Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas to All and To All A Good Fight!

I’ve been sitting on this column for a week. How could I, a person so in love with the season of Yule that in July I declare an arbitrary Christmas and crank the AC so I can build a fire, drink cocoa, and watch The Bishop’s Wife, have nothing to say about December 25? How could I not have one bon mot, one poignant tribute, or one slightly off color linguistic wink? Let me think a minute……nope. Nothing.

This morning I got out of bed, opened presents, "Oooohed" and "Ahhhhed" over the falling snow, drank a little eggnog, and even hummed along to some carols. I did it all perfectly according the directions on the box. Yet something was missing. I took a short inventory: Merriment? Check. Goodwill? Check. Visions of Sugar Plums? Sure, why not. Then it came to me. I knew the seasonal malaise from which I suffered. No meat. Christmas is, after all, about the meat.

Of course, I know the real reason for the season, but I’m not going to presume that I can serve that subject better than Matthew or Luke. I, like Linus, think that Luke 2:1-20 is particularly good stuff. I’m talking about the post midnight mass, secular, destroy your credit rating, I only screamed at you because I have a sugar buzz, meaning of Christmas. In my Yule days of yore, Christmas was divided into a three round clash of the titans. It was a different kind of Boxing Day with the opponents being The Champ, otherwise known as Daddy, and his annual contender, that fowl upstart, the turkey. I like to think my mom was Don King with slightly calmer hair even though I have no idea what Don King actually did.

I married a vegetarian. Gentle therapy and a modest drinking habit have helped me deal with it and usually we make it work. Holiday meals are the only occasions where there is a hint of marital strife. This is America after all, and the focal point of each major holiday is a big hunk of meat. There are turkey people and goose types. There’s even room for duck people on this carnally inclusive holiday. Occasionally, Cornish Hens all around are acceptable, though they’ve always seemed a bit prissy to me. Some people go the spiral ham route, and a few go slightly off the grid and roast a Prime Rib. The turducken is brilliant for the indecisive. Why have one meat when you can have three? But saints preserve us! How do you celebrate a feast day with a tofurkey!

For the uninitiated, a tofurkey is shaped like the meat loaf it wishes it were. Into it is rolled, not stuffed, a dressing that’s not sure if it wants to smell like sage or cardboard. It threatens to taste like turkey, but don’t be scared. It doesn’t. Tofurky comes in a box. It was never predator or prey. It never roamed, flew, swam, or scampered, which I suppose is the moral argument for eating it in the first place. Nonsense! This is Christmas. It’s no time for morals. A tofurkey lays there passive presenting no challenge, and what’s fun about that? I humored Graham and bought a tofurkey at Thanksgiving, but today I couldn't help but be a bit wistful thinking about that test of wills between man and beast that in the past we called Christmas dinner.

Round one: Christmas morning after presents, Daddy collides with the turkey, oiling and salting the skin, stuffing its middle with raisin dressing made from the recipe Grandpa brought from the “old country.” “Get in there you potlicker! Get in there or you’ll be sorry!” he roars as the bird slides around the counter trying to make a quick getaway, wings and legs akimbo. Two things I’ve always wondered: What is a potlicker? And how much sorrier can a dead turkey with no head be? The oven rings, sounding the bell to end the round. Conquered, the turkey enters the dry heat of defeat. Its goose is cooked.

Round Two: The bird, aided by clandestine interlopers, achieves a moral victory. Rarely does she cook slow enough or fast enough. Someone turns up the temperature. Someone turns down the temperature. No one will admit to doing either but blame is passed generously. Stomachs worry and noses search for hope that we might eat before New Years. Many are cautioned with, “You’ll go to bed barefoot and drink cold water” for even walking by the oven. Daddy made that warning so severe that I was thirty before I realized that I always went to bed barefoot and drank cold water and kind of liked it. What Daddy could do with one shift of his black eyes or a nonsensical threat delivered with calm confidence was unnerving. He was the Fonz in a flannel shirt with a Ph.D. Even so, the bravest of us was often caught opening the oven just to “check the turkey” and Daddy would ask, “Check it for what? Worms?” For a moment, I didn't want turkey anymore.

