25X: Christmas Stories

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This whole 25X advent calendar has been about trying to capture or describe some of our favorite Christmas traditions, because this season is all about honoring traditions: ornaments, cookies, Christmas cards, holiday movies and festive $6 Starbucks drinks.  So much of Christmas is wrapped up (PUN!) in trying to relive, or at least finding comfort in repeating, events that tap into a sense of nostalgia, usually with the people closest to us.

My mom and dad sent me the ornament above as a Christmas present, plucked right from their own tree.  Passing this little 25-year-old porcelain Santa Mickey onto a new generation, so to speak.  I teared up as I held it in my hands, remembering all those Christmases at my parents’ house, gathered around their tree adorned with so many ornaments.  It was my childhood, right there, in a little cartoon mouse.

Lance and I wish all of you the Very Merriest Christmas, and hope you’re all honoring your favorite Christmas traditions today.  Share your love and goodwill with your family, however you define it: near and far, by-blood, -marriage, or -Twitter.

Tell old stories and make new ones.  I’m sure that time us kids got drunk before church, or when my brother-in-law Showcase Showgirl’ed his mini-14 semi-automatic rifle before unwrapping gifts, will be just some of the Christmas 2012 anecdotes we’ll be sharing for years to come.

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25X: Little Lights

Public Doman Photo, since, you know, I don't have a time machine or anything.
Public Doman Photo, since, you know, I don’t have a time machine or anything.

Tonight, one of my most favorite holiday traditions will begin quietly glowing in the cold evening air: luminaires.

I’m not a religious guy, so the significance of these paths of light being “runway lights for Baby Jesus” is lost on me.  Still, there is something uniquely moving about such a simple display of faith.

It got me to thinking that, really, so much of this season, in reality and metaphorically, is about light, the simple colored bulbs we dress our houses with, or the elaborate displays from the Osbourne Family, or a tealight in a white paper lunchbag.

Is it because we find ourselves (up here in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway; hi, Australian readers!) in the lengthiest, the darkest nights of the year, that we’re drawn to this tradition of light?  What innate human need is satisfied by a few twinkling lights?  Why do we still find such peace in something so relatively primitive?

I love this time of year because, when you strip away all the Furbies, the gift cards, the calorie-explosion holiday lattes and the umpteenth Christmas movie on ABC Family, what’s left is a common, universal thread of decency.  There’s a shared sense of hope in the goodness of man (collective, sex-neutral pronoun).  Maybe it’s naive, but it’s there.

So those little lights are important to me.  They’re represent one of the most basic elements of human experience: light in the darkness, hope on the horizon, for all of us.

25X: That Christmas Moment

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There’s that intangible moment every year where it clicks: it’s Christmastime. Holiday parties! Carolers on the streets! Twinkling lights and wreaths and being generally a fat ass as you unapologetically gorge yourself on as many cookies, pie pieces, and drumsticks that you can fit in your mouth and around your waste before New Year’s.

There’s an energy, a constant low buzz of glee, a skip in your step, when your mind turns over, like a bad mattress, to Christmas mode.  You’re in the zone: you’ll spend hours baking cookies, hours writing out cards, and you’ll even listen to “I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas” without killing yourself.  You’ll do it all with a sense of unquestioning enjoyment.

It seems like I’m sugarcoating Christmas, but this switch-flipping happens to me every year, when the other pressing concerns of life are put on the back burner as Christmas cheer for all to hear fills me up inside.  There’s no specific point in the season when this sensation arrives, or anything particular that seems to cause it; when it’s there, I know.

We’re down to, what, 11 days before Christmas, and friends, that strand of lights in my mind hasn’t flickered on yet.  I became conscious of its absence when we were in Disney World.  I loved our Diet Disney trip and, save for only getting three hours of sleep on our last night there, we had a wonderful time.  But it didn’t fill me with Christmas joy.  Neither did putting up the tree, or cutting out paper snowflakes, or even reminiscing on this blog about all I love about the holiday season.

Why am I not excited? Is it being busy at work? It is because Lance and I aren’t exchanging gifts this year? Is it because it’s the first Christmas ever that I’m not going to spend with my family?  Some of Column A, all of Column B?

At this point, I’m a little worried it isn’t going to come, that Christmas 2012 will be here and then gone and then…that’s it.  Christmas is so awesome that I don’t want that to come to pass, but I’m not quite sure what to do.  Can you force the Christmas spirit?

