I consider myself an extraordinarily lucky military spouse; my husband has not deployed over the holiday season for the past four years. He has deployed, but we’ve been fortunate it occurred from spring to the fall, bringing him back just in the nick of time. Prior to us dating, my husband did deploy over the holidays, (and his birthday, which happens to be Halloween) as a single guy. During that time, he told me that he spent most of his free time tending his loneliness with 90’s sitcoms on AFN, writing musings in his journal about love and life and generally trying to forget the smell of pine and all holiday accoutrements back home.
When he first told me this tale, I promptly dissolved into a force of tears I generally reserve for Humane Society commercials. He hugged me and pulled away, his face registering such a sorrowful contortion, a mixture of a puppy dog and Tiny Tim all at once. The thought of my sweet husband sitting alone on his bed watching holiday specials from the early nineties with nothing more than a few crackers, maybe a bottle of water, wiping a tear from his eye as he, perhaps, received the occasional card or two? Hor-if-fying.
Later, much later-like after the first holiday season, he admitted that most of his down time was actually spent working out like the seventh member of Jersey Shore and playing a game with his mates that, while he has explained it to me one hundred times, sounds more like full body checking/tackling ping pong than anything else. Of course, at the time, he neglected to tell me these stories because it didn’t fit into his narrative: the sad boy puppy Tiny Tim narrative that gets.me.every.time.
Unfortunately for him, this was our first holiday season as a married couple and we really didn’t know one another all that well. And knowing that he once spent an entire holiday season across the continent, well, it invoked the very dangerous monster in me. The “Quest for Perfection” monster. The “I want to rescue ALL THE DOGS in the world!” monster. The “I could totally do that at home and spend 1/3 the cost!” monster! The monster with good intentions. The monster whose good intentions typically end with either a small to medium kitchen fire and/or a trip to the ER.
It started innocently: thoughts about all the ways that I could make every holiday season from then out perfect for him and our future family; all the traditions of our youth that we would continue and the new ones we would create together. Thousands of miles away from family and friends due to military moves, we’d have to rely upon those traditions, those familiar smells and sounds and sights to remind us of home.
So where did the train derail? I tend to be somewhat of an overachiever with a penchant for getting in WAY over my head. Every holiday and get together is not a day of magic and effortless perfection. I am the woman swearing at myself in the kitchen after trying to julienne carrots, but julienne-ing only my finger. I am the woman who pins five hundred things on Pinterest, then completely forgets about them ten seconds after hitting click. If I do attempt something I’ve seen online, say, learning to knit, I will approach it with grandiose expectations. Of course, it never looks remotely like the Internet photograph, so after about ten to thirty minutes, I will give up. A day or two later, I’ll reattempt the project with the same results. This process will be repeated a good seven or eight times until I decide I’m probably better off just making myself bowl of ice cream while telling myself, ‘there’s always tomorrow to finish these projects.’ But THAT tomorrow never comes, or at least hasn’t yet.
This is also why my dogs have several small scarves.
Despite this evidence, I never learn my lesson. Every holiday season is a time to try something new and recreate past traditions. While not all of my holiday efforts have been spectacular failures, I have managed to find a few, five to be exact, traditions that, well, might not be worth repeating. Or repeating in the same fashion. I’m sharing these with you as a bit of a cautionary tale, especially for my ‘in-over-our-headers’ soul-mates here because, well, you know who you are.
Tradition #1: Elf on the Shelf
‘Elf on the Shelf’ is a relatively new and heavily marketed tradition for the holidays. The story goes that every night from roughly Thanksgiving to Christmas, one of Santa’s elves sneaks into your house to watch over you and your children and report back to Santa who is naughty and who is nice. Every morning when the elf returns, he picks a new spot to ‘hide’ and children are encouraged to find him.
Elves hiding in my house and spying on my children? This sounds more like an episode of Dateline than a light-hearted tradition. When you really think about it, it’s kind of creepy. But then again, so is pretty much every other ‘super’ hero of the holidays, so I went with it. My daughter was a wee young but I had it in my head that these were going to sell out forever, and my daughter would never be able to experience the tradition. Think I’m paranoid? One word: Twinkies.
People go all out with these little elves; hiding them in new spots every day. Some mothers and fathers position them so that they are committing mischievous acts, and their presumably delighted children run through their homes with glee, trying to find their hidden, silly elf friend. To be honest, I’d probably be pretty good with hiding the elf until the fifth day or so, when I would promptly forget to hide him in a new spot and I’d have to make up some story about how little elf seems to have taken a liking to that one spot. Just like how the dog likes to pee on mommy’s expensive carpet in the very same location every other day.
Anyway, I spent the ridiculous amount of money on the elf that was probably mass produced overseas for $0.05 and brought it home to my husband. He honestly could not understand the concept. It took me at least five different times of trying to explain it to him until he said to me,
Husband: ‘You know what that sounds like?’
