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Monday, December 18, 2006


Friends! I explode with Cheer! You should see the mj signing workshop. Cards everywhere. You have until the end of Thursday to get in all of your questions and signing requests.

But let’s get right to the questions! There are many to answer. I can only do a handful at a time, but know that I have read and pondered them all, and that I will continue to do so.

I received several versions of this first question, and it is a critical one.

Q: Where did the Christmas tree tradition come from? I've always wondered about that.

A: Tree-putting-up is a very old tradition that can be traced back many thousands of years. In pagan times, the evergreen tree served as a symbol that life goes on, even though it was very, very cold and it seemed like all other plant life had given up. The earliest tree ornaments included things like human and animal sacrifices, decorations usually frowned upon now, even in the most traditional of households. The time around the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) has long been associated with candle-burning, merry-making, and gift-giving. This was long before the era of reliable central heating, 24-hour grocery stores, and television. There was really nothing else to do on those long, dark days but have a party, burn things, and look at the pretty green tree.

The Christmas tree as we know it originated in Germany. The dead bodies were replaced with things like candles, cheese, fruit, and shiny baubles. (If you learn only one thing from me, make it this: human beings cannot resist the shiny. That right there is history in a nutshell.) People from around Europe saw this and they knew at once they had a hot new trend on their hands. Tree-putting-upping spread all over. It arrived in England in 1700s, but wasn’t really entrenched until the time of Queen Victoria. It appeared in the United States around the same time, with first sightings ranging from 1770 to 1820, usually linked to towns with many German settlers.

The popularity of the decorated tree can be explained by another human truth: human beings cannot resist putting things on top of other things. This explains old phenomena, such as pyramids and hats, as well as more recent developments, such as stuff on my cat and everything ever developed by Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

A Taco Bell on top of a Pizza Hut.

At Chez Johnson, the tree decorations tend to get a little out of control. I have already explained my mother’s penchant for collecting and her 25 boxes of Dickens Village materials. The only rule in our house is, “No balls left behind.” And we have hundreds of balls. They all have to go on. Then the poor, overloaded tree is coated in tinsel. Even my mother admits that she likes the tinsel heavy. And by heavy, I mean that we usually use about six to eight boxes, until every branch is covered and our tree is a blinding, bulging, gleaming silver spike. There could be dead bodies hanging on it, and no one would know.

A related question:

Q: Isn’t it kind of ironic that Urban Outfitters offers a “Charlie Brown Pathetic Tree” (a sad little tree on a wooden base with one lonely red ornament) for $24? Wouldn’t it be more in the spirit of Charlie Brown's message to go out and find your own pathetic little tree that someone was going to throw away and save that, rather than spend money on mass-produced garbage that anyone can buy?

A: It is indeed ironic, but then, Urban Outfitters is the Wal-Mart of irony.

It would be more in the spirit of Charlie Brown to find something unloved and take it in. That is spreading Cheer! I heartily recommend this approach.

Q: Dear Fantastic Maureen Johnson,

Do you think eating reindeer jerky will get me automatically shunted
onto the "stocking full of coal" list? Or are reindeer so full of the holiday Spirit of Giving that they'll be willing to overlook my consumption of their delicious, delicious brethren?

A: Thank you for researching my full first name! I don’t know where you found it. Is it on Wikipedia?

I am afraid the answer is yes, you will automatically be put on the Coal List, because reindeer are very, very grouchy. They live in the freezing cold. It’s either dark all the time or light all the time. They do nothing all year, but then get dragged out of their stupor to fly around the world in one night. People are always poking them in the nose and asking them if they are Rudolph. Or, even worse, people sing that “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” song at them, which would definitely put me in a bad mood.

Nothing takes away my Cheer faster than a chorus of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” My mother still thinks this song is very, very funny and turns it up when it comes on the radio and sings it to me. It should be noted that my mother has only recently noticed the songs “Celebrate” and “YMCA” at weddings, and comes home talking about them and showing me the dances that go with them. I can only wait until she picks up on the Electric Slide. Then my life will be complete.

But it’s not her fault that this infernal song persists. Actually, I haven’t heard it yet this year, and I choose (because I am so full of Cheer) to believe that this means it is dying out. If a humorous Christmas song is required, we have all we need in the Waitress’s Christmas Wrapping, a song I cherish.

Oh, but back to the question. Reindeer are basically looking for any excuse they can get to head butt someone into next week, and making jerky out of them would probably fit the bill. I suggest enjoying some cheese and crackers until the 25th.

Q: Would you say the Waitresses Holiday Wrapping song is a Christmas song or a New Year's tune?

A: Thank you for asking! I am happy to hear this song on either day, but it is a Christmas song. It’s actually called Christmas Wrapping, and it tells a little story that ends with the girl meeting her elusive guy in the line of the A&P on Christmas Eve. They bond over the fact that they have both forgotten cranberries.

I like this song so much that I have just put it on now, mostly to wash “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” out of my head.

Q: In the Christmas song, Home for the holidays, they say 'Gee, the traffic is terrific'. I never understood. Why they just don't say Horrific instead of being sarcastic by saying terrific. Do you agree?

