
We went inside and put up the Christmas tree. Marianne has about a million ornaments. She loves hanging them on the tree and does not really require the presence of anyone else to get pleasure out of it, although she likes it when others join her, others with the right spirit.
Usually I decline hanging ornaments. It strikes me as sort of mental, just another Christmasy waste of time. But since I had already scheduled it as part of our overstuffed agenda, I lent a hand. Before long Marianne’s frustration faded, and she was as happy as a child, enchanted by the ornaments, delighted by the memories they evoked, touched by my participation.
I must admit it wasn’t entirely a downer. It was touching to see her so gratified, and the tree did look sort of nice when it was done. What’s more, the combined effort sped the process along, and we were done in no time, ready for the next item on the Christmas agenda.
We took a cab down to State Street and got out at Macy’s. I am a Chicago guy, born and bred, and have therefore surrendered to the tradition of viewing the Christmas windows on State Street at several points over the years. The windows are decorated with colorful mechanized figures that draw the attention spectactors, craning their necks, lifting up their children, trying to see past each other.
Usually it’s cold and crowded, and in this day and age, with CG animation and lifelike animatronics, the displays are quaint at best. But I insisted Marianne participate, hoping she would find it aggravating, yet another stress-inducing Yule Tide obligation.
To my surprise, however, the windows were easily approachable. The displays were clever and colorful, and she enjoyed it.
We paused in front of each display, pointing things out and smiling. We enjoyed watching the parents with their children almost as much as the displays themselves. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. The Salvation Army Band played. A group sang Christmas carols. Marianne reached over and held my hand. She is really such a sweet person.
Warm and Winsome
Inside the store it was the usual frantic mayhem, but we had already bought our gifts online so there was no need to feel pressured or stressed. It occurred to me that I had missed an opportunity here. Surely Christmas shopping at Macy’s would’ve driven Marianne around the bend, but by now my plan was running out of steam.
We walked through the store, taking in the decorations, and went back out and took Washington Street and turned south on Michigan Avenue, where the ice skaters were going round and round at Millennium Park, and headed down to the Gage restaurant. The Gage is located in a gorgeous old Louis Sullivan designed building. The interior has mosaic tile floors and warm wood accents. The food is top notch, which is unusual for the Loop.
Marianne ordered a richly deserved glass of wine and we tucked into a cozy repast of seared duck breast and spiced pumpkin soup. As for stress, there was none, even though we had to watch the time, as we had a 7pm curtain up for the ballet.
Marianne was buoyant. She thanked me for spending the whole day with her doing Christmasy stuff. I graciously accepted her thanks and gave her a kiss, forgetting that by now she was supposed to be groaning under the weight of so much Yule Tide cheer, ready to reject the whole thing. Even I was feeling a little winsome.But the last thing on our agenda was sure to ruin that.
A Tedious List of Gifts and Goodies
I have never liked the Nutcracker Suite. The story is insipid, the dancing rote, the music like wallpaper. Year after year the Joffre Ballet mounts the production in the same way that people line up to get their licenses renewed, because they have to. Yet year after year everyone gushes over the magic of the show and prattle on about how moved they were by it. Marianne loves it. For me it’s a struggle to stay awake.
One consolation is the Auditorium Theatre, which is one of Chicago’s premier performance venues. Built in 1889 and designed by Adler and Sullivan, its richly detailed vaulted ceiling and gorgeously accented galleries hearken back to an earlier era. It’s a pleasure just to sit there, soaking it in. But then the lights go down, and if it’s December, the Nutcracker comes on.
Little Clara is just one of several children at a rather tumultuous and overly long Christmas party. For some reason the rather diabolical Dr. Drosselmeyer shows up and gives all the children presents. Clara gets a nutcracker, which seems like an odd gift to give a child. Then she goes to bed.
The house is infested by mice. Lacking the services of an exterminator, all Clara can do is dream that the mice are vanquished by the nutcracker and a company of toy soldiers. In the event, however, the nutcracker is killed, which ought to end the play right there. But it keeps going. The nutcracker is resurrected and transformed into a prince with a singular talent for ballet, which strikes me as convenient. Then the prince and Clara dance.
After the intermission, the story takes a sharp turn into unexpected territory and suddenly Clara is being entertained by all the toys and candies handed out at the dinner party. While Clara is blissfully dreaming, I am shifting in my seat. Finally, after working through the entire tedious list of gifts and goodies the story comes to an abrupt end with Clara confused about whether she was dreaming, and most of us not really caring.
As the curtain came down, the audience bolted to its feet, applauding enthusiastically. Marianne was thrilled. I pretended enthusiasm. I could’ve sat sullenly in my seat with my arms crossed, but I was beginning to realize that pretending to be enthusiastic about Christmas is almost like really enjoying it.
Feeling it in my Stomach
We walked a few blocks and got a cab. On the way home Marianne said she was sorry I hadn’t liked the ballet.
“It’s not your fault,” I told her. “You’re not Tchaikovsky.”
She leaned over and put a hand on my arm. She looked me in the eyes. “Thank you for a wonderful day. Thank you for doing all that stuff with me.”
I studied her expression. “So it wasn’t too much for you? You’re not sick of it all?”
She smiled. “How could I be sick of it, I got to do it with you.”
Aw, what the heck. What could I say? My plan had gone down in flames, but it wasn’t so bad. Deep down inside, somewhere in the pit of my stomach, I was feeling a warm glow. If I hadn’t know any better, I might have mistaken it for the spirit of Christmas.
Check it out…
The Mystic Blue Christmas Cruise
401 E. Illinois Street, Suite 310
Chicago, IL 60611
Santa Hustle 5K
770 Industrial Dr, Unit A
Cary, IL 60013
Lincoln Park Conservatory
2391 N Stockton Dr.
Chicago, IL 60614
Macy’s State Street Store
111 N State St
Chicago, IL 60602
24 S Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60603
The Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker Suite
at the Auditorium Theatre
50 East Congress Pkwy
Chicago, IL 60605