The Yuletide Bonfire & r & Since I was young, Christmas Eve was my grandmother's thing. It was the day all the disparate splinter cells of our family assemble -- along with a few extra-familial refugees -- and she attacked it with a single-mindedness that bordered on compulsion (as she has continued to age, and begun patting our heads a specific number of times, we realized it was probably an obsessive compulsion).
When Grandma became too tired to handle the evening by herself, the mantle passed to my mom, who is the oldest child and, almost certainly, obsessive-compulsive as well. Though the festivities moved to our house, it was important to my mom that everything remain mostly the same. We still had the ham. We kids still sneaked the liquor. We still sat around after dinner -- Algonquin style -- making fun of each other until someone cried.
My mom allowed herself one embellishment, though. She wanted a Christmas bonfire. She's always been big into them, and living in the county, with its horribly lax air-quality standards, means just about anytime is the right time for burning stuff. This is especially true, to my mother's thinking, in winter, when it's snowy and cold and miserable as hell, because, as she notes, there's no danger of wildfire.
The tradition has continued every year since, but lately it seems to unite young and old in the queerest of ways. I was out there last year with my cousins, all still in high school. They were reenacting, almost scene by scene, the film Napoleon Dynamite. "What are you going to do today, Napoleon?" Asked Jared. "Whatever I feel like I wanna do. Gosh," replied Daniel.
After several hours of this, my uncle Steve walked up and, hearing them, snorted a little, "You guys ever take your bikes off any sweet jumps?" We laughed. Then scolded him for misquoting.
Christmas and the Coming of Abraham & r & Zach Searle, a Lieutenant at Spokane County Fire Station 46, recounts a uniquely American amalgamation of religious and secular practices. Jewish by birth, but non-practicing for most of his life, Searle's recollections of the holidays are a Judeo-Christo-Hallmarkian hodgepodge of borrowed mythos.
"We celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza -- everything," Searle told me. "I don't think we celebrate Kwanza right, though. I don't know how you're supposed to celebrate it," pausing, "We pull open that [Advent] calendar ... or wait ... that's Christmas ... I don't know." The only aspect of each tradition Searle and his family seem to have observed religiously is the gift giving. "Yeah we do the eight days of presents [for Chanukah]," he says. "We always talk about going to temple, but we haven't made it yet."
Christmas is especially strange. "On Christmas morning, we always eat bagels and lox." I mentioned to Searle that bagels were traditionally a Jewish food, not Christian, and that, while lox derives from Yiddish, there's no salmon in the holy land. "Look: my people wouldn't have wandered through the desert for 40 years just for bread. I bet they had lox, dude." Turning back to the breakfast, his eyes glazed a bit, "It's so bomb. The salmon and cream cheese is so thick, and there's so many onions and capers." That did sound good, I admitted. "We have to stack it up like that so it smells really strong. Smelling that stuff is how Abraham finds his way to your door, supposedly." I mentioned that Abraham wasn't a part of most Christmas narratives, nor of Chanukah. He half shrugged.
The fact that no one knew about it wasn't going to stop Abraham from -- supposedly -- appearing at Searle's door on Christmas morning. This is his tradition, just as valid as any.