My husband writes a men's lifestyle column for a Philippine national daily, and last December, all the columnists were told to make their piece for the Christmas week thematic. This is his column for that week. It's only the second time that he has included me in one of his essays, and it is definitely the first time that I got thanked so publicly.
A sweet gift from the love of my life that I am sharing with you just because Valentine's Day is this week.
- Thus spake the Grinch
For section ‘M’ of the Philippine Star, 26 December 2007.
Sometimes I feel that the Christmas season sprouts around me like so many weeds. They spring up where you don’t want them, they’re awful to look at, and no matter how hard you try to stop them, they just keep spreading. They’re weeds, after all.
This is what Christmas in this country, in this metropolis, has become: just another thing you don’t really want, can’t get rid of, and try to tolerate with all the patience that you can muster (and unless you have the patience of a Buddhist monk, you will fail). It is a season of obligation, pursued with supremely resentful perseverance. Among the obligations I have come to resent is the forced good cheer I must put on simply because the weather turns nippy. The voices of tone-deaf but earnest carolers at my gate are supposed to fill me with a warm, tingly, Christmasy feeling. They fill me with annoyance. “Isn’t this just another form of begging?” I ask myself, closing the jalousies then slinking away. The envelopes from the garbage collectors, the mailman, the men on their bikes who deliver the bills and can’t be bothered to say a half-polite greeting any other time, multiply on the kitchen counter like libidinous bacteria. (The thought that dousing them in Lysol might actually make them disappear crossed my mind the other day.)
I suppose this makes me sound like a Grinch, and I suppose I am. (My colleagues might be happy to inform you that my disposition this time of year isn’t very different from what it is the rest of it.) Heck, what’s the point of being cheerful? Don’t we already do, at all times in the year, a smashing job of insisting that everyone around us be happy, even in some superficial way? When we see a friend moping, don’t we ask, “Why the long face?” as if he didn’t have the right to be morose once in a while. It isn’t true that misery loves company. Misery is something you’re supposed to hide from others. You bear it alone. Happiness, now that’s something you must share, even if you don’t have it. Decorum dictates that it, or a suitably convincing facsimile, must be put on display. And decorum’s voice gets loud and strident during these holidays. Cheer is part of the season’s props, like the blinking lights and lanterns we adorn our houses with, gaudiness be damned.
How about those of us who aren’t thrilled to glutinous bits by the season? What happens to those of us who dread the “-ber” months because it means hearing those dreadful Chipmunk carols in restaurants everywhere? (Once, sitting in a restaurant early in November, I heard those familiar voices that sound like eunuchs being tortured, and I resolved: one day I will strangle Alvin and his fellow rodents.) I suspect there are more of us than I think. After all, what explains those long faces at the stores, the mirthless attendants who wear silly red Santa hats their supervisors ordered them to wear? And those shoppers madly careening down corridors and into and out of shops, fulfilling their Christmas-shopping duties with their lips set in a grim line?
Christmas bites when the cabdriver refuses to take you where you want to go unless you give him a little extra for his pains. Hey, you’re supposed to be generous—it’s Christmas! Office giveaways are nice, but really, I don’t need any more umbrellas. (Or mugs, for that matter.) I like a good party, but one right after another, sometimes on the very same day? And all those sweets? Cut me and I’ll bleed sugar.
And what words can describe the insanely heavy traffic the season spawns? Whoever said that Christmas is for children doesn’t drive around this city in December. At this time of year, push carts in groceries go faster than cars on our roads. Really, why can’t others just stay home when I need to get someplace? Christmas traffic makes sense only for a hardy kind of person, the kind the Robert Duvall character in Apocalypse Now might have been had he grown up in Manila (“I love the smell of gas fumes in the morning!” he might say, striding shirtless down the stairs.)
And then there’s the bank. My thirteenth month pay came on the fifteenth of December (Yes! I’m rich!), but I couldn’t touch it right away because my bank’s ATMs always go offline during paydays. If Santa really does exist, he would make me immensely happy if he gave the bank bosses who make these decisions a none-too-serious but truly painful disease, preferably of the gastrointestinal variety, this holiday season.
* * * * *
My wife has just been looking over my shoulder reading what I’ve just written. She makes unhappy noises behind me. “So what do you want me to say about Christmas, huh?” I mutter. “I suppose you want something happy.” No answer, just the sound of her steps as she walks away and goes back to the study to continue wrapping gifts. I’m used to this. When I’m grumpy, she simply ignores me. It’s part of her attempt to civilize me, a project she realizes will take longer than she probably first thought. (I have the sinking feeling that it will never reach a satisfactory conclusion.) Then from across the hall she says, in a gentle but firm voice, “Weeds can be pretty, you know. Some of them have flowers.” This is true, I admit, but I can’t write it here because it ruins the metaphor I opened this essay with.
I take a break from the computer and walk around the living room. The Christmas tree is up, decorated simply in green and gold. She buys lights for the tree that aren’t colored or flicker or play some insipid tune. Some years she adds touches of silver to the tree, or unfurls a spool of gold sinamay around to give it more texture. Not for us the massive trees bedecked with ostentatious finery.
The decorative bottles on a side table are gone, replaced with a manger scene with figurines that have been in her family for a long time. When we sit to dinner these days the placemats are green and red, the plates we use from the Christmas set her sister sent her once. The advent wreath is out, a red cloth underneath it. The banister is covered in the green of tree branches, a thread of gold running through it, icicles like crystal hanging from it. Soon the gifts to family and friends will be ready, wrapped artfully in the way only she does it. (She buys unique Christmas wrappers wherever she finds them and rarely settles for the thin and cheap kind you can get easily.) She asked me weeks before who I would be giving presents to among my friends and work mates. I haven’t had to lift a finger, and shopping bags with the neatly wrapped gifts inside them appear by the tree, ready for the Santa of the family (who else?) to deliver.
Every so often she will go to the mall early on a Sunday morning (a Sunday morning!) because, she says, she “needs gifts.” She buys gifts for family and friends, their birthdays in her datebook. She gives things away, something I ribbed her about before. Once early in our marriage we had friends over, and we happened to have some very good cake in the fridge. “Oh, we have some cake,” she said to them. “Want some?” I didn’t say anything, but when they had left, I asked, “Why did you offer them the cake? It’s ours!” She looked at me as if I’d been a bad boy in school. Coming from a family of six children I’ve lived with the feeling that there was never enough to go around. And here she was, offering it to others with the lightest touch. Reconciling her generosity of spirit with my lack of it hasn’t been easy. But it’s always been clear, I realize now, which side needs to give.
Without my noticing, another kind of Christmas has sprouted up around me like some wonderfully lush garden you hadn’t realized you lived in, one you didn’t deserve in any way for anything you did, yet you stand in it astonished at its completely superfluous and necessary beauty. It happens every year, but I’m too busy, cranky, or just plain dim to see it. I go over to her and ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?” She looks at me, puzzled. “No.” Then I say, before I turn to go back to the computer, “Thanks for taking care of everything.” She says, “You’re welcome, love,” and smiles, a smile that turns me into a child again.
I sit at my keyboard and turn this essay into what I didn’t think it would be: a small token of my gratitude.
Image from Dr. Seuss' "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" from Horror-Wood