Wednesday, December 25, 2013

December 2013: Christmas Letter

My habit has been to write this Christmas letter early Christmas morning.  I am beginning the letter on December 23 at 9:30 pm and will continue crafting it through Christmas morning. 
It is Christmas Eve Eve.  The house is decorated.  We, rather my wife, put up and trimmed four trees.  The house inside and out is aglow with holiday cheer.  We need this warmth and cheer of the season tonight because it is incredibly cold on this second night of winter. 
The weather app on my phone is reporting -1 degrees Fahrenheit which for my friends around the world is -18 degrees Celsius.  It has snowed and it is old fashioned bitter cold.  In these days of global warming, it is a great throwback.  Cold and snow is so central to the Christmas tradition around these parts.  It is just great to see. 
Christmas is about the birth of Christ.  The most important carols are definitely religious from Adeste Fideles to Silent Night.  There is a lot more buzz this year about people insisting on wishing people Merry Christmas as opposed to the more politically correct Season's Greeting or Happy Holidays.  There are even t-shirts being sold in the US that say "'Happy Holidays' is what liberals say" and "I am not afraid to say Merry Christmas."  I understand the sentiment but really wish I could more easily know how everyone I meet wants to be greeted.  Maybe we can all wear buttons that just states which holiday we want someone greeting us to acknowledge:  Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Festivus, or perhaps Nothing.  To me this makes more sense.
I do believe there is some older more visceral holiday that Christmas has overlaid in these northern climes.  There is something about the solstice, the shortest day of the year, and celebrating it with lights that just seems right.  Christ was not born in a cold and snowy place, yet the celebration of Christmas in such places involves trees and lights beyond the one guiding star. 
We know that in the early days Christianity would move holidays around a bit
to overlay other, pagan, holidays that were popular with the masses.  I am conjecturing with absolutely no research involved here how important light was on the shortest darkest days of the year.  I am talking bonfires, lamps, candles, or whatever they had centuries before the invention of electricity.  
Of course, this all have been distorted by the mass merchandising around the hype of Christmas shopping.  People 1,000 years from now may look back and simply look at this time of year as a celebration of mass consumption and retail profitability.  While we are fumbling around trying to figure out how to greet each other, retailers know full well that the bulk of their revenue is coming from people shopping for Christmas decorations and gifts.

Speaking of Gifts:  In the past few days, I have been privy to a few conversations that made me realize some differences in how we experience Christmas today compared to in the days, or daze, of my youth.  There are many obvious aspects to point out.  These include how early the season starts and extends to the amount we spend on decorations and gifts these days.  These are obvious changes and have been noted by so many others.  Just this week, there was a story on NPR Morning Edition interviewing people who worked in retail and how they are coping with listening to Christmas music over and over for the past several weeks.  I can only imagine.
I am talking about more subtle changes that only matter to people my age and probably only really matter to people my age that reflect on such things... like me
I was with some guys this week and they were talking about what their kids wanted.  Each of them referred to a list their sons had given them.  One of the sons wanted an Xbox and new computer and the fellow was complaining a bit about the cost and the presumption that his son asked for and was expecting such expensive gifts.  It was pretty clear that the son would get both of the gifts.  I suggested that he get his son a Play Station to kind of give him what he wanted but not exactly.  It would be a life lesson for the college sophomore (yes college sophomore) that, as the Rolling Stones extolled, “you can’t always get what you want.”  The fellow liked the idea but realized it was not feasible all but admitting that his son just would not be happy with anything but what he wanted.
This fellow was not alone.  I do believe my own son exhibited some of this behavior.   It is not that it is a bad thing.  It is just different then I recall behaving as a kid.  Maybe it was socio-economics, perhaps it was something else.  I certainly wanted things but I do not recall making any lists and certainly not sharing it with my parents.  I was always surprised at what I got, sometimes positively and other times not so much.  I never thought about what I would have rather had and I never thought about exchanging what I got for what I might have really wanted. 
I have been thinking this way for as long as I can remember.  This is how I operate today.  If someone tells me what to buy them, I may do it but I am not so excited to present the gift to them.  While I know it is always better to get gifts people will want and value, I would rather present them with something I have put a tad of thought into and want them to have.
I am not one to talk about kids these days being different.  They aren’t really.  It is not the kids at all.  It is the way we have marketed this holiday to everyone.  It takes stronger parenting than most can muster to overcome the marketing machine.  But, it is worth the try.  Get them what they don't expect.  Get them not exactly what they want.  Be creative.  Your children, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren just might remember you more fondly for it. 

The Whole Shopping Thing:  In recent years, the shopping pace the days after Christmas is just as brisk with it all being in returns, exchanges, and upgrades.  Most presents come with gift receipts as a testimony to the dramatic increase in this behavior.  It is probably just a function of having too much and thus becoming incredibly picky about what we want and what we want to keep.   The stores are just as busy the few days after Christmas as they are leading into the holiday.  It is full of people taking things back and then shopping the after Christmas sales for things that better suit their tastes.  To this day, I only take back and exchange things if they do not fit or if I already have the item.  For fit, I try to get a similar as possible item because that is what the gift giver had in mind for me.  Even if it is something I already had, I try to get a different color. 
On Christmas Eve, I got an email from Jos. A. Banks, a men's clothing store.  This is not so rare because if you ever have bought anything from them, you will receive several emails a day for perpetuity.  This email had the title:  “Starting at 10pm Tonight... Christmas Day DOORBUSTERS with FREE Shipping!”  Yay... let’s celebrate Christmas by shopping for the bargains created due to the trouble retailers have with forecasting accurately!  The new Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro movie also is opening on Christmas Day.  I recall, clearly, that back in the day everything, EVERYTHING, was shut down on Christmas.  This change bothers many folks I know, but I take the change in stride.  I simply choose not to shop or go see a movie on holidays when I would just rather chill with family and friends.  Or...  just maybe... I avoid the stores at all costs.

