Kung Pao Christmas
This morning, I am awake feeling a bit raw and numb from the Ukrainian and mine’s inability to pull off a successful Christmas that was deliberately devoid of all traditions and expectations. For weeks, I had been confused as to why all the women on Facebook were fraughting over whether or not they would get “everything” done in time for Christmas. What is there to get done? I wondered. You buy a tree, string some lights, hang some ornaments. And then you go buy some presents (which can be conveniently done at midnight from Amazon. Free shipping!!). On Christmas Day, you open the presents and cook a big meal. Voila! Christmas in America.
(Sure, some people add more stress to the holiday. They take holiday photos of their pets children, upload them to a photo site, and then send out hundreds of Christmas cards. Others volunteer at retirement homes. While still others spend the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas baking endless batches of Christmas cookies and candy. But all this sounded like too much work to me. How can people enjoy their holiday, if they spend the months weeks prior working for it.)
But my ideal of throwing together a simple, no-fuss, yet super-yummy Christmas had a few flaws:
1) The Ukrainian would spend the 1st 1/2 of December preparing for his final exams while I would be studying new technology for my job. So no time prepare.
2) The Ukrainian and I would be on a mad tour of the East Coast from the moment he finished his final exams until 1:30 a.m. December 23rd.
3) My thought that I wouldn’t have to work on December 24th and could thus recover from our E. Coast trip, go grocery shopping for our luscious Christmas dinner menu and a few last-minute gifts for the Ukrainian was thwarted by the fact that I learned on the 23rd that I *did* have to work on the 24th. My opportunity to make it so much to a grocery store before its traditional early closing on Christmas Eve looked highly doubtful.
So on the eve of Christmas eve, I made an executive family decision. We would simply pretend we were Jewish. Or rather, we would take into account of the fact that 1/2 of our family is a Russian Orthodox Christian who doesn’t celebrate Christmas until January 7. Even then, a Russian Orthodox Christmas is merely a religious holiday and all gift-exchanges happen on New Year’s Day.
“Chinese food or Haute cuisuine Francaise?” I IMed the Ukrainian on Christmas Eve’s eve.
“Oh, Chinese for sure.” he replied.
Our fabulous Christmas dinner from 2007
“Are you sure you don’t mind we won’t have the Christmas salmon and all the other lush foods we were planning to have?” I felt the need in our young marriage to establish some sort of tradition. And last year, we cooked up a divine menu of Salmon-tarragon, risotto with caramelized leeks and sweet red bell peppers, a salad of mixed greens cranberries Maytag Blue cheese and caramelized walnuts and chocolate pecan bourbon pie. It was our best meal ever and I thought for sure the menu was destined to become the basis for all our future Christmas menus.
“Oh, I’m sure,” he said almost too eagerly. I could imagine him being so happy that there’d be no dishes to wash or kitchen to clean on the holiday. I, in the meantime, was sad that we wouldn’t be using my grandmother’s Bavarian china or the Tiffany’s silver that had been given to us on our wedding day. Remember, I thought. Remember the goal is a stress-free Christmas. For as much work as we’ve been doing, there’s been a lot of fun too. Who said we had to have instant traditions? We’d find our way…
The stockings hadn’t been hung and I awoke Christmas morning already feeling down. My late afternoon forays on Christmas Eve to find a few perfect trinkets to fill the Ukrainian’s stocking had been met with a bust. It never occurred to the Ukrainian either to hang and fill a stocking for me. I could forgive him as I couldn’t expect him to know all the English/American Christmas traditions in only his 2nd Christmas. But still…I had little in sense of anticipation.
And there was something else missing…there were no little ones rushing to our bed urging us to get up! get up! It’s Christmas!!! Let’s open presents!!! No, it was just the Ukrainian and I nestled snug under our down-filled duvet with our two lazy dogs asleep on the floor by the bed. The hours ticked by. 7 a.m. 8 a.m. 9 a.m. There was no hint of the Ukrainian awakening. No whinging from the dogs to be let out. 10 am. And still everyone was asleep. I was getting a headache from laying about so long doing nothing on a day that was supposed to be day greeted with excitement and anticipation and lots of eating and rushing about celebrating seemingly the pure joy of being alive and being surrounded by such great friends and family.