A: This is an excellent question. Terrific is one of those funny words like stupendous or tremendous that means very good, as well as generally meaning anything that can fill you with a sense of awe at their size or scope. The primary definition of terrific, in many sources, is actually “very bad”—as in, something that inspires terror.

Having said that, I think there is something to be said for terrific traffic. I got stuck in some on Thanksgiving, when I offered (insisted) on driving my good friend J.W. Krimble home. We had taken a train to Philadelphia, where I picked up a car. Despite his polite protests (pleas), I shoved him inside of it and headed for the highway instead of just taking him to the other station where he could get a connecting train.

“It’s not much longer to drive,” I said, locking him in.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It is the most traveled day of the entire year.”

But I was too busy being Cheerful to listen to his protests. About fifteen minutes later, we found ourselves trapped in the worst gridlock I have ever seen. It was not only Thanksgiving, but there was major construction on I-95, and there was a massive, blinding storm. We didn’t move at all for over an hour—a long hour, with rain pounding at the windows, traffic crushed all around us, and my cell phone ringing ever fifteen minutes with people calling and asking where I was. When I told them, they all said, “Why did you do that? There’s construction on 95, it’s raining, and it is the most traveled day of the entire year.”

J.W. looked over at me wearily as I sang a few holiday tunes to him.

“The traffic isn’t so bad, right?” I said. “At least we’re together!”

Though he did look mildly suicidal, and though it did take us almost five hours to make a two hour trip . . . I know that deep down, he agreed. Traffic can be terrific if you have enough Cheer!

Q: Here's my question: why do the British say "Happy Christmas" while the Americans say "Merry Christmas"?

A: I just asked Oscar Gingersnort this question.

“We do say Merry Christmas,” he answered.

“Yes,” I said. “But you also say Happy Christmas. Like the John Lennon song ‘Happy Christmas.’ And apparently the Queen prefers saying ‘Happy Christmas.’ We never say ‘Happy Christmas.’ How do you explain that?”

“Well,” he said. “We also say Happy Birthday. And Christmas is supposed to be a birthday, right?”

“But that doesn’t explain why you do it and Americans don’t.”

“We do lots of things you don’t,” he said. “Like watch the Queen give a speech on TV on Christmas day. You don’t have to pay attention, but everyone turns it on in the background. And we have Christmas crackers. You don’t have those.”

“You don’t know,” I said. “You have no answer. I have readers who need answers, and you are not helpful.”

“No,” he admitted. But he didn’t seem overly bothered by the fact. I think he was working.

It seems pretty clear that this is yet another case of the British being difficult. I will put the question to Trevor and Grace Dangerous, but all UK persons are cordially invited to answer, either on e-mail or in the comments. In the meantime, I have to conclude what I concluded about the fruitcake. The blame can be placed on Jamie Oliver.


Keep them coming! There is only more Cheer on the way!


Anonymous Liz said...

"Human beings cannot resist the shiny"? Well THAT's a misunderstatement. Most of us always have something shiny with us--we don't bother with the "resisting" part. :)

12:51 AM  
Anonymous Sydney said...

My family is english and when I read this I asked them why they say Happy Chritmas (which I do too Which I guess comes from being raised by a crazy brittish family) and they told me they just do. That it is more proper or something. I kinda zoned out.

6:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sometimes get Happy Christmas from my wifes family, who live in the South (even further south than crappy old London). In the North West of England we point out that is is *Merry* Christmas and *Happy* New Year, and they should never me muddled up.

And anyway I've never even heard an American say anything Christmas - just Happy Holidays, which really winds me up 'cos it is CHRISTMAS!!!!

3:43 PM  
Blogger Maureen said...

liz: the shiny is like the Force, it can be used for either good or evil. I also can't believe I just wrote that.

sydney: they always dodge questions, those brits!

simon: thank you. It seems like the NW of England only produces good things, like the Beatles and common sense. and yes, we americans are also difficult. although, I say Merry Christmas when it is appropriate. in new york, it's often a better idea to say happy holidays, as not everyone celebrates christmas. but there is no reason to avoid EVER saying it. it IS Christmas!

1:19 AM  
Blogger Little Willow said...

'Twas the Night Before Christmas states "Happy Christmas."

Trivia queen, signing off -

6:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the end of "The key to the Golden Firebird" Pete and May kiss. Do they end up together in the end? Or was it a kiss that didn't really mean anything? So are Pete and May a thing or not?

3:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the mutt's guy took your idea. :) http://muttscomics.com/art/dailyarchive.asp?month=12&date=3&year=2006

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One time, I was at the airport on Christmas Day, and all the employees wished me a merry Christmas. I'm Jewish, and although I am not offended by holiday greetings such as "Merry Christmas," I did feel that "Happy Holidays" was more appropriate, according to the circumstances. You see, Christmas had fallen mid-Chanukah. So, to spread cheer of my own variety, I wished the employees a happy Chanukah.

I have no idea why the English say "Happy Christmas." I wonder what they say in Australia... And South Africa... After all, both were English territory for quite a while. Of course, we were too, but that's irrelevant. I could ask my mum, because she's South African, or I could ask my dad, because he's Australian, but it's unlikely that I'd get a coherent answer out of either.

7:23 AM  
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10:08 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

The combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell's roots run deep. Even in 2006 you knew it was something special, Maureen.

4:39 AM  

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