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TODAY

Saturday, April 20

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Airbags

It's the most! wonderful! time! of the year! It's that magical time, when everything kid-related heads for winter break, so there are end-of-the-year parties and ceremonies and celebrations and festivals and events. Every day has its own special special moment, all of which require their own gift, plate of cookies, bag of pretzels, $5 in singles, particular color shirt — with snow pants, boots, hat, mittens, and coat on top because getting there means busting all of the ice on the sidewalk on the way. With the powerful combination of too many things to do, cold and flu season, and ice storms it's easy to see why many folks dread the holidays. Kids, on the other hand, don't dread the holidays. Quite the opposite in fact. If you live with kids, or have the chance to hang out with some at this time of year, there is no dreading, or complaining, or worrying. There is hope, and excitement, and eagerness — and from the younger folks, perhaps an episode or two of wanting it to be Christmas today. Pouting. Crying, the sort of thing that might make your mother say something like, "Santa is watching!" in a high pitched voice, even though she never would have imagined that those words would ever come out of her mouth.

The Holidays start early — sometimes as early as that first conversation that is had at a summer barbecue where someone you've never met reveals that she's got all of her shopping done already, all of the cards bought on sale at the after-Christmas sales, addressed and tucked away for this year. That's not for me. I like the holidays, but I like them all in their designated month and season. Call me old fashioned but I prefer to differentiate between the Fourth of July and the Twelve Days of Christmas. We've got some birthdays tucked into the short December weeks as well, so once we hop on the festive train, there's no getting off. Let's bake, let's decorate, let's shop, sing and sled! Let's go skating, plan a touching holiday ceremony for 150 parents and kids, throw some change into the bucket and have ourselves a merry little Christmas, a happy birthday, and a happy New Year too. But, please, let me throw away the Thanksgiving leftovers first.

And now it's mid-December. It's dark out at 4pm, and everyone around us has decorated their houses with a bazillion lights and animatronic deer fashioned of sticks. It's time. We've had an impromptu post-dinner caroling session, complete with dance moves, inspired by two girls who had the horrible song about Dominic the Christmas Donkey (jingety jing!) stuck in their heads. We hung up the plastic Rudolph and decorated the front window. In a bold move towards Christmas, the 4-year-old and I traveled down to Daley Plaza to visit with Santa Claus, something I've only done once with the other two, perhaps not at all with my middle child. I feel a little guilty about that. We did have a Santa encounter at a party once, but that isn't the same thing as making the effort to get down to the loop and wait in line. The window of time for total belief in Santa is quite small, and passes more quickly than you might think. So off we set, heading originally for Macy's, but jumped tracks en route and headed for Daley Plaza instead. I was prepared for a long wait, so we were appropriately dressed for the weather, had plenty of stuff to keep us busy while we waited in line. We briefly discussed how it was going to go down, the waiting, the entering, the lap sitting, the requests and obligatory behavioral reminders. I figured there would be plenty of time to go over all of the details before we crossed the threshold of Santa's hut, but we arrived at the Kristkindle Market to find that in fact we were the only people there to chat up Santa.

We strode up to the wee little cottage, and there sat Santa, not really doing much, just chilling out with the security guard and the cashier. We went in, Ben walked up to Santa and was, for once, without words. This Santa, truth be told, was a little on the skimpy side. He wasn't a fat, jolly Santa, with a robust and flowing beard, he was more of a mid sized fellow with a real beard that was neither long nor flowing. More like thin and collar length. He didn't say, "HO HO HO! HELLO LITTLE BOY!" as I expected him to. In fact, I had to get the party started conversation wise. It was a little uncomfortable. Finally we got around to the meat of the matter, what was on the list. A chemistry set. (This is not from any coaching on my part folks. My 4-year-old wants a chemistry set. We have a book by Rosemary Wells called Morris's Disappearing Bag, in which a chemistry set is featured.) Santa coughed a bit, and then said "Well, if I'm going to bring you a chemistry set, you have to promise that you won't mix up some kind of chemical mixture that will explode your house." Gosh, Santa, thanks for pointing that out, because that hadn't ever actually occurred to him, and for the following 30 hours I fielded questions about exploding houses and chemicals that make houses explode. Ben reached out and put his hand on Santa's fur trimmed jacket, and just kind of patted him a little bit. Santa handed him a reindeer PEZ dispenser and that was it. Ho Ho Hum.

