I Abhor Outdoor Décor

I do not live here. And thank God.

I’ve always loved the Christmas season. The inside of my house proves it; every table, windowsill, wall, and shelf is overflowing with 50-years-worth of accumulated decorative Christmas crap. We pull Christmas cookies out of the oven with snowman potholders and display them on Christmas plates. We read by twinkle bulbs. We dry our freshly showered tushies on holly jolly towels. We own a seizure-inducing, blazing, blinking Christmas village. We have a small mountain of Christmas-themed stuffed animals. And we have two Christmas trees (one real and one artificial) to house every one of our 72 gajillion Hallmark ornaments.

‘Tis a festive sight.

If you take a gander at the outside of my house, however, you’d be convinced I was a virulent atheist. Not a wreath, not a jingle bell, not a ding dang thing can be found.

When Ellen and I were first married, my No Outdoor Decoration Policy flummoxed her.

“Why not put just a little something outside?” she asked. “Just strand of lights. Or a sign that says ‘Santa Stops Here.’ Maybe we could hang a couple of glass balls on the red maple and call it a day?”

But I was adamant. Ellen could decorate outside if she wished, but I wouldn’t.

Not now and not ever.

I have a good reason for feeling this way; I am a longtime sufferer of PTSD (Post Traumatic Sub-arctic Decorating). As with most people’s crippling psychological ailments, the cause can be traced back to childhood. And, more specifically, Mom.

When I was a kid, my mom had a hard-earned reputation for always having her crap together. I attributed this to her German work ethic, her German planning and organizational skills, and her German no-nonsense approach to everything. This German-ness was evident during the Christmas season, too; she would have all of her shopping done before Halloween.

Yes, she was that person.

A person can’t tackle every Christmas chore in October, however. Christmas shopping in October told the world you planned ahead. Christmas decorating in October, on the other hand, told the world you were a weirdo. Mom did not want to be perceived as a weirdo. The decorating would have to wait until December.

This waiting made Mom tense and cranky.

Come to think about it, there was clearly something about the Christmas season that made Mom go a little batty. The weather had a lot to do with it. When the temperatures dipped below freezing, Mom would suddenly get a vague yet visceral feeling that Christmas had snuck up on her without warning. Despite all of Mom’s best laid plans, she was now Behind Schedule. The actual date on the calendar was irrelevant; as far as she was concerned, every Christmas thing that wasn’t yet done needed to get done RIGHT NOW!

That was her cue to bellow up the stairs.

“Michael! You need to get the outdoor decorations up RIGHT NOW!”

“Why now?” I mumbled into my pillow. (Mom liked to announce my chores early on weekend mornings, when I was sleepy and docile.) “It’ll be  warmer on Sunday. I’ll do it on Sunday.”

“No!” Mom exclaimed, “it needs to be done TODAY!”

I could’ve followed this up with another, “Why?” but there was no point. Christmas may have been four weeks away, but Mom needed decorations now and if I didn’t agree, then I would be deemed “lazy” and sometimes Mom had a habit of slapping lazy people.

So I got up, got dressed, and got to work.

The outside decorations at the Allegra house would never impress anyone. All I had to do was twist some garland around the vertical porch posts and follow it up with a string of lights. Easy peasy.

Only it wasn’t easy peasy. I may have been responsible for decorating the outdoors, but Mom was responsible for getting the supplies. She insisted on me using “live” garland–that is to say, garland made from real pine branches which, in her words, “looked better than the fake stuff.” This may have been true, but the fake stuff was designed to easily twist around porch posts. Pine branches don’t want to be twisted. They resist it. They fight you.

Also, tree branches are thicker and heavier than fake garland so I couldn’t tape or staple gun them into place. I had to use nails. It’s impossible to hold a nail in place while wearing winter gloves, so I needed to hammer barehanded in sub-freezing weather as the whipping wind slashed away at my bleeding knuckles. On a related note, a hammer hitting your finger hurts like crazy in any weather, but it hurts super crazy when your hands are borderline frostbit. And since my bare hands were trembling in the cold, I hammered my fingers a lot. And on the rare occasions when the hammer did find the nail head, the pine branches would split and fall apart and slide off the post and gush pine tar everywhere. And pine tar can only get off of your hands with Lava soap, which Dad didn’t buy because the last time he went to the grocery store, he went without the list because he was “sure he could remember everything.”

And so the 12-year old me, in my long, pointless effort to celebrate the birth of Jesus, muttered the F-word over and over while making a mental note to convert to Islam.

The job took me two hours and aged me several years. Then, as a kind of punctuation, while cleaning up I tripped over the stepstool and took a header into an adjacent snowball bush. Because of course I did.

“It looks great!” Mom declared as I trudged inside. She was trying to lift my spirits, but my spirits were unliftable. I was achy, numb, sticky, and hated everything. Soon I would feel the unbearable needle-like sting as my fingers began to defrost. It was only 11 in the morning (Dad wasn’t even out of his pajamas yet!) but I was exhausted enough to know that my Saturday was pretty much over. The rest of my day would consist of lying down, nursing my aches, and adding a Sam’s Club-sized bottle of Advil to my Christmas wish list.

“It’s over,” I told myself. And I believed it.

Until I heard Mom’s urgent voice thunder up the stars.

“Michael! We need to get the Christmas tree RIGHT NOW!”

Crime Doesn’t Take a Holiday

Even this guy has his limits.
Even this guy has his limits.

The people at the end of our street still have their Christmas decorations up and even the decorations are resentful. The centerpiece of the display, a large, light-up Cookie Monster dressed as Santa, fell over last week, passed out face first in the mud.

