The Tradition Of The Christmas Monkey
Human Condition - Traditions Series

Copyright © 2003 Dorian Scott Cole

T'was the day after Thanksgiving, and I knew that sure as cold weather comes in December, the month of travails was upon us... Christmas was coming. Endless shopping. Endless decorating. Endless fattening food. Stacks of presents with endless wrapping. Endless visiting. Endless people to buy presents for - some I had never even met. Money gushing in all directions like a flood breaking through a dam. This was not my childhood tradition - not the Christmas that I remember.

Traditions take on individual meanings. In my childhood, Santa always made his appearance at the Thanksgiving day parade, but we ignored him. That was a nice tradition, but everyone knew his appearance was just a gimmick for the stores to get people thinking about Christmas and shopping. We were not a family steeped in endless meaningful traditions. We considered most holidays to be "man-made," and just excuses for stores to sell their wares.

Christmas we bought into as legitimate, and the Fourth of July celebration, and maybe Veterans Day, but the rest just seemed like days plucked from the calendar to give everyone a day off. We really saw nothing meaningful. My wife found me sadly lacking on our first Valentine's Day. I thought it was a children's holiday. All of her friends got cards and boxes of candy. Her husband spent his last quarter on a pack of cigarettes. Another year I bought her knobs.

I learn from my mistakes. That pack of cigarettes taught me that I will hear about my mistakes for the rest of my life. I quit smoking.

Every year, the Christmas shopping season comes earlier and earlier. In October, no less, before Thanksgiving and even Halloween, Christmas trees begin showing up in stores - fully decorated. The more I protest, the earlier they put out their goodies. They know the Christmas clubs dump their funds early so they had better be ready. In my childhood tradition, Christmas didn't come until Christmas... we shopped a few days before... or often not until Christmas Eve. Tradition. That was a good tradition.

This year I announced quietly that I was canceling Christmas for this year, hoping that we could just slip through it with a minimum of mayhem. Other men admired my audacity. I was a hero. I could stop Christmas from getting out of control... I could squelch it.

I bolted the doors, covered the windows with blankets, set the computer dates back two months, hid the calendars, set the checking account balance to zero, kept Christmas music off the radio, hid the Christmas CDs, and made loud noises during Christmas commercials on TV. I was determined, "Christmas can't come." Like the Grinch had learned, I also knew that nothing could stop Christmas from coming - my wife and kids would somehow break through and proclaim the Christmas season by at least... mmmm... December 2.

December. It begins like a lamb, and like a good story, the tension mounts steadily until the climax, Christmas day. Thankfully Christ didn't wait until the end of the month to be born, because if the preparations continued to January 1st the result would have been a tradition of armed conflict.

I suppose Santa Claus has to make an appearance for the retail stores. The man was a saint, after all. Christmas has deep religious roots... and I suppose keeping the economy going to support 40 to 90% of retail sales happening around Christmas could be considered "religious."

I can't imagine God looking down and saying, "Hmmm, prosperity, and giving, and peace, and goodwill, all in my name, this is bad, yeah, definitely bad." No, December ends in a good way, and its message is peace. But like all struggles for good and peace, the struggle to prepare for Christmas has caused me to dub it, "The month of travail." (Thankfully I'm not Muslim, I would have to starve every day for a month during Ramadan, which would be even worse, especially for those who have to live with me.)

After Santa appears, the fanatics begin decorating trees in their homes a full 30 days before Christmas. My wife subtly points them out to me with an, "Uuuuu, isn't that pretty, they are all decorated... and we should be decorated, too, Grinch."

I know that the earlier I start decorating, the more work the cats will make for me every day by dismantling the decorations. "Please, just one outdoor decoration," my wife pleads.

Outside decorations multiply. They begin with one and grow to something that takes an entire weekend to set up and costs more in price and electricity than Christmas itself, and it becomes a competition with the Jones's next door, and then a community competition, and then there are thousands of cars coming by and the neighbors begin to complain at the constant traffic and noise... and then you fall off a ladder or the top of the house -

Leave the sky-lift to Santa and his reindeer; I don't care how many outside ornaments we inherit. "Noooo, Christmas can't come," I object. Give me a Grinch display, I'll put that in the front yard like some guy in Minnesota did when his displays displeased certain neighbors. Everyone knows the Grinch story, so people will get the meaning.