Round three: The final countdown. It started during the salad course, which if you remember in the 70s and 80s consisted of a hunk of iceberg lettuce and some Thousand Island dressing. We’d all sit in the dining room with an ear trained toward the kitchen. I must stop at this point reader and tell you that my parents have been married for 62 years. Theirs is the most solid of relationships, but something about carving a large piece of meat brings out the Archie and Edith in them, and for ten minutes on Christmas night it was the best show in town.

“Carol, you’d need a search warrant to find a sharp knife in this place.”
“I sharpened the one you're holding Al.”
“On what, your teeth?”
“It’s as sharp as your tongue mister.”
“Like hell it is.”

It’s true. We have every kind of sharpening tool in our house but no edgy blades.

“Son of a… Judas Priest!”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Hang on to the…dammit!”
“Ahh, hell. Well, that’s your piece.”

For years I thought the “dammit” was part of the bird like the drumstick or the wishbone.

“Boy oh boy, a lot of help you are.”
“Temper, temper.”
“I’ll give you temper, temper.”
“It might be better than the turkey.”
“You’ll get out of my way if you know what’s good for you.”
“Merry Christmas to you too!”

And then…quiet. As suddenly as it was thrown on, the mantle of Bunker was thrown off again, and Mom and Daddy emerged with a tray of expertly sliced white and dark meat. According to my father, the white meat was for Dumb Americans. It didn't matter that he had been born here and fought in two wars for the Dumb American side. Anytime his opinion was in the minority it was Daddy against the Dumb Americans. He acted as if he were some wild expatriate just off foreign shores sporting a geographically vague dialect, a jaunty cap, and a cigarette between his teeth.

My parents would sit on either end of the table. The youngest child present would say the prayer and we’d make a toast. Daddy, the champ at least until New Years dinner, lifted his champagne glass and with “Na Zdorov’ye!” we knew the meal could begin. I think what I really miss this year is that table of people. I’d gladly eat tofurkey if I could only sit around that table one more time. We weren’t the Waltons or the Bradys. We were the Klosters, slightly odd but not quite kooky, a little less than normal but not all the way to weird. We laughed until we cried at jokes only we got, teased and taunted until someone got mad and we laughed some more, talked tough and tough loved all through the year, but especially at Christmas. It wasn’t perfect, but it was perfectly wonderful.


  1. Well you made me cry...that is quite a feat. The best part is not one of those conversations is exaggerated in the least. Our family sure is one of a kind, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Can't wait to have another one with all of us together. Happy Christmas, Al.

  2. Hilarous! Love the pics of uncle Al dressing the birds.

  3. My holiday is complete. All day long I had a feeling that there was one gift yet unopened. Thank you! Throw away the gift receipt, I'm keeping the smile given through this post. A perfect fit!!!

  4. Merry Christmas, this was a gift to all your readers.

  5. "I Married a Vegetarian" - could be the title of one of those teary but triumphant confessional memoirs!

  6. They are hilarious, Carol and Al. I almost missed Gertie in that picture she is so tiny,she has disappeared. My dad always threatened us with a trip to the poor house. Just recently I discovered there actually was a place near the Soo called the Poor Farm. Or else he said we would be fed corn meal mush every day for an unspecified amount of time. I know what you mean about missing the big family meals. The table keeps getting smaller every year. I can remember when we had to use 3 tables some years.

  7. Ali,
    That was a wonderful Christmas gift. Something that I will want to read every holiday. It so encompasses our family and the dialogue was so perfect. I guess we heard it enough to remember it eh? You have a true gift with words. Thanks for the "family reunion!" Felt like I was there again.....