Sunday, November 27, 2011

Christmas in November. Or, How I Nearly Went Mad.

Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday, hands-down. 

Not just because it involves shovelling copious amounts of meat and potatoes and other assorted delicacies into my mouth (although I’ll admit, this is pretty central to its genius).  Not just because in the Bay Area we eat two Thanksgivings, and always make sure that we cook enough to have a couple of days of leftovers.  Or even because it involves bringing all the family together.  No, I appreciate Thanksgiving because of the sterling work it does at keeping Christmas at bay. 

Not that I have anything at Christmas.  Again, it involves loads of good eating—tamales on Christmas Eve and sauerbraten on Christmas Day.  And it brings family from the four corners of, well, the Bay Area, plus some Texan outliers.  But Christmas is something you ideally start thinking about in mid-December, when the thought that you should be buying a couple of gifts idly flits across your mind.  You can hum along to carols you hear on the radio, enjoy the lights on Telegraph Avenue at night, and then, on the 22nd or 23rd, remember those gifts.  And then before you know it the magical moment of stuffing your face with polvorones and mashed potatoes and ginger bread is upon you.

This ideal situation seldom occurs in the U.S, where retailers conspire to shove the Hallmark version of the holidays down our throats, and where radio DJs barely have the grace to wait ‘til we’ve finished the fourth round of Thanksgiving leftovers before they assail us with jolly tunes that have us all violently twitching inside a week or two. 

But in Britain there is no Thanksgiving (meaning that I have a lot to make up for at the holiday dinner tables), and I found myself passing Somerset House in London a few weeks ago only to see that workers were already putting up the skating rink.  In NovemberEarly November for that matter.  But maybe ice-skating could just be excused as a wintery thing.  Then why the Christmas tree going up right behind the rink?  I was in Oxford for the first day or two of November, and lights were going up over the high street.  And they have now been up over King’s Parade for some time in Cambridge. 

I went down to the National Archives at Kew on Saturday.  It involves 5-6 hours of travel roundtrip from Cambridge, so it’s a journey I avoid making when I can, but the lure of the Kariba Dam (my latest historical obsession) was too great to resist.  Between the underground and the Archives, the neighbourhoods consist of these bucolic, semi-detached suburban homes.  And on heading home for the day, I saw a mother and her children unloading a Christmas Tree from their car.  It’s not even December yet!  Surely it will be dead before the 24th rolls around. 

But I chastised my inner Grinch and thought that I should at least enjoy the sentimental aspects of the holidays.  I had even talked myself round to stopping off at Somerset House to soak up some of the holiday atmosphere (spending an hour going in circles on an ice-rink on one's backside might not be my thing, but it can be entertaining to see other people do it), when the underground train reached Knightsbridge. 

On they piled, in their thousands, at least!  They were dressed to the nines, bedecked with holiday bells, and must have been suffocating under all the coats and hats.  They flailed, yelled, and whipped their Harrods bags around with abandon.  While an Anthropologist of the Armpit might have been right at home, I found myself gasping for breath, trapped between two highly-excited shoppers, buffeted by their purchases, assailed by their over-loud voices.

I staggered out of the tube at King’s Cross, fled to my train, and promptly fell asleep, exhausted by altogether too much holiday spirit.  The man in the seat next to me thoughtfully woke me up at Royston to be sure that this wasn’t my stop.  “Where are you getting off?” he asked.  “Downtown Berkeley”, I slurred as I struggled to regain a proper sense of my surroundings, and he gave me the kind of look I give the guy wearing the feather and skins and carrying the boom-box who sometimes sidles up to people on BART...

I think I’ll write to Andrew Lansley, one of the Cambridge MPs, and see whether he can’t do something useful instead of privatising the NHS, and declare Thanksgiving a British holiday. 

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