I realized early in my married life that there was going to be a slight conflict of traditions. Our first Christmas, we had nearly finished decorating the tree and all that was left was the tinsel. I grabbed a handful and threw it on the tree. My wife eyed me as if I came from Mars, and instructed me to lay each tinsel strand on neatly and individually. I looked at her suspiciously, wondering if she came from Venus, and we came to an equitable agreement. No tinsel.

Years later, I began to realize that I no longer enjoyed trimming the tree, and then it dawned on me that every decoration that we had ever purchased went on the tree. When we were finished there was no longer a spot of green tree anywhere. It was worse than tinsel chaos. Fortunately the children were old enough to take over, and I stepped into the role that became a tradition: that of putting together the tree itself.

This year, December First, already fed up with my attitude, my wife called me a "Bitter and nasty old man." Wake-up call. I'm not old. I looked inside my jacket to see if the name "Potter" was inside, and my job had somehow changed to banking. I checked to see if my heart was two sizes too small, just like my brain. Sleeping on the couch makes my hips ache. We came to an equitable agreement. Christmas would proceed as it always had.

With that off of my chest, I could once again settle down and enjoy the season. Christmas creates its traditions. I suspect that the meaning that Christmas has for any of us comes from the traditions that we follow. Religious speakers can rant all they want about missing the true meaning of Christmas by drowning in the materialistic glut of buying, but these are but the ravings of madmen who may understand some high principle, but not understand the people of God.

I'm reminded of one of my favorite stories, Fiddler On The Roof, and the song's words, "Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years; one season following another, laden with happiness and cheers." And so day after day, year after year, good times, bad times, people we love, kind acts to all, cement our choices and actions into traditions that won't break and resist bending. For those in the Fiddler On The Roof story, each change in tradition took the evilness of man or an act of God to make happen. And so it is with Christmas tradition, each year gathering to celebrate what we hold more dear each year - each other.

With my tradition-impoverished heritage, I have difficulty appreciating, or even understanding, many traditions. We can analyze traditions and put them into formulas: they are symbols that we create and pack with the meaning we choose for them. They are symbols that participate in our experience, forming the meaning framework of our experience as we create them. What these symbols point to might not be so much the core experience (birth of Christ), although that is certainly important, but point to the other things that we hold dear, especially our relationships.

Yet traditions really don't require an explanation. In my parent's home, we had the tradition of chopping a tree in the woods, or buying a real tree every year, and anchoring it in a bucket of sand. Finding and setting up the tree was something that I enjoyed. With my children, we have the tradition of erecting the artificial Christmas tree. I enjoy my little part of putting the tree together.

I never really understood traditions until the Christmas Monkey disappeared. I have a tradition of hanging the Christmas Monkey. He's a mischievous elf. The Christmas Monkey was actually a pipe cleaner elf ornament that someone made very early in our family tradition. It looked more like a monkey than an elf, and was just the right size and weight to hang inconspicuously from an angels foot at the top of the tree.

So every year it hung from the angel's foot until my wife spotted it and said with a half irritated, half amused smile, "Get it off of there, you idiot." So I moved it somewhere else until it was spotted again, smirking to myself as everyone overlooked it's mischievous antics for at least an hour or two.

Last year I almost went into a panic when I couldn't find the Elf. I realized how important it is to me and hunted until I found the little thing. This year the mischievous scamp seems to have disappeared for good. After pouting about it for a few days, I realized that the form isn't as important as the function. So I picked out a small, clip-on, red and blue cuckoo bird, which now attaches to the angel's foot. I know it's ridiculous.

I'm really not a curmudgeon. Scrooge is not my hero. Today I would encourage people to create "man-made" holidays and build their own traditions. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. Since I can't throw tinsel on the tree, every year I have three small contributions to the joy of Christmas. I complain, I put together the tree, and I slip the Christmas Monkey into the mix. It isn't much, but it's meaningful to me - it's tradition.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Ramadan, and Season's Greetings.

- Scott

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