"A real warrior never quits, and... I WILL NEVER QUIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Thus spake Po in Kung Fu Panda (surely one of the greatest animated films ever made), a present from Babbo Natale to my children this year. It occured to me that this is probably the unspoken battle-cry of most people when the holiday season rises up menacingly on the horizon, a tinsel-covered, raisin-studded juggernaut whose blows we must endure--and strive to subdue with every fiber of our being--or be crushed by the sheer soul-sapping force of its pernicious yuletide power.
Ever notice how the Christmas season is described in increasingly apocalyptic terms? Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Stores lure us to their doors at inhuman hours to suffer the tortures of the damned, with the prospect of saving twenty-five percent dangled in front of us like plenary indulgences. Thankfully, many of the crueler punishments of the season are absent or at least milder in Italy, but we do make up for it by packing in more actual holidays, and therefore more opportunities for agony. The beast rears its head here on December 8th--the Feast of the Immaculate Conception--and finishes by crunching the last of our weary bones on January 6th, the Epiphany. Christmas is technically a two-day siege (or two-and-a-half if you count Christmas Eve feasting), with the 26th being Santo Stefano. In Italy it is common to spend both the main holiday meal of lunch as well as dinner together with family (do the math--that's five family meals in three days!) which--if you factor in dysfunction, ignorance, bigotry, bad hygiene, endless hillbilly barzellette, and oafish table manners--makes for a hair-tearing, eyeball-gouging, fingernail-ripping experience. It truly takes a warrior spirit to tackle this most formidable of foes.
If you're curious as to what the End Days will be like, then go to an Italian supermarket on the weekend before Christmas, where you will witness a roiling, writhing sea of frenzied humanity who wield shopping carts like bumper cars, frantically grabbing at shelves and filling their carts as if WW3 was about to break out, and where a thin-lipped, beshriveled old lady in an enormous fur coat will unceremoniously knock you to the ground and pry the very last tub of mascarpone from your twitching hands. (I can think of nowhere better suited to the execution of a few well-placed kung fu moves--if not an all-out Jackie Chan fight scene--than an Italian supermarket on the eve of a major holiday). This insanity is, unfortunately, as much a part of Italian culture and history as the Renaissance--though it's a little-known fact, Dante, in his original version of the Inferno (before the final edit), made suffering perpetual Christmases the tenth circle of Hell.
To further illustrate my point, I'll share with you this electronic missive--and clear cry for help--which I received from a friend on Christmas Day (I imagined him gasping for breath, his trembling hands clawing the keyboard): "...family killing me...like being chained on my back to a rock while vultures tear out my entrails...." We all have an image of how we want Christmas to be, don't we? Something very Norman Rockwell--a snowbound cottage with a crackling log fire and stockings hung by the chimney with care, carolers, the scent of pine, a rustic table set with a glistening roast and rounded by family members whose joined hands give thanks, children whose faces are aglow with pleasure over their new Flexible Flyers. THIS is the Christmas we desperately strive for, the one we fight for--but it's not the Christmas we usually get. Instead, family holiday get-togethers are more akin to getting boils lanced, or having leeches applied--or having your entrails tinker-toyed with by scavengers.
A woman came into the shop a couple days after the holiday, one of our regular customers, a Brit with a clear eye and sassy haircut, and as conversation inevitably turned to Christmas coping strategies, she said matter-of-factly, "I don't think anybody really likes Christmas--it's just something you have to get through." Like amoebic dysentery or stomach flu or tax season. So why do we keep torturing ourselves? Flinging ourselves into the breach, year after year?
A wise warrior chooses his battles, dear Readers. And Christmas, with all its swagger and glittery trappings, is an invading army which I prefer to let march right past me, unmolested. Serenity is what I crave this time of year. I strive to be as still as a lotus on a blue pond, as resolute as a stalk of bamboo, and as free as a smooth-feathered crane in flight. It's the time for us four to hole up like moles, share some good food and wine, enjoy the fire glowing warmly in the hearth--while the holiday maelstrom rages outside our door. As kung fu master Oogway sagely observes, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called 'the present.'"
Christmas present, indeed.