Editorial: A Season for Laughter

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday December 23, 2003

We still call the refrigerator at our house “the icebox,” which confuses the grandchildren. On the door of the icebox we have many things, some very old. We have a magnetic promo for a state senate candidate who was elected, served, and termed out. There’s the driver’s license which one of our daughters got in high school, retrieved from behind the dryer 20 years later. And there’s a collection of fully yellowed bits clipped from papers, including a picture of a youthful, elegant Rosa Parks walking up the stairs of the Montgomery courthouse (not as published at the time—we’re not that old!) A Jon Carroll column tells how the premature death of a friend inspired him to give up his onerous day job and start doing work he enjoyed (I hope he kept a copy in case he needs to think about that now.) And there’s Ellen Goodman’s brilliant Thanksgiving column from November of 1993, containing this telling observation: “For most of the year, it is quite enough to fail to live up to Hillary Clinton. At holidays, we get a second chance to fail to live up to Martha Stewart.” (Writers can add a third chance: to fail to live up to Ellen Goodman.) In her column 10 years ago she summed up the challenge facing contemporary women around the holidays: to do almost everything their mothers did, almost everything their fathers did, and to do it in double-time with a big smile and a well-toned physique. We’ve added another wrinkle since 1993: do it all while maintaining constant communication with everyone who counts by cell phone and e-mail.  

On the other hand, the intervening 10 years haven’t been easy either for Hillary or Martha. Hillary is perhaps over the worst, but poor Martha’s troubles are just beginning. A little item on the news wire tells us she’s had to forego her big holiday party this year. Well, yes. And that probably isn’t the worst punishment the gods have in store for her hubris of trying to be both the perfect hostess and a corporate tycoon. 

Martha Stewart and her ilk are easy targets for people who are proud of living minimalist lives under tightly controlled conditions. At this time of the year, it’s traditional for some writers to wonder why we bother with any of the holiday fuss. A male columnist in the Wall Street Journal writes a patronizing column about his wife’s odd habit of giving gifts to family members. Adherents of the more Spartan religious sects grumble about the extravagant practices of members of more expansive denominations. Those who don’t celebrate Christian solstice holidays complain about those who do, and vice versa. Seasonal sob stories suggest that it’s wrong to entertain your near and dear on a day when you could be waiting table at a shelter. Organizational press releases opine that if you care too much about the welfare of others you might have a co-dependency problem.  

But the main thing to remember, as you try to celebrate the winter solstice according to the customs of your tribe, is that it’s supposed to be fun. One Christmas that sticks in my mind as somewhat challenging was the year we brought our newborn third daughter home from the hospital after a Caesarian section birth, and according to medical advice at the time I was supposed to do nothing but sit in a rocking chair and watch the action. That year we’d “taken care of presents early” for daughters one and two (four and six years old) by ordering a toy kitchen stove and sink from the Sears catalog. They were made of cardboard, and shipped flat, the proverbial “easy to assemble” item. We opened up the stove on Christmas Eve, after the kids were in bed, to discover that the easy assembly instructions had 53 steps, folding and inserting Tab 1 into Slot 1, all the way up to Tab 53 into Slot 53. It took an hour and a half, but it was finally done by 10 o’clock. Then we opened up the sink package and found that Sears had accidentally included the stove instructions instead of the sink instructions, and we’d have to do the 53 (or was it 59?) steps to put the sink together ad lib. Luckily we had two engineers in the house at the time, and they managed to make it work—eventually. No one got much sleep that night, but we laughed a lot. 

That’s the goal for everyone’s winter festivities. Whatever you do, you’re supposed to laugh a lot. The days are short, the nights are long, and even in California, it’s chilly, so it’s important to find something to do that makes you laugh. You don’t actually have to do it, whatever it is, perfectly, a la Martha—look where it got her. With the right attitude, the more mishaps, the funnier it should seem. Some day I’ll tell the story of when the 26-pound turkey caught on fire because it was touching the walls in a tiny oven in a friend’s New York apartment. Now that was a funny Christmas dinner…. 

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.