Finally, at 1/2 past 10, the brown dog stared us straight in the face with her emphatic look that can only be translated as “Give me my breakfast NOW!” The Ukrainian and I quickly conversed over who exactly should be the one to do dog-duty on the holiday. He was too tired. I was too depressed. Finally, we agreed we would suffer through it together and then head over to our local Chinese restaurant, Wild Pepper, for our own Christmas breakfast brunch.
And it was then that we began the sort of marital argument that plagues all newly married couples: the division of labor for household chores.
It all started innocently enough. I rationalized that since we were experiencing a rare San Francisco winter’s day without rain, we should take the dogs to the park. The dogs seemed to agree and took off racing down the street leading to Dolores Park. The Ukrainian, however, was not so enthused. “The park is muddy. They’ll get dirty.” He whinged. I didn’t care. And I didn’t care to put enough thought into my reply. “So wash them! They’re dogs. They get dirty!” In my mind, as long as the dogs didn’t smell of dead rat or the like, I didn’t care if they had a bit of mud on them. We have hardwood floors. They, too, wash. But in the Ukrainian’s mind, he already spent too much time — a total of 3 hours or so a week on housework/dogcare — that he had no desire to do anymore. In my mind, 3 hours was nothing.
The argument was one where we both had perfectly legitimate views. The dogs *did* need exercise. The Ukrainian *was* the one who did wash them when they became too filthy to cohabitate with us and thus *should* have a say in their dirt-level. But the reality of the discussion was that we were both too tired from our Grand Year of Perpetual Life Changes to take on any more responsibilities and couldn’t even handle the basic task hanging and filling stockings for Christmas Day. What right did we have to want to add a child to the mix? If taking care of 2 dogs was a lot of work, what did we think taking care of a child would be?
And so, in that moment, all our hopes for a grand, tradition-free Christmas busted. One of us stormed off. Doors were slammed upon the return to the house. The idea for the MSG-ladened Chinese brunch became impossible. When time for lunch came, we each took out a selection from our respective supplies of frozen dinners and silently shared the microwave. Each attempt at conversation threatened to explode our relationship to the breaking point. And, so, silence seemed the only option. It was not a Christmas of Peace, but rather one of a renewed Cold War whose battle lines had been drawn across the middle of our kitchen table — the one that had been desperately needing an oil for the past 3 months. But neither of us had gotten around to doing it.
I took a nap in the living room. The Ukrainian claimed his space in the bedroom. From time-to-time, one would deliver a package to the other and then walk away while the recipient was left to ponder whether to open the gift or not. Suddenly, no present seemed like the right present. There was nothing that could be given that would bridge the gulf that had opened up on Christmas morning. The Gift of the Magi we certainly were not. Each gift from one to the other seemed to suggest a frantic Christmas Eve afternoon spent trying to find few trinkets that would please the other in the final few hours before the shops closed. Neither of us had spent much time to acquire anything the other truly wanted. No sacrifice had been made.
Darkness came. A public dinner was still out of the question. A trip downtown to the theatres seemed an even worse idea. We did nothing. There was no Christmas spirit. No bigger meaning to be learned. We started to be nice to each other simply because we needed each other. The Ukrainian needed help making his blinis on which he wanted to put the caviar I had thrust in his hands earlier in the day. I needed help with the food processor so I could make a traditional Christmas Cheese Ball in an attempt to salvage some bit of Midwestern American tradition of out of holiday.
And finally, 9:30 p.m. came and we did the only thing anyone could do when they’ve had a no good, very bad, terrible day: go to bed and hope for something better tomorrow.
Caviar for the blinis
And now, it’s tomorrow. We have no good lesson to be learned other than the fact the Ukrainian are still getting to know each other. We are still trying to find our way in our nascent marriage. We can’t instantly create traditions. And our marriage is strong enough to surive all these trying-to-find-our-way bits.
And, oh yeah, we have a housekeeper coming tomorrow for a trial run. The best solution to a fight-over-work-that-never-ends? Outsource it. It’s much, much cheaper than a divorce. And much better than fighting.