Marvellaland

Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

Gypped

Beatrice&Tree

At Christmastime, almost everyone is preoccupied with holiday gifts. Beginning even before Thanksgiving, newspaper and television ads are devoted to finding that perfect present. But in spite of all of this “gifting,” those of us born between the middle of December and the first week of January usually get gypped.

With all of the emphasis on Christmas gifts, holiday birthday celebrants often get shortchanged. It is worse when you are a child, as Christmas and birthdays are the main times that you get gifts and spend quality time with friends and family members. Kids with summer birthdays may get a birthday picnic or pool party. But for those of us with Yuletide birthdays, our party may be combined with a Christmas party and our presents are encased in Christmas wrapping paper. That is if we even get a birthday present. Many times, we get one gift that is for both Christmas and our birthday. But this compound gift is rarely the equivalent of two separate gifts.

It’s just not fair. Even if I weren’t overly materialistic, I would still rant about this injustice. It’s not our fault that our parents were frisky and fertile in March or April. We didn’t pick our holiday birthdays, so why do we get overlooked and undergifted?

I was born on January 4, ten days after Christmas. As a child, I got gypped in several ways. Many times, my birthday fell on the day that I returned to school after Christmas vacation. So of course, no one at school remembered that it was my birthday. The teacher hadn’t even put up the new year’s calendar yet, so my birthday wasn’t even designated with a star by its date. Also, I usually didn’t get any presents. I grew up in a Pennsylvania working-class coal-mining town. The refrain I got was, “I’m still broke. Your birthday is too close to Christmas.” As a child, I didn’t realize that most working grown-ups probably hadn’t even completed a post-Christmas pay period yet. Worse of all, it usually snowed on my birthday, not enough for a snow day off from school, but enough to ruin any birthday plans.

As an adult, I have tried to be more grown-up about this holiday birthday situation, but to no avail. Just as Christmas turns adults into wide-eyed children, getting gypped on my birthday turns me into a spoiled little brat. I love to get presents ― the bigger and more personal the better. The sight of a mound of boxes and cards all with my name on them is my idea of nirvana. In fact, the idea of two sets of presents is the only good reason that I can think of to get married. But since I have no husband, lover, or child, and nor am I a boss, Christmas and my birthday are the only opportunities that I have to satisfy my need for greed, I lament in my finest whine.

But I am not alone. For years, I have been querying friends, acquaintances and clients on this subject. Almost everyone who was born between December 15 and January 10 has a story to tell. And they ain’t pretty. They all remember getting upstaged by Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Ebenezer Scrooge. Bah, humbug!

So this year, create a happy ending for the holiday birthday boy or girl in your midst. Be generous. Buy that nice birthday wrapping paper, even if it isn’t on sale like the holiday paper is. Do not put a red or green bow on the box though, because we know where those come from. Most importantly, do not regift. We want our own personalized, well thought out present, not some gift that you didn’t like from the office gift exchange or from some hated relative. And last, but not least, do not forget us! Amid all of the holiday hubbub, please remember that it is our birthday, our special day, and treat it as such. Don’t gyp us any more.

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The Color Wheel

You can order this card from Zazzle.com

You can order this card from Zazzle.com

This is an excerpt from “Merry Christmas, Baby,” a 4,500-word essay about Christmas in Hills Station. This is one of my favorite sections of the essay. Merry Christmas to Marvellaland followers and to everyone else who enjoys this essay! (Sorry it is so long!)

 

In the sixties, when I was growing up in Hills Station, Pennsylvania, I loved Christmas. Until I was five, we had a live Christmas tree. But after Daddy retired from Montour 4 mine, it was difficult for him to carry a real tree, as black lung disease made it hard for him to breathe. He went to Pete’s Dairy Bar, the local store that everyone called “Angeline’s,” and bought an artificial tree. Angeline, the owner of the store, could get anything and everything that her customers needed. If she didn’t have an item in stock, she was glad to make a special order, for a special price, of course. This included Christmas trees.

One December afternoon, Daddy came home with a large white box. On the front of the box was a picture of a Christmas tree.

“What’s in the box, Daddy?”

He smiled, showing the gold cap on one of his front teeth. “It’s our new Christmas tree. Now every year, we’ll just take this one out of the box and put it up, instead of going out lookin’ for a tree.”

I frowned, because that didn’t sound like a good idea to me. I liked live trees, with their pine scent filling the house. I kept staring at the box. It wasn’t a very big box. How could it hold a Christmas tree?

“Let’s set it up.” He headed toward my playroom, the room where we always placed the tree. “You carry the other box,” he added over his shoulder.

There was little white box on the floor. It read, “Amazing Color Wheel.” What was a color wheel? The picture on the box showed was a round wheel next to a tree. The box was lightweight and the contents rattled. Was it broke?

