winter vacation

I’m home from the holidays after having a pleasant Christmas visit to my mom and sister in East Hee Haw, TN. My mom has a house on a man-made TVA lake there, and my sister Holly, still recovering from a terrible knee injury, lives there with her. Holly has two hilarious dogs, Mr. Wiggles (90-pound yellow lab) and Minnie (40-pound Tennessee brown dog).

For Christmas, Mom cleaned her cozy log house until it shone like a new dime. She put up a tree and decorated the whole place with cute chotchkes — jingle-bell doorknob thingies, little santas and snowmen everywhere, candles, holiday music. It was the first real traditional all-American Christmas I’ve had in years.

We had our traditional meal of eggplant Parmesan, a custom my sister and I started a few years back after my sister watched a truckload of caged, miserable Perdue chickens being hauled off in the rain to slaughter. She converted to vegetarianism on the spot, and we did a vegetarian Christmas that year, just her and me. Her conversion didn’t last, but our tasty tradition did. Eggplant Parmesan’s a good meal for company — tasty, filling, vegetarian-friendly — and while it takes a while to make, it’s simple and fairly foolproof. It’s easy to make a lot, to have that abundance of good, simple food that is so welcoming to guests and loved ones. Lots of basil, lots of cheese, baked and breaded eggplant slices, good sauce… Serve with garlic bread, salad, and wine. Leftovers taste even better the next day. I like our tradition.

My mom made scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. I explained — I hope patiently and politely — for the nine squadillionth time that I do not eat pork. My mom said I did, though, sometimes. (???) I said that no, I didn’t, not ever, except maybe at Jeff and Jeff’s Christmas party, where there were bacon-wrapped broiled dates with soy sauce. My mom asked — good question — why I did not eat pork. And I explained — I hope patiently and politely — that I knew that pigs were as smart as dogs, and as capable of affection and feeling, and that farming them in inhumane conditions and then killing and eating them feels wrong to me. As I said, this, I looked down at Mr. Wiggles, who had his giant yellow head on my foot. As he caught my eye, his tail began thumping the floor.

My mom told me that there was an error in my logic. I didn’t push it. Pushing it is not always the best way to change minds, and rarely the best way to treat family at Christmas. Later that day one of the funny-video shows showed a pet pig playing and being cute, and there was silence in the living room for the duration of the clip.


We watched the usual Christmas movies — the Grinch, A Christmas Story, and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (to my mind, the best and most charming of those darling old Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated films). Rudolph is dated and overrated, really a bizarre little movie… There is a fair amount of sexist dialogue (“this is man’s work”) and the way they treat Rudolph is dreadful. And the way Mrs. Claus rides Santa about getting fat in time for Christmas is really, really weird. Rudolph really is a document of the mores of another era. It hasn’t aged well.

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, however, is adorable. It’s the one with the Burgermeister Meisterburger and the story of all the Christmas traditions, from Santa’s red suit to his flying reindeer and his workshop at the North Pole. My sister and I, both total softies, got teary-eyed a few times. There’s a scene where Santa delivers gifts to the children of “Sombertown,” asking for a kiss in return for a toy. So innocent.

I got my digital camera! Can’t wait to use it. I got my sister fleece jammies and a robe, and got my mom, who’s currently into making desem bread, a Joyce Chen baking stone.

All through the holiday, I was torn with guilt. Was the money I spent on some people wasted? Can you ever be sure that what you buy will be used and liked and welcomed? I can’t bear waste; I just can’t bear it. Should I just abdicate from Christmas gift-buying entirely?

But I did very, very well with my vow to only give used, perishable, and handmade gifts. Mom’s baking stone was used, bought at a consignment shop. My sister’s gifts were new, but she was the only one I bought anything new for (well, I bought one friend a beautiful and inexpensive ceramic bowl at Lowe’s — a real steal, it was so pretty that it looked like a local potter had made it and I think it cost like 8 bucks). Everybody else got handmade knitwear (hats, scarves, armwarmers, etc.), and used things, soap, or food. For a friend who likes the taste of ginger, I filled a bowl with 5 or 6 kinds of ginger goodies, like candied ginger, a ginger chocolate bar, and ginger Altoids. Ginger Altoids, BTW, REALLY taste like ginger and are very tasty!

I have a few holiday takeaway lessons and ideas from this year.

First, I did not wrap gifts this Christmas. I re-used gift bags or just didn’t wrap. I did this to cut down on waste paper, and was pretty successful. I think I’ll continue giving gifts this way.

Secondhand book stores are great places to buy gifts. If you are a reader, your friends probably are, too. I once declared that all my gifts to everyone, forever, would be books. Might be a fun thing to do, not forever, but one Christmas sometime. I found some really good books for cheap with one trip to one good used book store.

If you live in Asheville, soap from Things From Home is great. Things From Home is the company of a talented local soap-maker named Mickey, and her handmade goat’s-milk soaps are incredibly emollient and deliciously scented. You can get them at Earth Fare. They’re the best bar soap I’ve used. I like the fragrance called Marlo and Me, the trademark scent of the line. I met Mickey once, and there is a beautiful story behind this scent. If you ever meet her, you should ask to hear it.

If your office is doing co-worker gifts, God, try to nip that in the bud with a suggestion to instead all donate 10 or fifteen bucks, and then draw names and the winner picks what local charity the cash goes to. IMO co-worker gift exchanges are embarassing, pointless and wasteful, a horrible custom. But if you must… I observed a co-worker gift exchange this year (feeling like a sociologist from another culture, watching natives enact a bizarre and mysterious rite), and the hit gifts were:

  • a soft, plush, microfiber blanket with feet in
  • a nice birdfeeder
  • a vase made by a local potter
  • a gift certificate to a good local restaurant
  • an envelope full of movie passes

The cheap KMart wind chimes were not a hit.

The Crimson Rivers, while not a bad movie, is really not a very good movie despite what your sister says, and is a very weird choice for Christmas Night viewing. Better to stock up on Christmas movies so you haven’t watched them all by the time that Christmas Night rolls around and you find yourself watching a French-language Jean Reno film about a serial killer.

When traveling by car, books on tape are human, but comedy and spoken word CDs are divine. Allow me to recommend Bill Hicks, Henry Rollins, Chris Rock, A Prairie Home Companion, and Eddie Izzard.


A note to knitters. Have you listened to Cast On, a knitting podcast? I discovered it recently, and listened to the most recent podcast while driving home from East Hee Haw. I totally fell for Cast On when the narrator talked about the importance of personal creativity, and said that making things was one of the most important and sacred of human activities. There was real power for me in hearing this sentiment framed, and framed in the context of knitting. Knitting as sacred, as an invaluable mode of self-expression! Creativity as, ideally, part of everyone’s life; the creative act as both sacred and everyday, vital to well-being. Hell yes. I plan to check out the rest of the series. Cast On has a little bit of a homebrew feel (some awkward readers), but overall episode 43 was wonderful.

Christmas is over! Long live Christmas. Today is chilly and white and wet, with a chance of snow. I’m taking the week off, as of today. Well, as of yesterday, really.

I leave you with a final thought of a Christmas well celebrated.

I was in the car the other day with my friends Randee and Gary, coming home from the nondenominational hippie church we go to. It was Christmas Eve afternoon, and I was headed home for the holidays. Later, my friends were going to have dinner with some good mutual friends, to have soup and salad and amazing desserts from the local bakery, and then play ping-pong and get sloshed on bourbon.

It’s a Merry Gary Christmas, I said. Ping-pong and bourbon.

Praise Jesus! said Gary.


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