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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Jingle bills and other ghosts of Christmas past and present


There is a hereditary disease that stalks each member of my family. Even now I can feel it ticking maliciously through my bones, fully aware there is nothing I can do to stop it. Sooner or later it is going to strike.

In fact, the odds are heavy it will hammer home with jingling vengeance within the next five days. Which is the remaining shopping time till Christmas.

Yes, I -- and all children of my mother -- are wretched victims of Christmas Present Fever. Meaning that when it comes to gifts of the season, we can never purchase enough. A malady that remains curious to my Japanese wife even after 20-plus years of marriage.

Curious because she knows I otherwise treat shopping the way most people treat rectal exams. That jolly hitch to my gait comes only when the task is completed, not before.

Yet, Christmas is different. After first concocting a hose-length list, I will proceed to bury our tree with boxes. As the big day draws nearer and nearer, this pile will then grow like a beribboned fungus -- because any extra gift for one family member means equivalent loot for them all.

My wife shudders at my market madness: "Enough is enough! Stop! Before we run out of floor space! Not to mention money!"

"Don't you know it's Christmas!?" I holler back, sparking within me the idea to buy her a Grinch mask, which means I have to gallop off and find one more item each for our kids.

I had the fever, of course, long before we had those kids and even long before we were married. Our first Christmas, as a simple romantic couple, went something like this:

Her: Here's your gift! A scarf I knitted myself!

Me: Thanks! Now here's mine!

At which point I flung open a cupboard door to have her plastered under an avalanche of packages.

"This is Christmas?" she huffed. "What about church service and caroling and candlelight?" In other words, how come her American boyfriend showed more interest in Santa-fying the holiday than sanctifying it?

"What does that mean?" I pouted. "You don't like your gifts, or what?"

Christmas Present Fever bears no connection with religion. It is a holiday virus that swells through the blood of otherwise normal people. Those who don't have it never will. Those who do, will likely go bankrupt.

My mother -- perpetually broke -- has it.

One of my earliest memories is of my mother sitting by an empty tree on Christmas morn. Around her, tumbleweeds of wrapping paper get booted back and forth as my sisters and I play with our just-opened gifts, enough toys to start our own catalog outlet.

My mother's eyes glisten like those of a freshly sated glutton. Then she sighs and says, "Well . . . time to start saving for next year."

She was not rich; much of my childhood was spent with my mother between marriages and below minimum wage. Money was earned only through long overtime hours and often had "car payment," "heating bill," "school clothes" or some other such designation scribbled all over it. A fair number of people might have even said we were poor.

But not at Christmas. Somehow, in the groping search for the American dream, Dec. 25 came to be the day that dream was delivered.

The day when piles of plenty could yet consecrate an otherwise bleak year. When, for at least one bright morning, the gap between the Smiths and Joneses could be erased. The day when the hours and hours spent working away from the kids could be answered for by just the right present . . . or presents.

For my mother (and my sisters, myself and all others infected with the disease) Christmas has thus become the day when dreams can come true. Even if we have to buy them. Even if they are only as good as long as the warranty.

I carried this blue-collar view, awkwardly stirred with Christian visions of hope and light, with me across the sea. Where, as I then married and now raise my own children, Christmas has become the day when I try to commercially validate the stress and sacrifice of having a family living between two cultures. The day when I again summon those gift-bearing ghosts of holidays past.

The day when I go materialistically nuts.

Yet, I have felt a hiccup of restraint ever since I hauled the family back to the States one winter as a holiday surprise for my mother. Only to watch her and my sisters go berserk in shopping storms that made my own manic efforts seem like mist.

Maybe I'm not so bad, I thought. Maybe there's yet hope for me and all similar souls hung up like so much tinsel on the superficial side of the season.

Only to see my younger son glance at me the following year -- the bottom package in a mountain of presents having just been opened -- and hear him anxiously pronounce . . .

"What? Is that all?"

I twitched. Realizing the bug had been passed to the next generation.

"No, that's not all," I managed. "We forgot to open peace on earth and good will towards men."

Like love and hope and pleasant dreams for all mankind, the finer things in life just won't fit under a tree. Neither can they be bought: at least not where I shop.

Warmest holiday greetings for the new millennium. And -- from Dickens through me to you -- may God bless us every one.



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