Going to See Santa:  Going to see Santa used to be a big deal.  My prime treks to see Santa were in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  It was the cusp of the era of the Christmas Story movie and the commercialism that seems to have fully taken over. 
We used to see Santa a few times.  Santa would be at our church, maybe he would show up at Cub Scouts, my uncle's Masonic Lodge, or a few other community venues.  We enjoyed seeing Santa at these events, these secondary sightings of Santa.  We knew they weren't "the real Santa."  We could tell because we might recognize the man under the amateurish beard.  If we didn't recognize the man, we might notice just how fake the beard or hair was.  We might catch glimpses of dark hair under the hat or hair.  It did not matter.  We knew these were people playing Santa to help out because Santa could not be everywhere.
We did, however, know where the real Santa was.  We would make the official Santa visit to that special place.  Primo locations in Detroit were the Hudson's Department Store Downtown or the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn.  We used to get a little dressed up for this visit.  We would wait in line to see Santa and he was magnificent with snow white hair and beard and a rich looking well tailored red and white suit that we expected the great man to be wearing.  The surroundings were equally spectacular with Santa mounted on a throne as he should be. 
The Ford Rotunda was a magical place.  It was originally the Ford Pavilion at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair.  After the World’s Fair, it was dismantled and moved to Dearborn, MI.  After being closed in World War Two, it was remodeled, modernized, and the open court was given a geodesic dome.  In the 1950s, it became the 5th largest tourist destination in the United States.  It was an amazing testimony to the strength and power of the US Auto Industry after WW2.  Per Wikipedia:

In 1953 the annual Christmas Fantasy was held for the first time at the Rotunda and nearly half a million people visited that first year. A giant 37-foot-tall Christmas tree was displayed. An elaborate Santa’s workshop and a life-size nativity scene that the National Council of Churches called the “Largest and finest” in the country, as well as animated characters from children’s stories, a 1/2” per foot scale 15,000-piece miniature circus with 800 animals, 30 tents, and 435 toy figurines of circus performers and customers. The Christmas Fantasy was held for nine years at the Rotunda and in that time nearly 6 million people visited.
We used to go to the Christmas Fantasy at the Ford Rotunda.  It was a highlight of the Christmas season.  In early November of 1962, workers were waterproofing the roof and a fire started that burnt down the building.  No more Rotunda, no more Christmas Fantasy.  It was heartbreaking and to this day, part of me does not understand why they did not rebuild it.  They could have
and should have.  Another part of me, now looking back, saw that event as a major chink in the armor that foretold the troubles Detroit would encounter. 
It will come as no surprise given the above comments on gifts that I never knew what to ask Santa for.  Usually, when I got up to Santa, I just rattled something off.  At this writing I cannot recall anything specific that I asked Santa for in any of those visits.  I think I just wanted to be surprised.

Old friends:  I am always inviting the readers of this Christmas letter to stop by for a cup of Christmas cheer.  I thought I would show the warm glow of our home in the photo.  Our home is open both Christmas Eve and Day.  While the house will be full of relatives, there are friends here too and there  is always room for old friends to stop by. 
While I would love to see everyone whose friendship I value, I would love to see those that I got to know in Latin America.  I get to see friends in this country more often.  When it comes to my Armenian circle, I tend to see them at various functions and our annual Labor Day gathering.  I have not been to Mexico, Central, or South America since 2006.  I have not seen many of these friends for the most part since then. 
Case in point,  I got a Christmas greeting from an old friend, Julian Gutierrez.  The opening line of his message summed the reality of it.

Another year is gone, and we have had very little chance to be in touch, distance is a killer, but I hope we will continue to stay in touch in 2014.

We used to see each other on a regular basis when we worked at Colgate.  We met in the Latin American Division where we were both part of the Division staff.  Then Julian did stints in Venezuela, Mexico, and Europe.  When I would visit the subsidiaries in Venezuela and Mexico, Julian and I would work together and catch-up.  We had the same values eschewing politics for hard work and doing what was right and lament at how important the political component was.   Julian is very bright and very hard working.  For sure, I paled in comparison to him in the hard working part.
Andres Maleplate called me today from Montevideo.  He has called every year since I moved here.  We keep in touch throughout the year but the Christmas call is special.  I was online earlier with Angel de la Puente from Mexico.  We do not keep as well in touch as well as we should but it is great, always, to hear from him. 
Some friends, however, fall through the cracks.  Even with social media, we lose contact simply because we do not see each other with any regularity.  It is a little sad but truly the way of world especially when our friends and family are spread out all over the world.  I think I must have some genetic vestige in me that still lives in some ancient village where the cast of characters around changed only by birth and death.  There is certainly good and bad in that.  People dear to you are always around.  On the flip side, the people that irritate the living daylights out of you were always around too.

Our best wishes to friends and family all over the US and the world for a wonderful and warm Christmas Day.  More so, may 2014 be healthy, happy, and prosperous for one and all.

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