To begin this discussion, one far lighter and almost, at times, optimistic, I need to spit out this quote to highlight the direction I will, no doubt, always go. This is a mediocre song by the doomed Hank Williams, Jr. He shared none of his father’s great talent or poetic sensibility, only the same self-destructive impulses (at least when he was younger). Senior died in the backseat of a car on New Year’s eve, en route to a concert he was preparing to give. He was 29 years old. An autopsy discovered insane amounts of alcohol, and a variety of drugs that sizzled through his blood. His son was very young when Hank Senior died. He never knew him, only his great reputation. To get close to his father, he penned this song:
Country music singers have always been a real close family
But lately, some of my kinfolks have disowned a few others and me
I guess it’s because I kind of changed my direction
Lord, I guess I went and broke their family tradition
They get on me and want to know, Hank why do you drink? Hank, why do you roll smoke?
Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?
Over and over, everybody makes my predictions
So if I get stoned, I’m just carrying on an old family tradition
I am very proud of my daddy’s name
Although his kind of music and mine ain’t exactly the same
Stop and think it over, put yourself in my position
If I get stoned and sing all night long, it’s a family tradition
So don’t ask me, Hank, why do you drink? Hank, why do you roll smoke?
Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?
If I’m down in a honky-tonk some ole slick’s trying to give me friction
I said leave me alone, I’m singing all night long, it’s a family tradition
Lord I have loved some ladies and I have loved Jim Beam
And they both tried to kill me in 1973
When that doctor asked me, “Son how’d you get in this condition?”
The point I am making by quoting this song is that we often follow the same negatives, as well as the positives, when struggling to remain a part of our families. Anyway, today, shortly after I finish this, my family and I will continue a tradition we have been diligent with for the past ten years.
I have mentioned that I am a resident of a ‘large east coast USA city,’ and that has not changed. I will not specifically mention which one, but it is pretty easy to narrow down. Every year since my son was three years old, and my daughter barely one, we have arrived at the glittering center city Macy’s to visit Santa Claus, get pictures taken, and spend far too much on crap we do not need, and a meal way too expensive.
The road to meet with Father Christmas is long and slow moving. Along the way, after quite some time spent in a lobby encircled with a maze of ropes, we enter into a very expensive and long standing tradition of the store: “Dickens Village.” We are greeted by uncomfortably dressed employees in over-the-top Christmasy garb, pointing the way with obvious headaches, as they endure pushy parents and screaming children all day and all night long.
But Dickens Village is a wonder to behold. After waiting just outside the path, surrounded by intricately designed walls featuring titles such as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and, for some reason Barnaby Rudge (the worst book by the great author that I, and numerous others, have ever read).
But it is through the doors where the magic happens. After wandering past a giant Christmas tree where nearly everyone stops to snap a picture, we wade our way around narrow corridors, glorious Christmas decorations everywhere along the way, until we reach a 19th century English town, peopled by robotic puppets and creepy voice recordings of Ebeneezer Scrooge, and the two ghosts that talk.
A Christmas Carol is a wonderful story of morality, decency and greed as only Charles Dickens could dream it. It is both a harsh condemnation of industrial capitalism and a wonderfully sentimental tale of family coming together at the holidays, with the poor and helpless being treated with respect and generosity. (By the way: https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&cm_sp=SearchF-_-home-_-Results&an=charles+dickens&tn=&kn=&isbn=)
The slow-moving path is remarkable in its splendor, terror and craftsmanship. We are literally taken to another time and place as we follow along to the climax of seeing a man Dickens’ never bothered to talk about. We are still behind the arguing parents, and impatiently miserable small children, but this cannot take away the deeply-felt excitement most of the rest of us are experiencing by being a part of something so splendid.
Now, my children are far too old for Santa Claus, my son this morning miserable over the prospect of going; embarrassed, humiliated and hormonally wild–“There is no Santa Claus!” and “It’s just a creepy guy in a suit!” (Another by the way, for you cynics and people with a sense of humor perhaps as dark as my own: (http://sketchysantas.tumblr.com/ this is certain to terrify you at least once! And for some even darker holiday fair, please see http://www.americanhorrors.com/watch-channel/)
My daughter is far more enthusiastic, no longer a believer in the fat red man, but deeply loyal to the tradition. We have always gotten on the subway and taken it to the center of town. We enter the gigantic Macy’s, wander and shop briefly, before climbing the escalators all the way to the third floor, then wade our way through dense crowds to the entrance, where the excited and sullen families are trapped in a high-ceilinged, four corner chamber, with HD televisions (now; it used to be standard large sets and VCRs) blasting infantile Christmas musical cartoons. And then we crawl our way along until reaching the aforementioned end goal.
Santa Claus, at Macy’s, is wonderful. A fat man with a genuine long, white beard who could easily be mistaken for the real thing. There are three different men on this shift, and for all I know they are triplets. The room featuring the main attraction is red and green, with another great Christmas tree and a photographer in an elf costume ready to snap-snap family joy, with the eventual cost of at least twenty-five dollars for a single picture.
My children no longer sit on the man’s lap. They sit next to him, my daughter in ecstasy, and our son any longer refusing to smile. They do not tell him what they want for Christmas; they are only there for the picture.
It is worth it. A family tradition.
In our home we have an album showing the progression of our children’s growth every Christmas. From toddler and infant confused, indifferent and overjoyed, to the early childhood of starstruck true believers, we watch the changes and growth of the two of them as age eventually strikes them numb and indifferent, and the smiles grow increasingly put upon, or barely tolerant.
But it is our tradition. We leave the store, wander around town, enter a few stores, and then eat at a place giving us the illusion of the high life. Sometimes, if the weather is good, we may even wander over to the ancient mansion of city hall, where an impressive tent camp of local artisans and farmers sell their wares and give us an even deeper feeling of family solidarity, again despite the reeking cynicism and pushy impatience of both us and the rest of the crowd. There is a makeshift ice rink set up, and usually at least two of us skate around for the half-hour shift that cost twelve dollars per person.
After this we make our way home, exhausted, irritable, ultimately sick of one another and the struggles and demands of maintaining an important ritual year after year after year.
I wrote this as a love letter to my family, and it is a true one, a story of devotion and adoration. It also exposes all of us as the bitterly cynical beasts that are so prevalent in America, and all over the world. This is a human story of modern times. It feels . . . it feels almost like Dickens.