Commentary: The Elephant in the Room
By Justin Isherwood
Christmas is a deliberative human occasion, to think the term weird also applies. Christmas is deeply ingrained, wonderfully ritualized, embarrassingly vital at retail. Few other cultural moments have the emotional attachment of Christmas. To the consequence Christmas carries a psychological risk for many who for diverse reasons can’t find the ready buoyancy on the social hype that is Christmas. Depression at Christmas is a natural by-product when people including children can’t keep up to the required social mood.
Subclinical depression a.k.a. It’s a Wonderful Life is as much part of Christmas as the super saturation of Christmas carols that flood the airwaves to the point even orthodox believers cringe and wish the heck they’d shut up. Finding a mellow, soft focus place for Christmas becomes an important personal mental health factor. To suspect most of us struggle to find a breathable space at Christmas. Parents who are harried and cross-conflicted by children’s wishes for Christmas, with no need to annotate these are often expensive wishes. More so when a modern techno-culture children’s game has ten, if not a hundred times the computing power of the Apollo mission that landed Neil Armstrong on the Moon. Priced accordingly. As translates to grandparents who don’t have a clue to the needs and wants of their grandchildren. How then to express, against this rip-tide of our consumer society, something real and personal. Perhaps to add the word humane. If there is always our Uncle Scrooge’s advice, cheap.
Like every father, husband, lover, grandfather I am haunted by Christmas and the need to do well by the season, yet not succumb to the mass overburden that ultimately gets in the way of achieving that Christmas moment, the one about the feeling rather than the stuff.
To this end Christmas becomes something of an intellectual quest, a pilgrimage of sorts. We begin this as children, Christmas with all the standard ingredients, to include a neatly packaged faith system to neatly overlay the commercial Christmas that is in turn an economic driver for our nation. Maybe it shouldn’t be this way but it is, and if we don’t participate we’re part of the problem.
No one escapes Christmas, either we cooperate and swim with the current or we fight it and suffer the consequence. In essence we’re screwed either way.
Actually it’s not this stark as most of us know, because of the truce we contrive to gain that personal Christmas, beginning with something as simple as a Christmas budget. More advanced students plan ahead. We learn to limit our psychological exposure, eventually learn what things, what activities please and enrich us, to the end gain a personal definition of this Christmas thing.
And so, a personal tale; one of the sincere pleasures in my family is our collective white elephant Christmas. Designed initially to escape the pocketbook denting “Christmas problem.” From the outset a dual satisfaction; we don’t necessarily have to buy anything, if we can rid ourselves of some inscrutable previous gift, quite obviously the ghost of Christmas past. Somewhere in every attic, on some cellar shelf are the candidates for this occasion. A gift Uncle Scrooge would applaud. Likewise every harried father, mother and grandparent.
Ours is now a tradition of the Big White pachyderm. The event has taken on the classic proportions of subterfuge, plotting and dirty tricks. The rules are … there are no rules. A White Elephant Christmas is simple, bring a gift, wrapped. That’s it, one rule. Immediately this escapes the number one Christmas anxiety, what to buy? What do they want? What do they need? A White Elephant Christmas cancels all that. Doesn’t matter. Here is the unspoken rule, because we are all adults, and we all want escape, the rule is … fun. Synonyms include weird, slightly nasty, slightly dirty, slightly used, to include useless, antique, junk, homemade, dumb, broken, extra, vintage. I’m trying not to leave out any pertinent adjective.
Add: ridiculous, stupid, lame, too small, too big, doesn’t work, edible, somewhat edible, and tasteless in more ways than one. Here with some precision is the White Elephant Christmas. Just as The Christmas Carol described. That turkey Scrooge bought, it was huge, same turkey had been hanging at the butcher shop window for ten days previous, unrefrigerated, way too big to fit in any home oven, besides it would require twelve hours to cook to eliminate the bacteria. Scrooge bought it at a huge discount that Dickens doesn’t detail. Much to Scrooge’s delight, and the butcher ever so glad to be rid of that furry green turkey. Christmas hasn’t been the same since, the first White Elephant.
As is the tradition of the White Elephant, we sit around in a circle with numbers to draw in order for a present. The following number bearer may at their option pick from the pile or take the gift from a previous selector. Somewhere in this mix Christmas happens. In this collective frolic. Perhaps it’s the ease, perhaps its the banter, perhaps mystery is involved. To profess here that wrapping Christmas presents is a manly art. And the terrific opportunity to add intrigue, smoke and mirrors, explosives and diabolical scheming to gift wrapping. Odd angles help. Amazing how plain stuff well packaged can gain enthusiasm, I feel the same about lingerie.
This White Elephant thing in my family is the most darn fun since we smuggled bottle rockets into Wisconsin. It’s easy. It’s cheap. And it feels good.