Another Christmas Day has come to an end. The guests have finally left and taken their noise and laughter with them. Numerous empty bottles are standing next to a large pyramid of dirty dishes. And the house is almost dark as everyone else has drifted happily off to bed. But I am still here, sprawled in an overstuffed chair by the tree, watching the long silver strands of tinsel shimmer lazily in the reflection of Christmas lights. I am here because I have one last rite to perform.
After the boisterous Christmas dinner, there comes this quiet time which I reserve for my private ritual. With a large tumbler of scotch as my only companion, I reflect back on the evenings’ festivities. I think of each of the guests in turn. How did they act, what did they say, what were they wearing? I consider how each person treated the others, trying to tease apart the intricate meanings of certain comments or gestures, striving to make sense of the convoluted relationships that exist within my extended family. Most of all I’m trying to find that one telling feature that will single out a few individuals for special consideration. You see, this is the time when I hand out the awards.
These awards, through which I pay homage to the hypocrisy of my family, originated in our kitchen. A few years back, as I was emerging from the innocence of my teenage years, my mother and I sat down to a summer mornings’ breakfast of coffee and conversation. For whatever reason she had decided the time was right to tell me about some lesser-known aspects of our family’s recent history. In less time than it took to drink the coffee pot dry the image I had always treasured of my extended family had been shattered. Where my eyes had seen only smiles and benevolence, my mothers’ eyes had witnessed pettiness, cruelty and spiteful manipulation.
Once my eyes were opened to these new horizons the root cause of so many strange and mysterious affairs became clear. The disaffection and animosity between family members resulted from the moral convention which maintained that when someone made a serious mistake in their lives, it was to be covered up and kept secret. And this was reinforced by the strongly-held belief that good Christian families were not supposed to have any skeletons in their closets. Opening the closet door now revealed a rather extensive bone yard.
The guiding light in this rigid moral system was my grandmother, the matriarch. She was an ancient crone who had endured great hardships over much of her life, first as a missionary-teacher among her so-called “savage jungle Indians”, then as a mother trying to raise a family during the Great Depression. Her strength of personality, honed during those difficult times, was evident as she steered the family along the path of the righteous and the pure. It was her bad luck to have such poor material to work with. Nevertheless, she was revered, or perhaps feared, by all.
After she passed away the shackles were loosened a little. Just enough to allow for each person to act more freely according to their nature but not enough to inflame the wrath of her ever-present spirit.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. Almost everyone in the family gets along during holidays and family get-togethers. However, as the grip of my grandmother’s hand fades with time the level of family harmony declines. There is always this ripple beneath the seemingly smooth surface, threatening to break through at the slightest provocation. This is where the awards come in.
I figured that if my relatives were going to spend the entire year spreading rumours or being malicious, it would be difficult for them to revert back to the angelic demeanour they displayed whenever my grandmother was present. But for an event as important as Christmas dinner they really do try, even if they are surrounded by real or imagined antagonists. And it is inevitable that mixing these two personas (plus liberal splashings of scotch and vodka) would produce some interesting scenarios. To those kin who are most capable of managing this feat and yet still able to dish it out against their foes, I confer a series of awards. Doing so is my way of trying to regain some dignity in the face of my shattered childhood visions. And after all, if they can be hypocrites, so can I.
Sitting in this comfortable old chair by the tree, I try to recall every event of the evening, no matter how trivial. With the scotch smoothing my ragged nerves, the images I am searching for start to form. At first, they are disjointed, vying to sort themselves into some coherent order. Then all at once a group of them come to the fore as nominees for the first award: the Cheshire Cat Award.
Named after the fairy tale cat whose body fades into nothingness even as his sarcastic smile remains, I give it to the person who displays the most innovative way of starting a raucous argument while remaining themselves unscathed and unnoticed. There are usually many people to consider for this honour but this year three in particular stand out. Little Sally, a nine year old cousin, used the simple method of running between groups of adults and spreading a tiny, innocuous rumour. Within ten minutes the rumour had attained ludicrous proportions and wild accusations flew all around the house, with much huffing and indignation on the part of those who imagined themselves gravely insulted. What chutzpa for a child. It won’t be long before she combines this ingenuity with some real cunning. I will have to watch her closely in the years to come.
Old Mrs. Baker, an obscure relative from my dad’s side, accused her step-daughter of mis-treating her own daughter’s youngest child, simply because no one was sure who the child’s father was, including the mother. This set off a long-lasting bout of staring, snarling and hissing between the daughters, reminiscent of scenes from those old Wild Africa shows where the leopards are gathered around a freshly killed antelope.
But the award has to go to Uncle Joseph for unparalleled subtlety. Finding himself seated next to Aunt Frieda, the family’s resident health and fitness nut, he spent the first half hour of dinner waving around an unlit Cuban cigar. When Aunt Mabel could no longer stand Aunt Frieda’s mini-lectures on the evils of smoking, she threatened to light up a cigarette. This started a discussion on the morals of free choice, which quickly dissolved into an argument that enveloped the entire room. I am sure I saw a faint hint of a smile beneath Uncle Joe’s huge moustache as he slid the cigar into his breast pocket. He never did smoke the damn thing.
Next comes the Pythagoras Award, named in honour of the ancient Greek mathematician who developed a method for determining any angle of a triangle using information contained in the other angles. The recipient is the one who is expert in playing two or more people against each other in order to get what they themselves want. Old Mrs. Baker, who simply wanted her two daughters to talk to each other, so as to become friends and make her own life simpler, will obviously not win this award. Neither will Freddy, an invited friend, who tried to get both Sheila and Betty fighting for the right to his charms so as to double his chances of waking up a happy man tomorrow morning. However, when his ego overtook his common sense, they discovered his ploy and he went home alone.