Husband: Big Brother.
Me: Ok, I mean, I thought it was kind of creepy, but I feel like you’re taking it a little far.
Husband: He is wearing red.
Me: So does Santa
Husband: Santa might be a Communist, too.
I’m only glad my daughter was not old enough to understand the conversation. Can you imagine the phone calls I would get from a concerned teacher? ‘Um, Ms. Dolack, can you please pick up your daughter? She’s been running around the school yard telling all the children that Santa Claus is a Communist and he’s got one of his comrades hiding in your house.’
Tradition #2: Chopping Down your own Christmas Tree
My husband was not deployed last Christmas, but his position was extremely demanding and time-intensive; gone every other week in the field, sometimes two weeks at a time. Those weeks that didn’t see him spending the nights away also didn’t allow him the ability to come home before eight or nine in the evening. To top this off, we also had a new baby and the stress of being cooped up alone in the house all day and night long as the weather began to change might be responsible for my temporary mental break. Determined to make our home in Virginia resemble the Christmas’ of my midwestern youth, I decided the only way possible was to bring in a freshly cut tree. Like, really freshly cut. Like cut. By me.
Makes sense, right? Well, did I grow up on or near a farm where chopping down the annual tree was customary? Absolutely not; I’m from the ‘burbs of Chicago, the closest we got to that was a Christmas tree farm was a somewhat rural hardware store. Had I, in fact, ever held the kind of saw/axe thing that one would need to cut down a tree or even OWN something like that? No. Did I have a young child I would be the only guardian of at the time? Yes. Was my husband going to help me? No. Because he was gone. All the time. And I needed the fresh cut tree and I pretty much needed it now.
Thanks to a quick Internet search, I found no less than three tree farms within a short drive. My daughter and I headed out, excited at this new adventure. Since I am unfamiliar with the concept of chopping down a tree, I didn’t bring anything except my coffee. When I arrived, daughter snug against my chest, coffee in hand and glanced around at the other families with their tools and their sleds and their rope, I realized that I was grievously unprepared for this task. Feeling a little bit like a lost kid at the mall, I admittedly started in on the self-pity. Why? Why was I always alone, darnit? When an employee asked if I was there to cut down my own tree and I meekly nodded and said I had not come with tools, he ran back behind a shed and sweetly produced a one rusty saw and axe. Earlier that day, I had pictured myself somewhat of a frontier woman, happily chucking away at the tree that would smell of the most fragrant pine. Then reality stared me in the face; I was not a pioneer woman, I was a woman so crazed and cooped up that my idea of fun was to swing a rusty axe at a tree with a two month old strapped to my chest. I kindly thanked the attendant as I handed back his tools. On my way home, I stopped at a lumber store and bought a tree. Just to cover my bases, I bought a scented candle.
Tradition #3: The Annual Photo with Santa
I realize this one is a little unique to me, as no one else seems to suffer from the same problems that I do when it comes to taking a normal photograph with Santa.
Last year, our local mall featured Santa Claus. My daughter at the time was very young and had absolutely no clue what was going on, but I had picked out a very cute red outfit and said a few prayers that she wouldn’t cry. Of course, if she didn’t cry, I’d probably spend the rest of the day wondering why my infant daughter seemed to have a penchant for overly friendly fat men. Anyway. I finally trudged over to the mall with my daughter in her holiday best when I saw a considerable line running the length of ten stores. Noting my distress, and my small child, a ‘helper,’ notes that the line is moving quickly and we should be able to see Santa within the next twenty minutes. One hour later, I was next in line when another ‘helper’ comes over and very tersely announces that Santa needs to take a break. So close! But, OK, what’s, what fifteen more minutes anyway? I ask how long the break is and I am informed that Santa will return in three hours. That’s right. Three. Hours. It’s 2PM, prime time for little kid Santa opportunities and Santa’s going to take a break to do what? It was at that point that I decided Santa had a very serious gambling addiction and probably needed to slip away to quench his thirst for the one-armed bandit.
Upset at this point, I ended up leaving the line and heading back home. The following day, I was prepared. I left the house a few minutes before the mall opened to ensure a good spot in line. In luck, I was only the second family and my daughter seemed to be in good spirits. When we finally did make it up to Santa, I smiled and leaned down to hand him my daughter when it hit me: Santa did not smell like pine and sugar cookies, no, Santa smelled overwhelmingly like whiskey and cigarettes and very, very bad life choices.
