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Thus Wrapped Zarathustra

Harry: “Boy the holidays are rough. Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Years.” Sally: “A lot of suicides.”

-When Harry Met Sally

I have not done myself proud this year.

I used to be a wrapping ninja – I could wrap my way out of a paper bag, all right! Give me a basketball? No problem. Got a trumpet that needs wrapping? Get out of here. Guitar? C’mon, that’s child’s play.

But not this year.

This year I seemed to have regressed to Remedial Wrapping 101. This is, by the by, the first year that I have wrapped about 200 presents for my two children, who will not remember this in the slightest by the time they are my age. Even though I had 3 pairs of scissors, there inevitably came a point where I lost all of them. I also had a lot of Tape Trouble –the end would become invisible so I would have to rub my finger along the circumference to decipher where it was hiding, a mystical process in itself. Then it would stick to itself at the top and I would have to stop what I was doing just to unravel it. It’s like a small religious ceremony, really. Despite my painstaking estimations, the wrapping paper would be too short at one end. To remedy this, I would cut another strip to tape inside the gap, which of course is visible for all to see. Or, I would have about 3 inches too much paper on either side. Furthermore, my wrapped gifts took on a slightly “puffy” appearance this year, (an indicator of trapped air) whereas previously I would pride myself on tight corners. This time when I tried to tighten the corners, the paper would rip – inevitably across a sharp corner – and I would have to tape over that, as well. Shapes that I don’t remember learning about in high school geometry class are suddenly my post-10:00 PM nemeses. I was beginning to feel like I was in the Land of Misfit [Wrapped] Toys. It wasn’t long before I developed Wrapping Rage – swearing, groaning, then laughing deliriously as I saw the results of my work – a haphazard effort with one end corner flap turned up and the other side turned down. And of course, looking puffy. Even the gift seemed to know how bad it looked, since I distinctly felt it looking at me, asking me to put it out of its misery.

“Why am I doing all of this?” I asked myself. Surely Christmas, and its stressful pantomime (pardon the pun) of cheer and jolly goodwill could not be for children’s benefit alone. We must derive something out of it. I would hope so, anyway, or it has become the single most masochistic event of the calendar year. I myself was not raised to believe in Santa Claus. When my mother found out that it was her parents, not Santa, bringing the gifts up from the fruit cellar on Christmas Eve, that it was her father, not Santa who ate the cookies and drank the milk, and her mother who filled the stockings, it was the most crushing realization of her childhood. When she had three kids of her own, she told us that Santa was a game that grownups liked to play, particularly her own mother and father. She refused to lie to us, she said.

This left me at a crossroads when I had my two kids – I could either do the same as my own mother, or I could, as she seemed to think, lie to them. I chose to lie to them. It is really a lie – there is no strange man that comes through your chimney once a year in order to deliver free presents. (This in itself is something only kids would believe – I’m from Detroit; if someone’s coming into your house, it’s time to take out the Gat and set the Doberman on them.) We don’t even have a chimney, for starters. So why do we do it? Why do we spend a collective £4 billion on gifts and pretend that someone else did it?

Well, why all of the Christmas palaver in general? I visited the White Rose Centre, against my better judgment – last Wednesday. Normally a shopping centre would be a ghost town in the middle of the week, but this was like a Star Trek convention. Strange beings transported directly to the White Rose from another planet: “We come in peace. Take us to your Men’s Department.” This is before the sales (and, I would like to suggest, why not have the sales before the day we need to have the “stuff”. Why after?) And the little reminders are everywhere: “Don’t forget it’s Christmas. Don’t forget your Christmas pudding. Don’t forget to post your Christmas cards. Don’t forget to buy something for your nextdoor neighbour’s Aunt/your babysitter/your postman/your Golden Retriever. Don’t forget the advent calendar. The tree skirt. The nativity.” There is no doubt: Christmas has become an industry.

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Wally and Irene Bronner admire the new Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland salesroom as it opened in 1977.

One company who knows this very well is Bronners, a year-round Christmas store near where I grew up in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Bronners is bonkers – there literally is no bigger Christmas store on the planet – this place probably is as big as the North Pole itself. Walking up to it, you feel unsettlingly that a reindeer threw up. Anything that you want for Christmas can be found at Bronners – they sell their own ornaments (made by Chinese elves) and stockings, both of which you can get customized; they sell trees, outdoor decorations, indoor miniature villages, advent wreaths, stars, angels, et cetera et cetera. If you are looking for something original, you can find it at Bronners. I have loads of ornaments that have been customized for my children from Bronners – when I took my daughter to Michigan for the first time in 2011, I bought her a glass airplane and had her name painted on the side to commemorate her first transatlantic flight. My kids both have “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments from Bronners, as well as hand-stitched stockings with their names on them. Bronners is something of an institution in Michigan, but luckily they now ship abroad – so I no longer have to wait until my now bi-annual trip home to get a fix. Yet Bronners is a bit of an enigma, because even though it is the epitome of Christmas consumerism, it still tries to embrace a religious undertone, displaying “Keeping the CHRIST in Christmas!” and “He is the Reason for the Season!” signs across their property. They have a small church onsite devoted to the carol “Silent Night,” and have the lyrics in several different languages. So, even though they make a business of providing Christmas 364 days a year (not on the Big Day, of course!) they still try to remind people that buying stuff is not what the day is about – it’s about a baby who was born in Bethlehem, not a big guy at the North Pole who gives you stuff.

Bronner’s west entrance

But for the kids across West Yorkshire, and across England as far as I can see, Santa is the Hot Ticket at Christmas. How could I spare my children the excitement of waking up to a gift that was magically presented to them for being “good” all year?  Besides, if I tried to do it my mother’s way, there is great risk of my children “spoiling” it for other kids – “Santa isn’t real, Jimmy. Your Mum bought that chocolate coin maker at Argos, wrapped it in secret, and put it under your acrylic tree.” I could just see my daughter formulating this sentence. And yet somehow, someday, I know someone will probably say the same thing to her – and alas, the “magic” of Christmas will be exposed for what it truly is – a conspiracy played on unsuspecting kids by their own parents. Until then, I vow to puffily wrap oddly shaped things in secret, for which I will take no credit, and take my kids to the White Rose to see the Ghetto Grotto. Bring on the cheer!