“See what Cookie Monster is doing?” I told my son. “They did that a lot in the 1960s. It’s called passive resistance.”

“I thought it was called ‘drunk,’” the boy replied.

How can you not love this kid?

And he was right! The furry blue fellow did look like he was on the tail end of a bender. You couldn’t blame Cookie Monster for his transgression, either; his holiday ended three months ago.

There is little that offends me more than the sight of Christmas decorations up past the third week of January. I just can’t comprehend how something so obvious — so on display — could be ignored for so long.

I love Christmas, but once it’s over, it’s over. I make sure of it. When New Year’s Day rolls around, the Allegra house is abuzz with Christmas purging. Boxes are pulled out of the attic, promptly filled, and shoved back in. The tree is denuded and dragged to the curb. Within hours, my house returns to its simpler, un-tinseled self.

I don’t expect this level of discipline from everyone – sadly, we all can’t be persnickety, anal-retentive neatnicks – but I do expect everybody to pack up their outdoor mangers before Easter arrives. Whenever they don’t, it takes all of my willpower to not roll down the car window and bellow, “Jesus isn’t a baby anymore, doofus! He’s in his thirties and about to be murdered!”

My wife, Ellen, agrees with me in principle. She does not, however, share my passion. When I discuss our neighbors’ crimes against the neighborhood, she tries not to roll her eyes too often.

Alex, on the other hand, has reached an age where he likes to stir me up. He takes pleasure in parroting my outrage. When I drive him to school in the morning and we pass The Christmas House, he is the one to get the ball rolling.

“They have their candy cane lights out!” he shouted, aghast, as if seeing this eyesore for the first time. “When are they going to put them away? It’s March!”

“I know!” I shouted back as if this conversation hasn’t happened at least 30 times before. “Those people should be arrested!”

“They should!” Alex shouted again.

He then grew thoughtful. At that moment, I spotted a glimmer in the boy’s eye.

A few weeks before before this particular conversation, I borrowed a set of DVDs from my parents. It was the first season of an old TV show I was certain my son would love — and I was right. Hardly a night went by when Alex and I didn’t watch an episode.

I soon heard the show’s iconic opening line.

“This is the city,” Alex said in a gruff monotone. For what it’s worth, no eight year old on earth does a better Jack Webb impression. “Los Angeles, California.”

“Or New Jersey.” I interjected in my own Jack Webb voice.

“Or New Jersey,” he said. “People live here. They go to work. They go to school.”

“They put up Christmas decorations,” I added. “When they stay up too long, that’s when I come in. I carry a badge.”

“Dum Da Dum Dum!” we boomed in unison. “Dum Da Dum Dum DUMMM!”

My outrage was replaced with unbridled joy. I couldn’t help but weave a wonderful fantasy in my mind: My son and I were partners — Dragnet Holiday Decoration Detectives — running people downtown to answer for their long ignored twinkling lights and loitering Santas.

How awesome would that be? And what a great father/son bonding thing!

“We could maybe even send them to Guantanamo,” I heard myself say aloud.

“What?” Alex asked.

“Oh, nothing,” I replied absently. Then a smile crept across my face as the bombast of our theme song echoed in my brain.

Elfless Shelves, Etc.

Meet the elf! Oh, how I hate him.
Meet the Elf! Oh, how I hate him.

Elf On The Shelf People fall into two categories:

There are the Earnest Elf People, the ones who go to great lengths to show off the little guy’s wondrous magic. When they are not ooh-ing and ahh-ing the Elf’s antics, they use his existence as a means to deliver thinly veiled threats. (“Oh, I sure hope the Elf didn’t see that!”)

Then there are the Naughty Elf People, who take great pleasure showing the little guy breaking into the liquor cabinet or making a lecherous pass at a Bratz doll.

Most of my friends fall into the latter category.

As for me, I am not an Elf-On-The-Shelf Person. I believe that warrantless elf spying violates my civil rights. If Santa is too lazy to find out on his own if someone is naughty or nice – something he did with little effort back in the 1970s, I might add – well, that’s his problem, not mine. I’m showing that pint-sized KGB agent the door.

As a parent of a young child, however, this opinion of mine is not popular. My son can’t help but notice that almost all of his classmates have elves. I suppose that in this age of social media run amok – an era when nobody can reasonably expect any right to privacy – having an elfin tattletale skulking around is something to covet.

I don’t get it, but there it is.

So my son and I compromised.

Meet Butter Boy! My stupidest impulse buy ever.
Meet Butter Boy!

Butter Boy is perhaps the most useless kitchen gadget ever. You shove a stick of butter in his head and it allows you to easily butter your corn on the cob. Since corn on the cob season is over, I offered B.B. some seasonal work.

See? He's a lobbyist for Big Coal! (These ideas seem like good ones at 6 a.m.)
Hey, it seemed like a good idea at 6 a.m.

Butter boy is not the only unusual holiday decoration we have these days; we also have a Christmas Mouse.

As longtime readers of this blog might recall, I had a Christmas Mouse last year, too. I released him the day after I caught him because the weather was mild.

This year’s visitor, however, decided to poop on my countertops the day after we had a horrible snowstorm. I couldn’t release the little guy under such terrible conditions, so he’s now a houseguest, living the Life of Riley in a mouse condo – eating cashews, cereal, and peanut butter – until the weather decides to cooperate.

As I write this, it is snowing. So, yes, there is a reasonable chance this guy might be rooming with us until April.

If he wasn’t so gosh darn adorable, I’d mind — but he is, so I don’t.