This year’s recipient of the Pythagoras Award is Aunt Chrissy. Far too young and sensuous to be thought of as anyone’s aunt, she wore her customary micro-mini skirt and spandex blouse, the one with all the velcro strips. She had two distant cousins, one a doctor, the other a lawyer, vying for her attention from the moment she arrived. In very little time she had them arguing about which one could take her on the most glamorous trip. Robert, the lawyer, won out. Since it was a very public contest, with most of the family taking an eager interest in the proceedings, the poor sod is now committed to the trip. I wonder if he really can get special passes to all those parties at the Cannes Film Festival. This is going to cost him a bundle, even without the two week luxury cruise through the Greek Islands after the festival. Congratulations Chrissy, that’s three years in a row for this award. Freddy could learn a lot from her.
The Hoof-in-Mouth Award goes to the person who says the dumbest thing at the worst possible time. It may well be the most difficult one to assess since there are always so many fine nominees. Like six year-old Andy, who innocently asked one of the adults why his older sister and her boyfriend would want to secretly get penicillin shots at the free clinic. Or Jane, who asked Kathy if her pregnancy was going well. Boy, was Kathy’s husband surprised. There may well be more to this story than is yet known.
But Susie, who always has one drink too many, walked away with this prize. Only Susie can time the punch line of a joke so that, in the midst of a pause in the conversation at the adult’s end of the table, she shouts out the best use of the male genitalia. And was her voice ever loud; it seemed to echo for a long time in the silence that followed.
The Glenlivet Award is named after the fine scotch which has been helping me select the various winners each year. It is incredible to think that some people mix this drink with soda. As a tribute to those bohemians, this award is presented to the person who finds the best way of ruining a fine and memorable moment.
Some years I cannot issue this award due to a complete lack of any particular moment that might recall a fond memory. However, this was an average year, meaning that there were lots of ruined moments. Dinner itself started off with a bang when Alfred, that little twerp, farted long and loud during the saying of grace. Since this took no real effort or intelligence, that bruise from the wooden spoon to the back of his head was the only thing he deserved.
At least Amelia showed some creativity when she spent the entire meal recreating her parents backyard on her plate, using food in ways I would have never imagined. It really was an impressive piece of artwork. Then she tried a little too hard to gain some recognition from the disapproving adults. While proudly displaying her plate in front of each person she elbowed Uncle Walter’s drink into his lap whereupon he jumped back, knocking someone’s elderly aunt off her chair and onto her butt. In the ensuing uproar Amelia’s creation landed in her mother’s lap, ruining her mother’s chances of impressing the other women with her new red silk dress.
But the best botch of the evening occurred when six year old Suzanne recited the entire alphabet perfectly for the first time in her life. When the applause died down and it looked like her smile couldn’t possibly get any bigger, a loud voice, thick and slow under the influence of too much alcohol, said ” What’s the big deal? She’ll just wind up a slut anyway, like her mother.” Hitting him with the wooden spoon would not have been good enough and there was no sledge hammer nearby. Fortunately Stuart, the star athlete of the family, located a bun and, from thirty feet away, got him right in the forehead. More applause.
Thinking of little Suzanne, who didn’t know how to react to her fathers’ opinion of her mother, reminded me that giving out these awards is not always a pleasant task. After several minutes of clearing my mind and another shot of encouragement from my liquid companion, I am ready to go on.
One of my favourite awards is deciding who was the biggest pain in the ass during the evening. For their total lack of class when it comes to conducting themselves with civility in a social setting they are awarded the title of The Great Hemorrhoid. This year the three nominees were pretty easy to pick out. My cousin Sheila’s new husband, Frank, would not stop pestering everyone within earshot about life insurance. Had our family not inherited my grandmother’s incredible stubbornness and willpower, Sheila would no doubt be accompanying Chrissy on that luxury cruise through the Greek Islands.
Kenneth, who is old enough to know better, complained loudly that he should not be ostracized just because he picks his nose once in a while. Despite his assurances that it relaxed his nose and made breathing not only easier but also healthier, nobody hit him in the head with the wooden spoon. I can’t understand why, it was sitting right there in the gravy boat.
But this year’s Great Hemorrhoid is Uncle Louis. He spent an entire hour before dinner hovering around my poor mother, harassing her about the cranberry sauce. To Uncle Louis Christmas Day is not complete unless he performs his favourite ritual. For all the fuss he makes you would think it was something sacred, passed down from the Holy Trinity to the people via the Pontiff himself. When my mother finally relented to his demands, Uncle Louis called for total silence so we could all listen to that most reverential of Christmas sounds, the sucking noise made by the blob of cranberry sauce as it slowly slides out of the can.
The last award is the most important one. It is the Golden Ass, given to the person who best exemplifies the qualities of pettiness, stubbornness and selfishness, all within a well-polished holier-than-thou veneer. As the nominees start to come forward, a thought intrudes on my mind. Yeah, these people may not be perfect and they may well be the biggest hypocrites alive today, but they are my family and, with a few exceptions, I love them all. I have grown up with them and they are as much a part of me as I am of them. If they were not present the few times each year we all come together, there would be a real void in my life. Of course, if they found out about these awards they would be more than happy to create a void for me.
Maybe it’s the lateness of the hour, or the scotch, or something, but I’m feeling too tired to continue. Time to drift off to bed, like the others did over two hours ago. Time, once again, to put this silliness at an end for another year. Time to remember how lucky we are to have each other, warts and all.