It begins in December. Of course it does.
By being born in the same month as Christmas, you are guaranteed a childhood of receiving half the anticipated quantity of presents. With a child’s sense of right and wrong, you protest the unfairness of it all, and maybe some of your relations indulge you – up to a point. You know when that point arrives: it’s when they start implying you’re being “spoilt” and “childish” for attempting to insist on separate birthday and Christmas gifts.
As you get older, Christmas becomes more about doing things. Your parents are ‘on duty’ at the church’s Christmas service for various reasons. Before long, you too are conscripted into the Christmas programme – acting, singing, inviting friends – and most years the preparation process begins as early as late October, eating all the weekends along the way. By the time Christmas rolls around you’re so damn psyched at the prospect of getting back some of your Saturdays, you barely notice the actual event.
The gift-giving game ramps up a notch when you’re expected to give, not just receive. Before long, you learn to spot the telltale glimmer of a Ferrero Rocher box lurking beneath the gift wrap of a $10-and-under gift exchange. Some years you knuckle down and go the handmade route, trusting that your wonky puff-paint lettering will come across as ‘sincere’ rather than ‘cheap’.
Your parents, being Chinese, don’t even DO presents. One year your mother gives you hand soap for Christmas and you tell her she really may as well not bother. Mercifully she takes your feedback to heart – most of the time. (Now and then you end up with oddities like a tree planted in your name in the Holy Land.)
And then there’s the extended family. People you see a few times a year, whose primary mode of communication is criticism and/or personal remarks about your weight, your attire, your grades/job/relationship status (*delete as appropriate), etc. It’s basically Chinese New Year with more tinsel.
By young adulthood you will have largely given up on the entire month of December. You default to a few predictable ways to spend your birthday happily with the people you like most in the world, and the next two weeks are spent girding your loins for the onslaught of Yuletide. As Grinches do.
You grit your teeth as all the malls and stores play lousy cover versions of Last Christmas – RIP George Michael. But you make sure you have all the gifts, and all the right gifts. Nice ones for the people who matter. Suitably appealing ones for the ones who don’t, but with whom you feel obliged to maintain your end of the social contract. Something for the office Secret Santa exchange which will make an impact – because you see your colleagues daily and really don’t mind doing something nice for at least one of them.
Technology helps. Online shopping – well in advance – makes the gift-buying process that much less of an ordeal. You know you have reached a certain level of Grinch Nirvana when you do not enter a single physical store in the entire month of December. You bless the inventor of customised gift labels, and order a stack pre-signed with the names of yourself, your spouse and your child.
Ah yes – the child.
Your long-suffering spouse, who has put up with your Grinchyness for years, reminds you to keep perspective for the small one’s sake. Because, bless her, she loves Christmas. The sight of a Christmas tree brings upon paroxysms of excitement. Presents are received in such quantities that she hits present fatigue very early in the game. She chirps along to the songs – she doesn’t know the words yet – and wishes a Merry Christmas to everyone with glee.
And when you ask her what we’re celebrating, she lisps: Jesus’ birthday!
Which is when you know that the adorable rascal you birthed is the universe’s way of balancing out all the wrongs and assorted bullcrap that led you down the path of Grinchyness in the first place.
This Christmas, I am most grateful for the little family we’ve built. It’s hard to be a Grinch in the face of so much cuteness and so much love.