Post- Magazine, Brown Daily Herald, Holiday Guide, 12/2/11
By: Amelia Stanton, Jennifer Harlan, Zoë Hoffman, and Charles Pletcher
There’s nothing quite like the annual Christmas party at the National Arts Club. An institution that claims to “stimulate, foster, and promote public interest in the arts and educate the American people in the fine arts,” the National Arts Club is really just a fancy space (the “Tilden Mansion”) in a fancy part of New York City (Gramercy Park). The club may altruistically provide scholarships to aspiring young artists, but its primary concern is its roster. Past and present members include Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Remington, and Uma Thurman. My grandmother, whose third husband occasionally dabbled in watercolors, is also a card-carrying member. “What a gift,” she has often said, “to be in the presence of such beauty.”
The Christmas party, complete with Nutcracker excerpt, is a membership perk. Couples come with their children, who eagerly wait for Santa. For each child who expects a present from Santa, a family member donates a gift, which will then be given to another child. To secure my present, my mother provided various gifts over the years: Barbie dolls, toy trucks, beading kits. Kid stuff. The year that I randomly, miraculously received a Madame Alexander doll (which can retail for as much as $749.95, as in the case of the Some Like it Hot – Tony Curtis as Josephine/Joe 21-inch Collectible Doll) from the pile was the same year that my mother got hit in the eye with a yo-yo while watching the entrance of the Rat King. A six-year-old boy was unlucky enough to receive a mere yo-yo from Santa. In a moment of frustration, he thought he would give around the world a whirl. And then he hit my mother. She fell backwards out of her chair, out of her shoes, and onto the floor.
I envision my seven-year-old self staring down at her, wishing that someone would just pull her skirt back down. Blood gushing from her eye, she was carried out of the room by a pack of men, holding her above their heads as they might lug wooden beams. She yelled down to me in muffled, gurgled sounds: “The shoes! Get the shoes!” I held them with purpose. My grandmother and I stood there; she with her scotch, me with my mother’s shoes. We held on tight.
The yo-yo incident of ’98 was handled with discretion and care, as all club-related matters are. At the urging of my grandmother, my mother agreed not to sue the parents of the rogue yo-yoer in exchange for full compensation of medical bills and lifetime V.I.P membership to Wave Hill, a famed “public garden and cultural center” in the affluent residential neighborhood of Riverdale, home to New York City’s most elite private schools. “What a gift,” my grandmother said, “to be in the presence of nature.” –AS
My family is big on holiday traditions, especially the decorating of the Christmas tree. While college finals and commuting work schedules have forced us to move the date of this momentous occasion up from mid-December to Thanksgiving weekend, the principle remains the same. We go down to the nearest public high school, where men in grimy sweatshirts have sequestered a corner of the field and covered it with chubby evergreens. We spend a good half hour fighting over which tree to take home, each family member lobbying for a particular height or shape and viciously pointing out the gaping holes and lackluster needles of the others’ contenders. The winner, usually chosen in a frustrated abandonment of the democratic process by my totalitarian parents, is loaded on top of the car and driven home.
My dad and brother place the tree in the stand, securing the top of it to the wall (we wouldn’t want a repeat of the Toppling Tree Catastrophe of 2010), while my mom, my sister, and I begin unpacking the ornaments. This is a sacred ritual in the Harlan house. We thrust eager hands into the plastic boxes before us, peeling open worn paper towels to reveal treasured old friends. Each unwrapping is met with gleeful cries: My Clara! My racecar! The pickle!
After each ornament has been unwrapped and placed carefully on the dining room table, the decorating begins. Each family member selects a favorite ornament, my dad puts on Nat King Cole, and as the first violins strain from the speakers we slip metal hooks onto virgin branches. Cole drifts into Crosby, who leads into Streisand and Peter, Paul, & Mary. We crank up “Little Drummer Boy,” and my mom leaves the room in protest.