We walked out and Ben remembered that he had wanted to ask Santa about the reindeer. We turned around to go back and ask him. A group of four adults had just entered Santa's house, and were taking off their coats and fiddling with their hair, presumably for the embarrassing photo they were about to pose for. The security guard put out a hand to stop us from re- entering, but we skirted him. I said, "He just wants to ask Santa one question." For godsake, these ridiculous adults could wait for someone who actually believes that this guy is the real Santa to ask where the reindeer are. The answer was that they are up at the North Pole, running laps and eating and resting up for the big night. Ah, just as we suspected. Thus satisfied we went out into the plaza and strudelled it up at a table we shared with some friendly out-of-towners.

~*~

The chemistry set is actually one of the last items we still need to locate, because obviously we aren't really going to give a chaos oriented 4-year-old a bunch of tiny little bottles of chemicals like the chemistry sets of our youths. I wonder if they still come with a dead bee in them, like ours did. Anyway, the plan is to go to the American Science and Surplus Center and buy a collection of plastic beakers, jars with labels, perhaps a petri dish, maybe some stoppers and rubber tubing. I'll fill the jars with vinegar and baking soda, salt, corn starch, food coloring, throw in some safety goggles and a white lab coat and call it a day.

I didn't start shopping too early (though Wii did get one item lined up before the rush). I had one shopping trip to the North Riverside Mall with a girlfriend and all it did was make me feel like a horrible person because of my feelings of intense dislike for the rest of the shoppers (my friend excluded) and all of the crappy merchandise. It's all poorly made. The clothes available for 11-year-olds are pretty much what the average stripper might wear while she's waiting for her set to start. It made me feel like smoking. Last weekend I had a few kid-free hours that I intended to spend taking care of a few things. I was in the Costco/Target/JoAnn Fabrics Triangle of Insanity, and drove past the Target parking lot twice before I could bring myself to enter the fray, and then spent the next 10 minutes trying to escape again, once I realized that no parking place existed that someone else wasn't going to try to kill me to get. I didn't need wrapping paper and tape that bad. I ended up driving around for an hour, listening to the radio and finally went grocery shopping just to be productive. What is going on inside that Target? Is there anything left on the shelves? I can't help but picture a zombie uprising going on in there.

I prefer to do my shopping the old fashioned way, with a credit card and my laptop and a hearty Thank You for the UPS and FedEx drivers who are making daily stops at my house. Some might say that that isn't very Christmasy, and that part of the fun is getting out there and shopping with everyone else, enjoying choosing the perfect gifts for our loved ones from the mountains and piles of crap available everywhere. But in fact, online shopping, which I can do at 2am, puts me in the holiday spirit plenty. Because I haven't spent every last molecule of my energy fighting traffic and crowds I have a lot more time for the good stuff, like baking and sledding and not writing letters to all of our family and friends.

~*~

After we visited with Santa downtown we had a few hours to kill before the evening performance of the older kids' plays. Not having enough time to drive home and then saddle up for the drive back down to the theater, I decided to keep the Santa ball rolling and go to the movies. It's an important milestone in my life as a parent to be able to go to the movies with my youngest child, because until they are ready to sit for two hours and watch a movie, I'd rather do just about anything rather than go to a theater and be tortured by a squirming little kid. I'm too selfish; I want to go to a movie and actually watch it, and having to spend any amount of time tending to the needs of a hyperactive tot makes me cranky.

The only holiday movie available in our time slot was Fred Claus. Not exactly Prancer (which I love and my children do not) but Mommy likey Vince Vaughn, and I read somewhere that it had a nicely realized North Pole with good sleigh/reindeer action. So, even though it pretty much sucked in all other ways, it was the movie for us.