Gimme some ideas, folks.  Help this hapless grinch.  Do y’all have strategies to get yourselves into the holiday spirit?

25X: Christmass Media

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I don’t know about you, but movies and TV comprise a significant amount of my Christmas experience; I wouldn’t know what to do with myself without horrible Lifetime movies or A Charlie Brown Christmas.  An annual re-watch of some of the best is just as much of a tradition as belatedly sending out cards or baking cookies as much for yourself as somebody else.

Now, I break down my film-based Christmas traditions into four categories, as follows:

  • The Christmas movie: a film which was actually released in real life, popcorn-poppin’ theatres, like Home AloneNational Lampoon’s A Christmas VacationElf, or A Christmas Story
  • The Christmas special: Usually a half-hour or hour long, these were usually produced for television and are self-contained. Examples include A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the animated version, not the creepy, mopey, depression-riddled Jim Carrey version), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Mickey’s Christmas Carol (*an exception here, since Mickey’s was originally created as a theatrical short, but is 26 minutes long [lengthy for a short film] and was arguably produced with a television afterlife in mind.)
  • The terrible Hallmark Channel movie: While obviously not isolated to the Hallmark Channel, Hallmark tends to have the doofiest in concept and execution TV movies out there.  Matchmaker Santa? It’s Christmas, Carol! starring Carrie Fisher and Carson Kressley?  The Christmas Heart, which is about…a boy needing a heart transplant…for Christmas.  My new favorites, though, are the Dean Cain holiday movies.  Knowing that he’ll never have much of a career and still needing to pay the bills, Mssr. Cain has started in all of the following Christmas TV movies: Christmas Rush, A Christmas Wedding, The Dog Who Saved Christmas, The Three Gifts, A Nanny for Christmas, The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation (!!!!), The Case for Christmas, The Dog Who Saved the Holidays (not just Christmas this time! He’s inclusive!), A Dog for Christmas (Dean Cain and these dogs! These are about as bad and numerous as the Air Buddies movies).
  • Very special episodes of…: Who doesn’t look forward to the Christmas episodes of their favorite TV shows? (Doctor Who fans, I’m looking at you.) While I don’t always get behind one-and-done specials like Prep & Landing (which, besides being a small, annual series of specials, walks the REALLY fine line between clever and “trying too hard”), I’m truly a sucker for Christmas episodes of regular TV shows.  30 Rock and Community have produced a fair number of great Christmas episodes, from “Ludachristmas” to “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” these really work because they take characters you’re already familiar with and put them into holiday situations, so you’re not spending all this time on exposition explaining who all these new characters are; the best shows can pull off a great holiday episode without it seeming too forced, like The West Wing‘s breathtaking “Noel.”

Obviously, there’s a lot to try and catch every year, all in the name of Christmas ritual.  However, you also have to be in the right mood to sit down and enjoy these.  While you can have A Dog Carried My Transplant Heart from the North Pole on in the background while you’re making Christmas cookies, you really have to give your full attention to, and have the right mindset for, the sweet melancholy of A Charlie Brown Christmas, or the beautiful Chuck Jones animation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  Every year, I end up playing catch-up at the end, trying to cram in every Love Actually and The Muppets Christmas Carol, and I usually come up short.

My other challenge is that Lance can’t stand the Peanuts.  Or claymation/stop-motion animation.  The first time I proposed watching Rudolph with him, he said very matter-of-factly, “I will scoop my eyes out with a spoon.”  The next year, his response was a similar, “That movie literally makes me want to peel my skin off.” (His distaste of the Peanuts has still yet to be understood.)

Given that he has such an apparent negative physical reaction to these, I have to watch them in secret, usually on weekend mornings while he’s still asleep. It’s kind of pitiful, putting National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation into the DVD player before the sun’s even come up.

25X: Hypergiftism

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It’s early morning, and the sun peaking in through the gawdy hotel curtains that no sane person would ever put into their own, private home. Lance is still asleep, and will continue as such unless I can find a puppy somewhere down here in Orlando to drag him back from dreamland via a whole bunch of dog kisses.

Me? I’ve been up and down all night, eyes burning, battling this Radisson’s incredibly shitty wifi, all not solely from anticipation (you’ll read why over the next few days), but rather from an affliction know as hypergiftism.

