Mugger: A MUGGER IN A PEAR TREE


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It strikes me as rather strange, but suggesting today that Christmas is a buoyant, even magical holiday is seen in some quarters as an odd and contrary point of view. After years of digesting news stories and op-ed columns about the crass commercialism of the season, the depression and stress it causes, tips on how to behave at office parties and the silly religious/social squabbles over how prominently Jesus may be represented in cards and mall displays, I’ve given up and retreated into Santa’s comfortable bubble.


Our Christmas Eve dinner will not—although one never knows what Whole Foods is up to—be “green.”


Matt Drudge flagged a story last Friday about Urban Outfitters selling “Santa Claus Hates You” T-shirts. A good marketing ploy by my reckoning, as are the “eco-friendly” clothes, such as the soy-based undies on the rack that Times reporter Eric Wilson amusingly noted, “will someday save the polar bears.” I’ll stick with boxers from Paul Stuart, and let others wallow in ego-massaging morality this month.


Granted, I find the week between Christmas and New Year’s as a complete and disagreeable snooze, but the days leading up to Dec. 25 are, at least in my household, usually a delight. Yes, as one gets on in years there’s the inevitable melancholy of recalling family members and friends that have passed away, but it’s usually a fleeting sensation that gives way to living in the present. Besides, if you make a big deal about decorating a Christmas tree, as our family does, and have built up an inventory of ornaments over the years there’s no better occasion to spin yarns about the olden days. There’s no better time for an exercise in oral history.


My wife, who grew up in Los Angeles, is less enthusiastic about the annual tree ritual, but she’s a good sport and takes on the unenviable task of stringing the lights together and then sits in an easy chair as the boys and I spend a few hours hanging the balls and tin figures. The four of us went to a local nursery last week, picked out a 10-foot Douglas fir and let it settle for a day before the decoration began. We each have favorites: Nick and Booker are partial to the Browning School ornaments they acquired eight years ago. I like the plastic World War II stars and Depression-era cloth fruit sculptures (improbably saved from my mother’s South Bronx childhood home) that were prominent in the trees of my own youth. Melissa still loves the glitzy collection of glass animals that we bought on a Bloomingdale’s spree a couple of years before we were married.
Paraphrasing Rod Stewart, every ornament tells a story.

Booker, in particular, gets revved up over Christmas, and, thankfully, not because of the presents under the tree. During the summer, he and I usually watch baseball games together in the sunroom, affording an opportunity to gab, but once the season’s over we’re at a loss, settling on old episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Honeymooners” or “I Love Lucy” as a barely adequate substitute. (The one exception this fall was on Wednesday nights when he and his brother were glued to “Kid Nation,” a show I simply can’t abide.)


At the beginning of December, however, he insists on a Christmas movie marathon and although our tastes differ wildly, we strike compromises. Which means, for example, that I have to endure the incredibly dumb Jingle All the Way—as an actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in my opinion, is only barely more tolerable than Sylvester Stallone or Ben Stiller—Home Alone and Elf. We both like the “South Park” Christmas episodes, but he vetoes Bad Santa (which I thought was terrific) as completely inappropriate to the season, which strikes me as a Mitt Romney sort of stance, but that’s OK. Some films make the cut every year, like Bill Murray’s hilarious Scrooged, while It’s a Wonderful Life is relegated to biannual status.


Actually, I like the cornpone of that classic, and still get a bit misty when young George Bailey is upbraided by the grief-stricken pharmacist, but it’s a little too old-fashioned for Booker. Apparently, he’s not alone, as was pointed out in a recent Los Angeles Times column by comedy writer Annie Korzen. She calls the Capra classic a “horror flick,” and that’s just a warmup. Korzen continues: “What if George Bailey had been a selfish little piggy like me, or like Frank Capra? How wonderful would his life have been if George had followed his dreams? He might have traveled to progressive countries like Denmark or Sweden and discovered societies that aren’t in a pitched battle between rich and poor. Then he could have used the wealth he earned from being a world-class architect to run for public office.”
Lord, give me strength.

Can’t we just accept It’s a Wonderful Life as period piece, a curio that may resonate on several levels even though most of the United States now resembles Pottersville and selfish little piggies are, as in the past, abundant in the population, especially at this time of year. The holiday season, I now believe, if put into perspective, is a welcome respite from all the bitterness in the country, and is best taken at face value. It’s prevented me, for example, from becoming unduly annoyed at the sanctimony cascading in the news about “cheaters” like Roger Clemens—as if Babe Ruth was a model of rectitude—or Hillary Clinton, Inc.’s attacks on Barack Obama as, tut-tut, a onetime dabbler in the pleasures and pitfalls of pot and cocaine.


My younger son says with a straight face that all he wants for Christmas is “peace on earth,” although he’s dropped hints about getting an electric guitar, and that cracks me up. Almost as much as the inflatable reindeer and elves and Santas that are now on rooftops in our neighborhood. Maybe it’s not “progressive” like Denmark and Sweden, but right now it suits me fine.


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