Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Bitterest xmas

When I was a tiny child, I had many rivals for my grandparents’ affection. Rival no. 1 was my overly-adored brother, the first male heir. Yes, I was the first born, but he was the first male. Have you ever been a female child in a South American immigrant family? It’s not so bad, if your mother is the South American one. They have a complex pattern of loyalties and relationships, the Chileans do. Female children are very close to their mothers, and the males are raised (and praised, and exalted) by the fathers. My father being the Chilean one was ecstatic upon the birth of the boy, so much so that he forbade my mother (the evil American) to have an additional child. He was done. My mother, being American, paid little attention to either of us, except when we fought. Because that was as entertaining as my mother’s favorite tv show, the roller derby. So, already I was deprived. But the first year of my life I had no competition for my paternal grandmother’s affection, especially since I was fortunate enough to look like their side of the family.

But all that changed when my aunt, my father’s twin and my grandmother’s beloved only daughter, had her first little girl, a perfect blond, blue eyed chubby baby. Sure, she looked more like a baby Barbie than a South American but that didn’t matter. What did matter is that I’d been replaced. And just to rub it in, a year later my aunt had another little girl who looked just like my grandmother.

Needless to say, I loved them and hated them. They were pretty and perfect and tinier than me so I could make them do things and hit them and they’d never tell. But their Barbies had fur coats, courtesy of my grandmother’s old minks and ridiculously creative sewing ability. And obviously at holidays they cleaned up. But the harshest lesson I ever learned at their hands was the lesson of Little Miss No Name.

Little Miss No Name was a doll manufactured by Mattel in the mid-60s. It was based on the Keane big-eyed kids paintings that every kool kid had in their rooms back then (not me, but my cousins had two different sets of them). She was a homeless barefoot begger child dressed in a patched burlap sack with ratty hair and a single tear that dripped from one of her huge eye, shivering on her sad, dejected cheek. Her giant head hung heavy on her emaciated child’s body. I swear that if you lifted up the dress you could see her ribs. One grubby palm was turned up, begging for any small change or spare food you might have. She was the embodiment of the archetypal homeless child. Even a stick of gum would have delighted poor Little Miss No Name. Who would want such a doll? Well, we would. We all wanted Little Miss No Name. We wanted to give her a home, a bath, brush her ratty hair, have Grandma make her a fur sack to replace her torn burlap.

As per usual, the gift petitioning would have begun in October. We first would have scoped out our desired toys, enticed by tv commercials and ads in newspapers, and begun our insideous campaigns of "hints" and cajoles. I’m sure there were other things I wanted (Operation, Flintstones Bowling, Hess Truck), but nothing I needed as much as Little Miss No Name.

There was almost no chance of Santa bringing me my desired doll. We lived in the projects, and I think at this time my father was walking nights at the PO and going to school during the day, studying some crazy thing called “computer science.” Working at the PO afforded him insights into what his future may be if he didn’t finish college; everyone else on his shift was crazy--from the mumbler to the guy who recited Shakespeare--and sorting letters would be a fast track to insanity. So even though the pay was decent, all his money was put aside to get us out of the projects, and get him into a good job. Each week, my mother was presented with one special treat--a Baby Watson Cheesecake from D’Auitos. For this she raised two kids on very little money, and suffered through reading “The Skin of Our Teeth” outloud to my father when he was sick with nephritis. I”m still not sure why a CompSci major had to read Thornton Wilder, but my mother can still recite parts of it.

I didn’t understand poverty, or saving for the future. All I knew is that Uncle Chuck didn’t have such a great job, but my cousins had everything--Operation, a Mrs. Beasley doll, a Hoppity Horse! A color tv! Surely Little Miss No Name didn’t cost as much as a color TV.

You must already know that Santa didn’t leave me a Little Miss No Name under our Charlie Brown tree in the West Brighton Projects. I probably got 101 Dalmations ColorForms, and Flintstones Bowling. But imagine my surprise when I got to my grandparent’s house and saw that Santa left, not one, but TWO, Little Miss No Name dolls, one for each of my horrible, spoiled rotten cousins. And left them at Grandma’s house, and I was there while they opened those packages and saw the looks of surprise and elation spread across their perfect faces.

And then. And then. You won’t even believe what happened, it’s so ridiculous. To this day I can hardly believe it myself. My cousins each positioned their Little Miss No Names’ hands in outstretched beggar pose, and went around to each relative, and collected quarters. QUARTERS. Not only did they have my doll, but now they had MONEY.

I would like to say that this story has a happy ending, some sort of redemption or satisfying denoument. It does not. My cousins remained beautiful and continue to get dolls and quarters, while I have to walk miles to work in sub-freezing temperatures and console myself with Flintstones Bowling.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Put Thor Back in Yuletide*

I was doing some googles and wikis recently looking for appropriate terminology for my cat's holiday cards. My cat's name is Poly and, yes, we already used "Happy Poly-days" last year. It seemed too soon to recycle. Being a not-xtian myself, I prefer my Winter Solstice celebration greetings to be non-x-mas'y. Despite Ronald Reagan's declaration in the 80s of American being a "Christian Country," I find more and more that my friends believe a variety of things about a god or gods who treat them in a variety of fashions, but we all can get excited about a holiday that celebrates the return of the sun.

In case you've been lucky enough to avoid it, you probably know that Bill O'Reilly and others of his ilk each year complain that the liberals and the hippies are trying to stop good Americans from celebrating the birth of their lord. What those who rally around these imaginary slights don't know is that the Christians usurped a variety of pre-christian solstice celebrations, added some coca-cola, and called it Christmas. Take, for example, the Mithraists of ancient Rome. Their celebration takes place three days after the Solstice (roughly December 25). On the Solstice, the sun stands still--that's what Solstice means. Three days after, the sun is reborn to collect his TWELEVE DISCIPLES (12 signs of the Zodiac) and walk the earth again.

They've stolen the word "yule" outright. Yule (or hjol in Old Norse) refers to the moment the sun begins to turn after it's low point (the solstice). It's clear that the Yule Log was taken from the Northern Europeans--there was not a lot of log burning in the Bible. Even the traditional Christman pig was taken from the Icelandic Yule celebration, where a pig was sacrificed for their god Freyr. Why else would we eat a pig on the day a great Jew was born? Because of those goddamn pagans.

The Christians borrowed a lot from the old religions, and who can blame them? There's no reason to reinvent holidays when ones already exist, and how better to convert the pagans than to be celebrating the return of the sun and to really be celebrating the birth of Jesus? See, you godless heathens, you can still have your glorious pig and wonderful log and 12 disciples!

We all know the Christians were persecuted and eaten back in the day. I feel like the Christians are the hot, successful supermodel who breaks down on The Surreal World and cries about how everyone teased her when she was a kid. Perhaps they need some therapy to let go of this complex they still carry with them.

* there's a really interesting article online here