Between Thanksgiving and New Year there are an awful lot of family rituals involving meals, house guests, and long-distance traveling. And I do mean awful. It’s not that the holidays have to be awful, of course, it’s just that they can bring out the awful side of people, relationships, and family dynamics. After all, why do you think they call it The Nutcracker?
I am a house guest, having traveled thousands of miles to be with family and partake of all the rituals of the Christmas season. One of those rituals is visiting outdoor displays. This can take many forms: Festival of Lights, window shopping, Nativity scenes, caroling, and neighborhood light shows, which can get elaborate. I know of one in San Bruno in California that can be seen from the space station. I can also remember driving around Anaheim Hills one night with friends making fun of all the mechanical reindeer, compressed air Santas, and polyurethane snow globe displays. Then we drank wine in a hot tub.
This year, I went with my daughter, son-in-law, and one-year-old grandson to “Christmas in the Park” in San Jose, also in California. Displays in warmer climates use what looks like white Astroturf to simulate snow. When it gets dirty it looks just as bad as real snow, maybe worse. Sometimes they even haul in mounds of crushed ice for kids to slide down and make snowballs. People go ooh and aah. I understand that. What I don’t understand is how a city like San Jose has an ice hockey team, but I’m sure it’s about big data, markets, analytics, and freeway access. How romantic.
“Christmas in the Park” featured the usual collection of Tannenbaum tree displays from all kinds of non-profits, schools, churches, and local government. I think there was even a tree from the Valley Transportation Authority with miniature buses. They appeared to be on time. There was also a brass orchestra playing the usual assortment of Christmas music (um pah pah), including religious songs, which was actually a nice surprise. The beautiful Cathedral Church of San Jose was just one block away.
And then there were the transvestite Japanese elves. I don’t think they had anything to do with the Christmas event. I overheard someone refer to an anime convention across the street, which would have been no less absurd than if the City of San Jose had actually hired them for “Christmas in the Park.” In any case, there they were in all their surreal splendor, posing for pictures and mixing with families and tuba players. I also came across Bo Peep in pink with her shepherd’s staff and Spiderman, which reminded me of Times Square. No Naked Cowboys, though.
Here’s the thing. I like to add cinnamon and raisins to various kinds of dishes, whether stew or salad or lasagna. The transvestite elves were just that: a dash of cinnamon to “Christmas in the Park.” They were the underside of the Tannenbaum displays, not unlike the Christmas dinner where Uncle Harry gets sloshed and starts telling you about his time in the Merchant Marine, or Aunt Gilda, who lives with twelve cats, confesses that she has a very close librarian friend who smokes weed. Or the guest who chews with his mouth open and tucks the end of the tablecloth into his shirt collar.
We need these people at Christmas. We need them to remind us that not everything is ordered, controlled, or predictable. We need them to remind us that there isn’t one way to do things and that if we don’t give some sort of expression to our shadow self, it will come out in various ways, some of them dangerous. It’s possible that the recent violence in our streets is a manifestation of this need. Of course, the expression has to be channeled or we will end up annihilating each other, which is why the transvestite elves were docile, obliging, and very good humored. At least I like to think that. They could also have been high.
Without Uncle Harry, Aunt Gilda, and the transvestite elves, it would be a very dull Christmas, indeed. So why not celebrate them? Why not acknowledge that we are all part angel and part beast in need of the light of Christmas? Isn’t that the message of hope and salvation offered to everyone? As a friend of mine just wrote, quoting Edgar Allen Poe, “There is no beauty without some strangeness.” And it seems we’ve got plenty of that.