Slowly the mountain on our dining room table diminishes, until each painted handprint and glass ball has been placed on a branch. My sister and I lie on the floor as “The Christmas Song” starts again, and, eyes all aglow, we stare up into the lights. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. –JH
Walk by my living room window in late December and you’ll be sure to catch an awe-inspiring sight: Hoffman Hanukkah. Growing up Jew-ish, I would brag to my friends about the eight additional presents (the fact that they were usually books was inconsequential) that I received on top of my Christmas haul. The price I paid for this extra swag? Embarrassingly inaccurate Hanukkah traditions.
When I was younger, my father retained some semblance of a connection to his historically accurate Jewish ancestry. We would attend a Hanukkah party where guests chanted real prayers, children played dreidel for gelt, and the food was kosher. Eventually, however, the parties stopped (perhaps the invitations were lost in the mail), and we were left to our own devices. Herein began our yearly holiday celebrations.
The night begins with prying my father from a college basketball game and demanding his immediate presence at my grandmother’s antique menorah. My Methodist-raised mother heads to her trusty drawer of Jewish knowledge and pulls out a tattered children’s coloring book with the Hanukkah prayers spelled out phonetically on the back pages. As I light the blue and white candles, my father mutters rusty Hebrew left over from his Bar Mitzvah days while my mother stumbles along with her off key recitation. I confidently chant my memorized verse, priding myself on my own excellent rhythm and pronunciation.
After the candles are lit, it’s time for the Hora. We tend to borrow the version taught in my elementary school, rendered slightly more ridiculous by the fact that the size of the group has shrunk to only three. And the small children have been replaced by legal adults. We don’t rely on pre-fabricated background music, choosing instead to grunt and hum our way through Hava Nagila. We increase the tempo as we grapevine faster and faster until we end with a dramatic crescendo. I open my present (wrapped in one of the two Hanukkah-themed wrapping papers offered at Barnes & Noble), and the evening’s festivities end.
The festivities have lagged during my college years, usually prevented by my finals schedule. This year, however, Hanukkah comes late—just in time for my arrival and eight more crazy nights. –ZH
My mom and I have made a habit of going to Mass together on Christmas Eve. Both of us were raised Catholic, but she’s since abandoned the Church for Protestantism, and I’ve since—well, not abandoned, but more qualified my religion. None of this matters come Christmas Eve. Then, everything’s about beauty.
One year, we thought it would be a good idea to attend a Latin Christmas Eve Mass—for beauty, you know. I’m from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I’m pretty sure that Latin Masses equal High Dutch Amish Christmas services in number. The previous few years, we’d gone to more conventional Masses: an exuberant priest, a “tenor” who couldn’t quite make the highest notes in his solo, and obliging congregants who didn’t notice the tenor’s missed notes.
The Latin Mass had none of these trappings. I’m not complaining—the absence of that tenor (he’s there every f*cking year) was more than welcome—but I’m warning you. Lancastrians apparently don’t do the whole Church Latin thing. The priest’s diction was abysmal; the congregation’s was worse. Where we had gone looking for beauty, we found a bastardization of the some of the oldest attestations of Christianity.
I don’t mean just to quibble about pronunciation. Sure, I’m a classicist, but I don’t do Latin (and I treat Church Latin like the plague). Christmas is a season for hope. I genuinely wanted the Latin Mass to instill in me some confidence in the inherent beauty of being human. I was naïve to expect so much of mere language.
Christmas—the holiday season, if you will—is, after all, about community. The language of the homily’s delivery matters little. The beautiful thing about Christmas is the reunion of old friendships, old traditions (even with their erroneous (Latin) manifestations), and old locations. Christmas is about familiarity.
Age and familiarity should, of course, not be conflated. The break from the hustle of school and work should remind us of the obligation we have to each other—regardless of vernacular. Language is the MacGuffin of the holidays. Enjoy family, friend—do what you will. But whatever you do, don’t go to Latin Mass. –CP
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