The movie is perfectly acceptable for kids, there's no swearing and there's relatively little violence, just a fist fight between Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti (Santa) in which a vintage red snowmobile with a side car gets driven into some sort of North Pole structure. Vince Vaughn plays Fred, Santa's "older" brother. Why they made him older I don't know, because Santa is like, old, and Vince is what, 40? Fred lives in Chicago and is kind of a scrooge with a heart of gold (of course). He goes to the North Pole to get $50,000 dollars from his brother for the OTB parlor he wants to open, which is explained in the first boring 15 minutes of the movie after which the action moves to the North Pole. Kevin Spacey plays an evil efficiency expert, threatening to shut down Christmas if Santa can't get his act together, which of course he does at the end (I'm sure that wasn't a spoiler, since the only people who are going to both read this and see the movie probably already know exactly what they are getting into). There are more than a few plot holes, and the sappy yet timeless message that there are no naughty children, but who cares. There's the sleigh rocketing around the globe, there's Santa at the North Pole, there's Vince Vaughn doing his wordy shtick, and there is, inexplicably, a hot blonde (full-sized) elf wearing a knitted bra under her sexy velvet Santa's helper suit. Something for everyone. So, I got to spend two hours sitting in a comfy theater chair, with a tired out boy occasionally climbing onto my lap. We shared a cherry Slurpee, and afterwards he thought he got to play all of the video games, but he really just played the demos. (I unplugged the insanely violent first person shooter game. Sorry, theater.)

~*~

Keeping with the theme of "rapidly approaching holiday," we decided to get our tree the next day. We normally wait until after the mid-December birthday party, but every year I wish I had it up a little earlier because I love having a tree in our living room. Before Christmas. Afterwards we can't get rid of it fast enough, so I decided to prolong the love affair this year. We've been getting our tree for the last four years from a tree lot a few blocks away. Sometime after Thanksgiving they appear, a temporary forest in a church parking lot. Like all of the other tree lot workers, they set up shop for the season and hang around for the month, selling what they can. We have a Home Depot and a Lowe's within spitting distance, and trees there are about $20. The first time I shopped at Home Depot for a tree they had fires going in outdoor fire pits, and it felt very Christmasy. The following year it was like looking through a frozen haunted tree graveyard, and the year after that I found my lot. I am willing to shell out a little more for our tree, knowing that for most of the year it lives free range on the Upper Peninsula, under the care of a family that makes a big effort to get them to the city, and stakes a lot on being able to sell them once they are here. We got a lovely tree, with plenty of room between the branches for the ornaments to hang. Thanks Mr. Jurma of Escanaba Michigan.

We brought the tree home, cleared out a corner of the living room and set it up. I took out the lights that I carefully wound and stored last year, and, shocking surprise, only half of them worked. What is with that? How is that half of the lights on each strand did not work? I got two electric shocks before I stowed the broken lights and moved on to ornaments. The kids, who'd wisely made themselves scarce while I dealt with the lights, helped with that part, with constant reminders to hang the glass balls on the inside of the tree to sparkle it up, which was how my mother-in-law Debbie liked to do it. You could get ornament hanging stress injuries before getting to the end of the 800 ornaments she put on her tree every year. Debbie's shiny tree legacy lives on, we pack as many ornaments on as we can, making sure that there are plenty right in there next to the lights.

We listened to some Christmas music and had some tea, telling all of the stories from every ornament as they were unpacked and hung on the tree. For the past few years our friend Barry has given us a holiday CD from his label Tight Ship Records and it was just the right sort of music for the day. It was gray outside, we were all happy to be home, sort of sleepy from the hustle and bustle of the last few weeks. In addition to all of that, there has been some death in my family, and some births in our family of friends, often the way it is at this time of year, making everything the most sad and the most happy, all at once.

Perhaps it was the darkening street, and the glow of the lights on the ice outside, or maybe it was another year, and another beautiful tree, with ornaments hooking this year to last year, and all of the years before with all of the people who are still back there in memories. The song "Greensleeves," played on the Optigan and sung by Barry and friends, was too pretty and sad for me. We had to lay on the floor and look up into the tree, and see all of the colored glass, sparkling it up, from the inside.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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