I picked up the box and gingerly carried it into the playroom. Daddy had already opened the tree box. It was filled with red paper tubes, which looked like giant versions of the tubes that Daddy rolled up change in. A piece of something silver stuck out from each tube. Daddy was twisting together two long wooden sticks that were painted silver. Each stick had lots of little holes in it. I didn’t see anything that looked like a tree. I put the box down and sat on the floor to watch Daddy. Momma stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips.

I picked up one of the tubes. It was even lighter than the color wheel box. “What are they?”

“Those are the branches of the Christmas tree. This is the trunk and those three metal things will be the base. Once I finish putting the base together, we’ll put on the branches.”

“But they’re silver. Christmas trees are supposed to be green.” I was worried that Angeline had taken advantage of my father and sold him a defective tree, just because she knew that he couldn’t read.

He looked up and nodded toward the little box. “That’s what the color wheel is for.”

“Huh?”

Three lines formed on his forehead when he looked over at me. “The color wheel will turn the tree different colors. Just wait and see, you’ll like it.”

I looked up at Momma.

“Your Daddy knows what he is doing.” She turned toward the kitchen. “Let me know when it is all set up.”

I wanted to leave too, but I knew that Daddy expected me to help with this tree. We used to put lights and popcorn balls and even apples on the heavy branches of the big green trees that we used to get. What could we put on this flimsy thing?

Once Daddy had the trunk set up, he picked up one of the tubes and pulled off the wrapper. The branch in his hand looked liked cut-up pieces of aluminum foil attached to a metal stick. He stuck the branch in the hole at the top of the trunk. He stood back to look at it. “The branches go into those little holes.”

I assumed that was my cue to help. I picked up a tube and pulled. The branch was even thinner than aluminum foil. Would we be able to even put ornaments on this tree? I found a hole and inserted the metal stick at an angle.

I added the bottom branches while Daddy took care of the top ones. I could see my reflection multiplied in the tiny strips. It didn’t take long to fill the tiny holes with shiny bristles.

Daddy and I looked at the tree. “Don’t it look nice?”

I didn’t like it. It didn’t look like a real Christmas tree. It looked like something that I would have made in art class with pipe cleaners. But I nodded anyway. “Uh-huh.”

While Daddy went upstairs to get the ornaments, I sat on the floor looking at this contraption that would be my holiday tree from now on. I missed the smell of pine. This aluminum tree had no scent. It was cold, shiny, and foreign.

When Daddy returned, we started taking the ornaments out of the box and tying them onto the branches with string. The branches reflected the colors of the bulbs―gold, green, and red―turning them into rainbows.

Momma came back into the room to check on the progress. “It looks nice.”

Soon all of the branches were filled with ornaments. The tree looked pretty, but I still wasn’t convinced.

Daddy opened the color wheel box. Inside were four colored pieces of plastic that looked like sections of a pie with a bite taken out of the small end. Besides the plastic pieces, there was a round black lamp with a circle attached to its big round face. Daddy attached the pieces to the circle with metal clips, turning the pieces into a even larger circle. As he plugged in the lamp and switched it on, the circle started to rotate.

The room changed colors as each plastic piece passed in front of the light. Cool blue room. Now warm yellow room. Soothing green room. Hot red room. Entranced, I watched the tree as it changed colors too.

Daddy smiled. “See, I told you that it would be nice.”

I sat in a chair across from the tree so I could watch the display. I had to grudgingly admit that the color wheel was nice and the tree was okay.

Putting up the aluminum artificial tree became one of our Christmas rituals. After a few years, I could hardly remember ever having a real green tree. And I grew to love the color wheel.

“Spend the Holidays with Us”

Eddie Bauer TagRemember Christmas catalogs? I used to love those thick, glossy catalogs that arrived in mid-November filled with holiday merchandise that could be yours with a minimal shipping and handling fee. My favorite one was the Eddie Bauer catalog. I was always a big EB fan, even though the Northwestern lifestyle they promoted did not resemble my thrift store/metal life. In 2002, I wrote this story about the catalog. I took it with me when I applied for a seasonal job at my local Eddie Bauer store. Needless to say, I wasn’t hired.

I want to live in the Eddie Bauer Christmas catalog. On the cover is a pristine snow-covered hill, ringed with a gray split rail fence. Barren black trees are silhouetted against a deep blue, unnatural colored sky.

The whole scene is unnatural. The snow is Christmas card snow. This snow is made for sled rides and snowmen. It isn’t the kind of snow that piles up in your driveway. It isn’t the kind of snow that causes men to have heart attacks after shoveling for hours. It isn’t the kind of snow that your car gets stuck in, which causes it to be crushed by an oncoming semi. It is Eddie Bauer snow, probably computer generated.

I open the catalog to visit an unfamiliar world. Smiling, handsome black guys make snowballs in flannel shirts and marigold and black down vests. A rugged, cute blond guy in a canvas barn coat ties a freshly cut Christmas tree to the top of the 2003 Eddie Bauer Edition Ford Expedition. Asian guys in driving caps and wool-blend car coats walk pensively in the snow.

