Do you have any zombie holiday traditions?
I don't mean dressing up as an undead Santa who tumbles insensate down the chimney and staggers around moaning "Braaains! — and cookies with milk, if you have them."
I'm talking about things you do because it's tradition, and you can't remember why.
Example: Every year I plug a bubble-lamp into a kitchen electrical socket. The plastic base is red and green, and it has a bear wearing a Santa cap, so it is festive. If it was orange and pink and had a panda wearing a fedora, and I plugged it in the first of June and said, " 'Tis the season!" people would think I had lost my wits, but this combination of colors and ursinity is immediately familiar. The power of culture.
Every time I plug it in, I think: This is what will burn down the house. I will look at the smoking ruins, covered in a caul of ice, and moan, "I just had to have a bubble lamp, didn't I? Because it was Christmas."
A zombie tradition, in other words.
There are others. We have some seasonal throw pillows I don't like, but being a guy, I think the amount of decorative pillows in the world could be reduced by 87% without ruining anyone's day. The pillows in question have a picture of a French horn bedecked with holly, which is festive. Perhaps, but no one puts out pillows in July that have a picture of a bassoon blowing in two like a firecracker. We just accept certain kinds of iconography and don't think twice.
Must we put out these pillows whose sole job is to be set aside when someone wants to sit down? We must.
Food traditions are similar. At some point, someone invented peppermint bark. It's fairly recent. I know we think it's been around forever, but Scrooge didn't lean out the window on Christmas morn and tell the urchin to go buy the biggest slab of peppermint bark in the store window.
I can attest that my childhood was bark-free. Dad always brought home a Russell Stover collection, which was a sure sign of Christmas Eve. It was the double-decker box, which had a basement level of confections after you'd plundered the main floor. Given my dad's hardscrabble upbringing — from what I can glean, on Christmas the dozen kids got to chew a clove while looking at pictures of Hershey bars — this must have been a sign he was doing all right by his family.
And then there are the Swedish meatballs after church on Christmas Eve. I love them, but let's just say it's the only recipe you suspect actually contains Elmer's glue as an ingredient. Still, I think they are required by law. My wife had them growing up. So did I. She's half Italian, and I'm half Slav, and here we are with Swedish meatballs and lefse and aquavit and the kid's wearing a crown full of lit candles.
Do you have musical traditions? I do. They are strict and unbending. All modern pop-star Christmas music is forbidden. I don't care if Taylor Swift really nailed "Santa Baby" for all time. Give me Burl Ives and those records Dad got at the tire store. Yes, children, the Tire Store Christmas Album. Goodyear and Goodrich put out magnificent collections, the Goodyear 1965 LP being the finest collection of Christmas music ever recorded. YouTube it and weep.
At this point, you might be tempted to enable Insufferable Sociology Grad Student Mode: "Actually, this is just brain chemistry at work, with feel-good chemicals released in response to emotional stimuli. You know, the boughs of holly have nothing to do with Christianity per se. Their true origins go back to pagan celebration of Saturnalia, when pre-Christian Romans exchanged gifts, a tradition ..."
Someone pretends to sneeze and dumps a mug of nog on the pedant.
Anyway, I welcome all the traditions, zombie and otherwise, because that's one of the things that make the season different from the gray ache of November just passed and the barren expanse of January to come.
It was all I could do this year not to hang Daughter's old Pokémon stocking, because I know what message that sends. Kids always suspect that we look at them in their modern incarnation, capable and confident, and see an 8-year-old. That is what we do, but we try to hide it. Every parent remembers the ghosts of Christmas past, gathering in number to greet the latest incarnation and usher it to the pews where all the other years repose.
It's all over so fast, you sigh. Say, didn't you set aside one last piece of peppermint bark, just for this moment by the fire? You did.
It's tradition. Why? Because it is.