COLUMNS

The Christmas triathlon

Ann Dowsett Johnston December 10 2001
COLUMNS

The Christmas triathlon

Ann Dowsett Johnston December 10 2001

The Christmas triathlon

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Call me perverse, but as I brace for the beginning of December and the season of shoulds, I make an annual rimai of consulting Martha Stewart’s holiday to-do list. Standing at the checkout counter with my small Everest of groceries, a stack that will include one pre-fab, easy-assembly gingerbread house, I sneak a peek at the calendar at the front of Martha Stewart Living (an oxymoron if ever there was one). The calendar is supposed to represent Martha’s personal agenda, but we the readers are not fooled. The real Martha has a small army of staff to keep her dates straight, to hang her mistletoe (Dec. 22), and decorate her dogs (Dec. 25). No, this agenda is meant for us, a clip-and-save blueprint for order and perfection. The message is clear: if we, of the higgledy-piggledy lives, promise to lock-step behind Martha, she will do her darndest to set the wayward straight. After all, a happy life is simply a matter of sticking to a schedule, right?

And a Herculean schedule it is.

Here are her marching orders for the month ahead. By Dec. 8th, all fruitcakes will be baked; by the 1 Oth, gingerbread houses assembled. Freeing us up, of course, to clean our chandeliers

on the 11 th and order rose bushes (for spring delivery) on the 18th. By the 20th, all gifts will be wrapped, which leaves the 23rd pretty much free. Martha suggests yoga in the morning and hiking in the afternoon. And if all goes according to schedule, we’ll be mulching our perennials with Christmas tree branches on the 28th. (Which, I should point out, is a full eight days earlier than Martha wanted us mulching in 1997. This I know because somehow I missed the instruction to clear out back issues of magazines.)

Yes, if all goes according to schedule, order will prevail and perfection will unfold. But of course it won’t. It never does, not in real households. And Martha, let me break it to you: it’s a good thing. As a working mother, I can pretty well promise you that by Dec. 25, the chandeliers in my house will not be cleaned. You can bet that only half my Christmas cards will be sent, and that easy-assembly gingerbread house will sit, half constructed, as it has more often than not since 1992 when I returned to work full-time. And there’s no doubt: long after the stockings have been hung, I’ll still be wrapping gifts by the fire, playing beat-the-clock with Christmas morning. Only once did I mulch the Christmas tree, and come spring, my rhododendrons died anyway.

No, I won’t be bamboozled into believing Martha knows best. Not that I’m a total slouch. Once upon a time in a former life, long before I became a working mother, I too hand

Who cares about perfect profiteroles if the mini-Martha who made them is exhausted, in bed with the flu?

painted Christmas cards and quilted ornaments for gifts. Heck, I even hand-sequined the dog’s stocking. I kept up with every tradition my mother had, and more. But somewhere in the mid-’80s, those simple pleasures morphed into the Christmas triathlon, and the race has just about scuppered every working mother I know, and their families to boot. Who cares about perfect profiteroles if the mini-Martha who made them is exhausted, in bed with the flu? (And yes, it’s usually mini-Martha: I know very few households where holiday preparation is seen as an equal-opportunity event.)

After a few Sisyphean seasons, most of us began to realize that the more we outdid ourselves, the more we were being undone. There was no magic in marching onward, and yet there was no magic in retreating to the past. As the late Laurie Colwin once wrote, “It is my opinion that Norman Rockwell and his ilk have done more to make already anxious people feel guilty than anyone else.” And this: “For every overworked professional woman of the nineties there was a depressed, bored, nonworking housewife of the fifties.” It was up to us, she wrote, to reinvent traditions to make way for what she called life’s one great luxury: time together. Colwin died nine years ago at the age of 48, but her books live on, still offering the perfect antidote to the Martha-fication of modern life. Curl up with More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen—a book that is so much more than a cookbook—and read the story of how she bought expensive linen string with which to truss a chicken. String that her daughter used to make spiderwebs. The chicken remained untrussed—and lovely just the same. As Colwin says in her clear, unpretentious voice: “You just have to relax. I assure you that if you keep it simple, everything will turn out just fine.” This year, my lanky 17-year-old son and I will do our best to keep it simple. Well agree, once again, to top our magnificent Christmas tree with the little toilet paper roll, a blue scribbled figure with twig arms that he brought home in kindergarten—a figure that I once thought was an angel, but he now confesses is a policeman. Never mind. And once again, the two of us will ditch the gingerbread house, opting for shortbread instead. Let’s face it, there’s no construction challenge with shortbread. For a few raucous hours, well josde about the kitchen with our duelling rolling pins, indulging in the fine art of sprinkling sprinkles, and yes, debating the relative merits of seasonal background music. I’ll vote for Handel’s Messiah, he’ll vote for U2, and somehow we’ll saw off at John Lennon. Because, as Colwin says, if you keep it simple, everything is bound to turn out just fine. GS