Eddie Bauer guys wear dark loden 11-wale corduroy pants and flannel-lined relaxed fit jeans. They string up lights and put logs in the fireplace. They graduate from Ivy League schools. They are kind and sweet and never forget your birthday. They are sensitive, strong, and look good in khakis.

If I lived in the Eddie Bauer Christmas catalog, I would have the silver holiday nightlights. A Christmas tree shadow would dance on my wall as I sleep in my blush colored thermal pajama set. In Eddie Bauer World, my girlfriends and I drink hot cocoa in our snowflake Fair Isle cardigans, long denim skirts and stacked-heel boots in black, brown or caramel. We spend weekends in an expensive, custom designed redwood house in the mountains. When we go tobogganing, we wear fleece lined stadium jackets and heather gray ear warmers. My Eddie Bauer gal pals have wind-tousled hair and perfect skin. They wear expensive perfumes that aren’t too cloying and donate money to the Humane Society.

I exchange Eddie Bauer gifts with my Eddie Bauer catalog friends. I give monogrammed duffels, vintage leather watches, quilted fleece slippers and chenille gloves. I get myself a garnet bead necklace to wear with my washable suede jacket in pistachio. On Christmas Eve, all of us smart, good-looking guys and gals gather around the piano and sing Christmas carols. Of course, I would be wearing my black matte jersey backless dress and matching velvet scarf.

I went to my local Eddie Bauer store and applied for a holiday sales job. I wrote down that I was familiar with the merchandise. I was wearing my Eddie Bauer cotton jeans in espresso and carrying my matching Eddie Bauer canvas satchel in espresso. They did not hire me.

So I will spend my holidays with the Eddie Bauer Christmas catalog, caressing the pages and dreaming of a Christmas that will arrive within a week if I place my order by 3 PM Pacific Time.

A lot has changed in ten years. I am staying temporarily at a friend’s home while I look for work. There is no longer an Eddie Bauer store at the local mall. But thanks to the local thrift store, I do have an Eddie Bauer washable suede jacket and a pair of Eddie Bauer jeans. And I still have a jean jacket and a few sweaters from more prosperous days. I changed my address a few months ago, but Eddie Bauer still managed to find me. This year’s catalog, even though smaller, still features a blue sky and white snowy mountains, along with a tree decorated in lights. Free shipping is available with a $49 purchase. I look at the cute guys in khakis and flannel plaid robes, the long-haired beauties in Essential Down jackets and shearling boots and the ubiquitous black Lab, and I feel the spirit of an old fashioned Eddie Bauer Christmas. Some traditions never die.

Happy Christmas from the Covent Garden General Stores

Covent Garden Bag

On this day in 1987, I started on a grand adventure. I left Pennsylvania to spend six weeks in London. Upon my return, I relocated to California, where I have lived since 1988.

           Growing up in a small coal-mining town, tradition was very important, especially at Christmas. I miss those traditions that I took for granted all those years ago. I can’t even count on being able to maintain the silly little traditions that I used to keep when I had my apartment.

But this isn’t the first Christmas that I spent without a permanent residence. In 1987, I decided to leave Pennsylvania and move to sunny California, after a six-week detour to London. I loved spending the holidays alone in cold, gloomy London, where it started to get dark every day around 3 PM. It was almost like a Dickens story come to life. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I walked through the city, exploring different areas and watching people prepare for the holidays. I kept returning to Oxford Street, festooned with rows of colorful holiday decorations that spanned the street. Just looking up at the festive lights made me happy. Also, the main branch of the Topshop was on Oxford Street. I bought a floor length fake fur leopard coat there that looked like a big bathrobe when I got it back to America. I hung out in Harrods a lot, after I found out I could walk to Knightsbridge from my “flatlet” near Victoria Station. I bought my Christmas dinner there – a small baked chicken, a plum pudding and some forgotten casserole. At the Covent Garden General Store, a shop filled with useless trinkets and Christmas decorations, I bought little gifts to take back to friends. I didn’t buy anything for myself there, except a big red plastic shopping bag emblazoned with a photo of Santa and the words “Happy Christmas.”

On Christmas Day, I watched the Queen’s holiday greeting on the tiny television in my flat. I made calls to friends back home, listened to Christmas music, hung up my red Christmas bag, and strutted around the room in my leopard coat/bathrobe. It was a cold dreary day, but I had lots of tea to keep me warm. I watched holiday pantomimes on television, read the Christmas cards that friends sent from Pennsylvania, and celebrated my good fortune of being able to spend Christmas in another country.

I still have that red bag with rosy-cheeked Father Christmas. I recently bought a leopard jacket at Thrift Town for four dollars, a new phone with unlimited minutes, and I still have last year’s holiday purchase of two CDs of heavy metal Christmas songs. I’ve got tea and a Harrods cup. Maybe I’ll be able to get a new television so I can watch the “Yule Log” on Christmas morning and play my DVD of Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge. And I can celebrate my good fortune of still being alive twenty-five years later. Time to continue the traditions.

Eccleston Square

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