Thursday, December 22, 2016

Holiday Tradition, or Just Same Old Sh-t?!

Like most people who had a reasonably happy childhood, my nostalgic memories at this time of year tend to involve my youngest years and my parents. Mom's been gone for 10 years now, and dad for 5. In the early to mid 1990s, I was still in Japan but coming home for Christmas irregularly, and sometime during that time frame the Big Responsibility for hosting everybody shifted over from my parents and in-laws to my sister.

I remember Christmas Eve 1995, walking down the church stairs after the candlelight service we'd been going to since I was an infant. My sister turned to me after glancing at our folks, and whispered, "Kevin, isn't it gonna be weird when they're not around?!"

It is. Yet I also remember commenting back to her, with my brother-in-law within earshot, that we were now making our own holiday traditions that perhaps some day we'd look back on as affectionately as we remember our childhood Christmases.

To briefly re-cap, I've been home for Christmas steadily since 1994, coming back from Japan during my last two there and being in the area since then... all but 1996 right here in San Diego. Last year I headed out to Miami Beach on Christmas Eve, saving a lot of money and not really feeling like I was missing that much... but just the same it isn't something I want to do again. I can't say that anything of particularly memorable interest happened during any of those last 22 holiday seasons. It doesn't mean they were unpleasant; it just means that we did all the usual stuff and nothing about it reaches out and grabs us as especially special.

We'd go to the candlelight service, which was always kinda the same but since it only happens once a year it's never become unbearably monotonous. We'd go to my sister's in the morning to open presents, then to her mother-in-law's in the evening for dinner. Over the years the routine varied only slightly, to where now we just forget about the morning activities and get together at my sister's in the evening to do it all in one grand gesture.

In the weeks before, I've gotten into the personal tradition of attending our community council's holiday party when they have one, which for reasons unknown doesn't always take place every year. This year's was typical, with a handful of people I've known for most of my life though not that well exchanging greetings and memories. I'll usually mention the old Christmas programs they used to put on each year at Henry Clay, the local elementary school, and several of us in our fifties and sixties will marvel that it could all be so long ago.

There was the year I got most of the class to do armpit farts in rhythm to the the refrain of "Joy to the World," most of the boys anyway. There was the year I caught impetigo and had to be replaced at the last minute as star of our third grade class's production. There was the year our class did a Hannukah song, and one of the families that didn't get along that great with their Jewish next-door neighbors complained about it... real down-home stuff.

I've also gotten into the habit of going to the annual Parade of Lights in Mission Bay. There's a much bigger one over two weekends in much bigger San Diego Bay, but the parking is impossible and every once in awhile something lousy happens there, like the fatality from a boat accident a few years ago. The only problem with the one in Mission Bay is that, until very recently it rained--consistently and with great intensity and discomfort--every year it took place. Most people only know about the ones in San Diego Bay anyway, so this meant that every year a small contingent of boats that didn't wuss out would be watched and waved at by a handful of hardy souls on the shore.

This year's had eerily comfortable weather, and it felt odd to see close to forty boats lit up with holiday colors and several dozen people on shore at Ski Beach cheering them on. I took along my best female friend for the third or fourth time, but the best friend I've known since kindergarten has been tied up with other activities the last couple of years, after we'd spent half a decade getting annually soaked in a freezing rain.

Less regularly, we'd get together with whoever we could round up and go to the OB Christmas Parade. For some reason though, one or both of us often as not had something else going on the evening of that rather fun event in Ocean Beach.

The other great, consistent tradition has been the climb up Cowles Mountain for the sunrise on Solstice Day. Aforementioned best friend has been with me every year I've done it, with the exception of last year, when I did it alone but had plenty of company at the top. This year we got together again for it, and for a hearty breakfast afterwards. I've missed it only twice in the past decade, before I had the condo in Miami Beach and was spending the week before Christmas there.

For about ten years, until four years ago, I was spending New Year's Eve in Phoenix after a few days working on the lot in Prescott. An old buddy there would round up his son or whoever else we could get together, and we'd go out to the desert around Tonopah early New Years Day to shoot various firearms and my archery set at whatever targets we could prepare beforehand. One year, just for the heck of it, I bought a 12-pack of Heineken and we shot at the full cans after shaking them up!

At times, the people involved wonder if we're just doing these holiday activities because we're doing them. I started going out to Miami Beach for New Year three years ago while shopping for my condo, and ammo was getting expensive anyway. My Phoenix buddy and I were the first to decide that that particular tradition was becoming more of a ritual than a celebration. Now we settle for a phone call to each other at the end of the year... if that.

Other traditions, though the people involved joke about it and sometimes refer to it as the SOS (same old shit), have become ingrained in our holiday consciousness. The season wouldn't be the same without them. Christmas Day with my sister and her family has become a chance to reminisce about times that truly WERE special. There's the picture of my brother and me sitting proudly before the small Christmas tree dad got for us and let us decorate ourselves in 1959, a couple of months before my sister was born.

There's the story about the year I made a snowman from styrofoam balls, and mom mailed it in to Johnny Downs' weekday cartoon program. He had a Christmas tree in his studio every December, and invited kids to send in decorations. When I saw my snowman on TV  hanging from his tree, it seemed like about the coolest thing ever! There was the not otherwise extraordinary Christmas of 1964, when I got the Schwinn American bicycle that I'd decades later convert into a beach cruiser, and that I still ride today.

More still... Though it's hard to believe I was a functioning adult 37 years ago, there was 1979, the first of the Really Cool Modern Christmases. I returned from Germany and three years with the army there on December 13, 1979. It was the first time I'd seen the U.S., or any of my childhood friends, since 1976... though my parents had visited Europe in the middle of my time there. I'd go on back to my old job in Washington, DC for my last year in the army, with an elation that seemed to infect everyone I came into contact with for weeks afterward.

There was 1987, when I came back from Guadalajara while working as a teacher in Mexico. My completed master's thesis was sitting under the Christmas tree at my folks' house. I'd completed it just before leaving for Mexico in September, and my folks proofread it together before submitting it to Thesis Review Service, where it passed muster with no observable typos. Mom and dad paid for the binding and printing, and it was about the best present I'd ever received.

Then there was 1991, now 25 years ago. I got tired of spending Christmas in Japan, and decided to come home without telling anyone. My dad, who normally didn't enjoy surprises of any kind--or even any deviation from predictable routine--thought it was about the neatest thing that had ever happened. The door to the folks' garage was open as I approached on foot, and I walked in and saw that mom was washing a load but had stepped away for a moment. She came back out, squinted, did a double-take, and asked if she could help me... She said she recognized me, of course, but that I was supposed to be thousands of miles away.

It doesn't take people long to get used to the unexpected, and perhaps that 1991 return was the best of them all. It was the last truly magical holiday season, and certainly forms a key part of my own personal holiday folklore.

Christmas 1959, with our own little Christmas tree

A styrofoam ball snowman, similar to the one I sent to Johnny Downs

Hiding from the weather during a typically wet Parade of Lights

One of the annual New Years Day Shoot-'Em-Ups