Hypergiftism is an all too rare condition where a person’s conscious and unconscious thoughts become consumed with Christmas gifting, with trying to find the ideal gift, through a great sale, and then how to properly present said ideal gift in a way that is special, unique, and all fitting for the receiver.

This time of year, it’ll be shocking if I can get three or four hours of uninterrupted sleep before I flip open my laptop to check the latest Target ad or my phone to see if the prices have dropped for anything on my Amazon shopping list. Even though I have alerts set up to send me an automatic text or Tweet if a price drop occurs, I still have to check, like a compulsion.

And if I can’t think of a good gift for somebody, it will drive me to insomnia-fueled crazytown. I’m not saying I’m the greatest at giving gifts; Lord knows (and Lance would agree) that I’ve given some duds over the years (because of this, we have an established rule in our house: I am no longer allowed to buy Lance any clothing or candles.) the gifts I get people are still likely to come from my wheelhouse of movies, music, or books, or maybe dabble in the occasional as-seen-on-TV or kitchenware item, but Still, I know I put a lot of thoughts into my gift-giving.

I try my best to give gifts that people would like, if not through specific wish lists than by looking for cues throughout the year. I keep a list of ideas in a private Amazon shopping list all year long. The demise of Borders has really affected my gifting, though, as I used to spend hours in those stores, perusing through aisles, getting ideas.

I keep an eye on advertised sales, too, to see if something I’ve wanted to buy or something I’ve already purchased is on sale; if so, it’s off to the store to price-adjust or price-match to get the best possible deal.

After I pick out the gift, usually it gets wrapped and put under the tree. This part is Lance’s job; I will even need to put my gifts to him in extra nondescript boxes for him to wrap himself; I guess I just don’t have the attention to detail for a gay-certified wrap job.

Every once in a while, though, a gift will require extra consideration on presentation. In Lance’s family, this is due to a wrapping competition where the best, most creative wrap job will win a cash prize and, most-importantly, notoriety for the year. Then, there are the gifts that don’t fit in just a regular box or have some extra component or explanation that makes the presentation all about how you deliver it. Do you allow randomization when unwrapping gifts or do you impose a certain order in which presents are to be unwrapped, like a great mixed CD, to maximize emotional impact?

That’s the conundrum I’m in right now; that’s partially the reason why we are in Orlando right now, staying (Walt forgive us!) “off-property.” I’m trying to pull together what might be my most elaborate gift ever; there’s lots of moving parts and I’m not quite sure it’s all going to fall into place, and even if it does somehow work out, I still haven’t figured out how it will be unwrapped in such a way that is fun and gets the biggest reaction.

Sorry for being so cryptic, but part of this whole gift game is not spoiling anything. Regardless of if I’m any good, I’m still a gift purist.

25X: The Office Holiday Party

Just a preface: there is no drunken debauchery in this story, so if you’re here for embarrassing tales of my co-workers, get out while the gettin’s good.

There will be enough embarrassing Lance stories to go around, though.

Is there an event more anticipated each year than the office holiday party, a time when you can let down your hair a bit with the people you spend more waking time around than anyone else?  Or an event as fraught with indecision and controversy?  Where should you go for dinner? Will everybody have something to eat? How do you find that perfect place, while also taking advantage of the fact that you’re going on somebody else’s dime?

In years past, we’ve done everything from P.F. Chang’s (meh) to a mom ‘n’ pop Italian restaurant (please just refill my water glass, I beg of you!)  While all had their merits (like deep-fried meatballs), there was this feeling that our office had to up the ante a little.

Enter: Zahav, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in the city, home to James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov.  People have been raving about it since it opened: it’s one of only four restaurants in the city with the highest rating from local critic, and my former prof, Craig LaBan (Craiggy, the baguettes! Hurry up!).

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I knew I’d never have another chance to go to this restaurant, not due so much to the cost as to the menu: it’s Israeli-inspired, and anything close to resembling Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food is an immediate non-starter for Lance.  Therefore, I had to enjoy this rare opportunity.

The office party was a plus-one, and since I like to parade Lance around like a trophy spouse (I mean, seriously, have you looked at him? He’s smokin’), he was required to attend.  The morning of, as Lance was driving me to the train, he asked me to look up the menu to the restaurant.  He was concerned that there wouldn’t be much for him to eat, since nothing was fried or had “chicken fingers” in the name.