‘Santa rolled his eyes up toward me. I couldn’t put my child on this man’s lap, fearful that she’d get drunk by mere association! Behind me, the helper cleared her throat passive-aggressively and I hesitantly placed her in Drunk Santa’s arms, standing just off to the side that if he were to, well, vomit, I could quickly grab her. I said a little prayer of thanks that she was too young to remember Drunk Santa and they snapped the picture. The photographic evidence is pretty priceless. Next time, maybe I’ll do a background check on Santa before we pay him a visit. My daughter is older now. I was sure she was too young to have any memories of Drunk Santa anyway. That is, until last Labor Day when our middle-age neighbor got very intoxicated at the block party and stumbled into our back yard. My daughter took one look at him and laughed. ‘Santa!’ she exclaimed.
Tradition #4: Crafting Homemade Gifts
This is the part where I curse every magazine spread that makes any sort of craft appear deliriously easy to recreate. The accompanying photographs are persuasive enough to make one look at it and say, ‘I can’t believe that’s homemade! In fact, this looks better than anything in stores right now, or, anything similar would cost a million bucks! I mean, really, how difficult could it be?’ Here’s the answer: it can be really difficult: difficult enough to take you straight to the edge.
Once, I had the bright idea to make soap. Soap for everyone! Soap is practical and pretty. So, I went out and bought molds and product and scents and by the end of that shopping trip, well, even if my soap turned out, it probably would have been cheaper just to buy expensive soap. Anyway, during my homemade experiment, I managed to set my soap on fire three times by mixing the wrong ingredients, almost ruined my oven, cracked every potential soap bar and apparently got too creative in choosing my scents because the resulting smell was something like bleach meets ammonia but with half the cleaning power and two times the potential for death by noxious fumes.
This year, I’ll probably still carry on the tradition of making some gifts, but this time I’ll probably make them edible. Even if they look terrible they’ll still be delicious.
Tradition #5: Upping the Ante on Tried and True Recipes
How does that old saying go, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’ Never applied to me. If there’s a wall that’s slightly off color, I’ll repaint it. An appliance that is pretty much working except for a small hitch, I’ll try and take it apart and fix it. And most especially, if there is a recipe deemed delicious, well, I’ll do my dandiest to make it even MORE delicious.
Which is what lead me to try to create a turducken (a duck stuffed in a turkey), wrapped in bacon as the piece de resistance!
At this point, you’re all pretty sure I’m trying to kill my husband with a massive coronary, but in reality, my husband had once remarked that he would like to try duck at some point and also showed me a photograph of a turkey wrapped in bacon and proclaimed it glorious. So in my very mixed up head, I decided to kill two birds with one stone, pun intended, and combine the two.
Once Thanksgiving had rolled around, I woke up extra early with the hopes to surprise our guests. Because bacon wrapped turducken isn’t exactly something you can find in Irma Rombauer’s ‘The Joy of Cooking,’ I did a little bit of improvisation. Eyeing the cooking directions on both, I cut it down the middle. Then I wrapped it in bacon. And here’s where I went wrong: afraid the bacon would slide off; I stuck toothpicks in the sides. Unfortunately, the only toothpicks I had were the decorative type and in my egomania, I neglected to remove the colored plastic frills on the tips.
Thinking myself clever for having done some much pre-preparation the day before, I was able to sneak out of the kitchen to catch some of the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Somewhere between the Snoopy Float and some unknown Broadway show, my husband remarked, ‘Hey, you smell that? It smells like burning rubber from an 18 wheeler?’
I looked at him and grinned. ‘Well, I have a surprise for you this year. Instead of making a traditional turkey, I stuffed it with duck and wrapped it…in bacon.’
His eyes went wide. Satisfied, I figured, with the genius of my culinary skills. But, he was looking past me toward the kitchen.
‘You must really be hungry!’ I exclaimed with smugness.
‘Not really,’ he returned. ‘The oven appears to be emitting flames.’
I rushed to the kitchen, quickly turning off the oven. My husband grabbed the fire extinguisher ready to douse off the flaming mass.
‘My Gracious!’ (or something not fit for print) I yelled ‘The oven has malfunctioned! The oven is a danger to us all! We could have been killed by this oven!’
My husband peered in at the now extinguished turkey as I was running around the house screaming about the demonically possessed oven, fingers ready to call the landlord and let him know that he’d rented us a faulty house. With my fingers on the phone buttons, my husband walked over to me and presented four nearly burnt toothpicks, their plastic decorations slithering down what remained of the wood like some gory horror show. The heat had caused the plastic to melt and ignite, sending the entire glorious turducken dinner up in flames.
We didn’t have turkey that year, but gratefully we had some delicious sides and what was left of the bacon. The following year I purchased a turkey and followed the directions to a T. But just in case, I stored a back up turkey in the garage.
This year, when he tried to pull the Tiny Tim/puppy dog act, I was less moved. No new holiday traditions for me; I could not invoke the monster.
Remember that time I was deployed during Christmas?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I responded hesitantly.
‘Well, I think I’d feel a lot better about that if I bought this television.’