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As I was going through the menu items, Lance’s face contorted into a progressively scary, disgusted Medusa-like monster.

“DUCK HEARTS?” he screeched. “GRILLED LAMB TONGUE??”

“Oh come on,” I pleaded.  “Keep an open mind.  Oh hey, look: grilled baby potatoes!” If anything, Lance likes a good starch.

“WHAT’S IN THEM?” he demanded.

“Err…” I stammered, looking at the ingredients.  “Ground lamb and pine nuts…”

“ME ANGRY!!!!” he bellowed, and tossed me out of the car.

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Yeah. Lance was definitely not excited.  He’s a terribly picky eater (if there’s something on his plate that isn’t a shade of brown, then it’s a good day), and has a penchant for chain restaurants.  If it’s even vaguely ethnic, he’s not touching it with a ten-foot pole, unless it’s been through the Americanization filter on Foodstagram.

Lance’s retort to all this was, “Well, what the heck are you going to eat?  It’s not like you would enjoy any of this stuff!”

Well, that’s sorta true.  I would not go near an animal tongue and nearly collapsed at the sight of a pig’s-face-as-delicacy when we went to another hoity-toity restaurant a few years ago.  Ick.

BUT, on the flip-side of that, I was willing and eager to expand my horizons a little bit and try some food that was supposedly delicious.  I am not wild about Middle Eastern food in general, but I am game for something new and different.  And something that I wasn’t paying for.

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And it was really good.  From the salatim, a selection of eight mini-salads, to the housemade laffa bread and hummus-tehina, to the epic lamb shoulder with fried pilaf and the “messy butt” chicken (a name we obviously misheard but never figured out what it was actually called)–it was all expertly created and, to me, very flavorful and delicious.  Not usually my cup of tea, but it was good.

Lance, aside from a bite or two of inoffensive dessert, didn’t eat anything.

“All these smells are going to make me barf,” he said.

The dinner wrapped up around 9:00PM, each of us going our separate ways and nobody needing to have a cab to cart their drunk-ass home.  All in all, a highly enjoyable meal with a good group of people.

“You’re taking me to Shake Shack,” Lance said, handing me the car keys. “I’m starving.”

So yes, after spending three hours at one of the city’s best restaurants, we drove twenty blocks so Lance could have a concrete and some crinkle-cut fries.

“Oh my God,” he sighed with a greasy smile on his lips. “This is like the best burger I’ve had in my life.”

25X: All I Want For Christmas Is A Lottery Instant Game Ticket

I don’t know about you, but PLEASE, gift me $20 in scratch-off lottery tickets. I wouldn’t rather have those than $20 in cold hard cash–of course not!

Okay, okay, so the idea of giving lottery tickets as holiday gifts isn’t one of my favorite aspects of the season; I’m of the opinion that it’s a lazy-man’s (or “person’s;” we’re gender-pronoun neutral here at Lance+Jeff) idea of gift-giving, much like anything you buy at CVS or Walgreen’s and try to pass off as a legitimate gift.  I can guarantee that, unless your recipient has asked for incontinence supplies, they don’t want anything you picked up at a pharmacy.

All that being said, what I do love about this time of year are companies running commercials trying to pass off their products as the perfect gift.  Obviously, people have different needs and desires, but…lottery tickets? Sure, why not.  Or this current LivingSocial deal for laser toenail fungus removal? “Don’t let fungus foul up your happy holidays”? Don’t let fungus foul up MY happy holidays–get that shit taken care of, girl!

My favorite obvious holiday cash-in, though, is the new “holiday” commercial for WeatherTech car floor mats, which is basically the same commercial they run year-round, except with a new holiday voiceover, fake snow, and antlers digitally painted onto the two featured golden retrievers:

HAVE YOU NO SHAME, WEATHERTECH?

Whatever happened to the days of commercials like Coca-Cola’s blatant diversity training video, “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke”? Or this Staples Christmas commercial? Between the WeatherTech mess and Lexus thinking that putting a bow on a brand-new luxury sedan is both somehow creative and a viable gift option for most people, we are facing a severe creative drought when it comes to Christmas commercials.  All you can do is appreciate the absurdity of it all.

At least they still air some of the classics on TV, including one of my all-time faves:

What’s your favorite holiday commercial?

Missed a day of the Lance+Jeff advent calendar? Never fear, click here!