Sniff & shoot

One way to celebrate a holiday is by condemning those who celebrate differently than you do. On Christmas day J and I drove Reggie and Melony the beagle into downtown Boston, where we left the car at a Back Bay parking meter and took a several-hour stroll down Boylston and Newbury Streets. J and I wanted to see the sights and snap photos; Reggie and Melony wanted to sniff and pee. To each her or his own, right?

No sooner did J and I pass Copley Square on Boylston Street than we encountered a slow-moving truck emblazoned with Christian condemnations. "Christians in the Bible never celebrated Christmas," block letters on the truck proclaimed. "How can you honor Jesus with lies about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and drunken parties?" To drive the point home, this Hellfire-Mobile had a loudspeaker with which the driver preached his message of condemnation to passing pedestrians. Why greet random strangers with a friendly "Merry Christmas" when you can shout "You're going to hell" instead?

You all are going to hell

Christians in the Bible never drove trucks with loudspeakers and damning slogans stenciled on the sides. How can you honor Jesus with drive-by words of hate? J and I have been around separate segments of the evangelical block: whereas I was raised Catholic and was “born again” as a college undergraduate, J was raised Catholic and became a Baptist as an adult living and working in Georgia. Currently, neither one of us attends church, but we aren’t antithetical to Christianity, either; we just don’t drive around with Christian slogans emblazoned for all to see. If choosing to take a quiet walk with your dog and digicam constitutes a damnable offense–if what God wants His followers to do instead is drive around yelling at people–then I guess J and I should get ready for a warmer climate. Let it be done to me, Lord, as you say.

Luckily, not all of the characters J and I encountered on our Christmas dog-walk were as “colorful” as the Drive-by Christian. Instead, some of the most tolerant folks we encountered were themselves plastic.

Mannequins and reflections

One claim I often hear around the holidays–one shared by Christians and non- alike–is that Christmas is too commercial. I guess it’s fitting, then, that J and I spent a good part of our afternoon shooting dummies who were born to be shot: the empty-eyed mannequins who peer with aloof gazes through the reflective windows of the boutiques on Boston’s upscale Newbury Street.

Mannequins and reflections

If you’re looking for an embodiment of Everything Wrong with Commercialized Christmas, a Newbury Street mannequin would be a likely candidate. Empty-headed, a mannequin exists only to be an object of desire; displaying the wares of modern consumer culture, a mannequin is the poster-child of style over substance.

Mannequins and reflections

Mannequins, after all, are created to reflect what we as consumers presumably crave. According to mannequins, we prefer our icons skinny and bloodlessly white, their limbs inconceivably slender. Attenuation, it seems, is what catches our attention; judging from mannequins, we want to hang the clothes we seek from sleekly skeletal forms who are ghostly and ethereal.

Mannequins and reflections

Still, I can’t bring myself to dislike, much less condemn, the mannequins of Newbury Street. If we lived in a world where people bought only what they needed, families exchanged hand-made rather than store-bought gifts, and nothing was marketed, we’d certainly consume less…but where would we go window-shopping?

Mannequins and reflections

Just my fond memories of a Catholic childhood make it unnecessary for me to reject that part of my upbringing even if I don’t currently practice it, I harbor no ill will toward mannequins and the marketers who manage them. As a child, one of my favorite pre-holiday activities was leafing through the pages of department store catalogs, where I’d see all sorts of toys I’d dream of but never own. Why do we automatically assume that seeing an object of desire means we’ll necessarily acquire it?

Mannequins and reflections

Of the countless times I’ve gone window shopping on Newbury Street, I’ve actually bought things there only a handful of times and at a handful of stores. If anyone should be shouting condemnations here, these mannequins should ask me when I plan on paying them for the visual pleasure they have continually provided.

Mannequins and reflections

I have no doubt Christmas is too commercial…and yet, when I try to find flesh-and-body people to condemn for their overly consumerist ways, I can find no likely suspects. The flesh-and-blood people I know are simply trying to live their lives regardless of how “simple” I consider those lives to be.

Mannequins and reflections

Long before Christmas, an acquaintance privately criticized another who was buying a popular plastic toy for her son at a big-name toy store. “When my children were young,” my acquaintance explained, “I never shopped at Store X, and I certainly didn’t buy my children Toy Y.” Implied was an assumption that civilization is going to hell in a handbasket because some parents are buying brand-name toys like Barbies, Legos, and Transformers at big boxes like Toys R Us, Target, and Wal-Mart. If our children play with plastic toys bought from plastic stores, at what point will society itself become plastic?

Mannequins and reflections

And yet, I myself played with Barbies and Legos…and had Transformers existed and been on sale, Santa would have brought me those, too. Did my parents love me any less because they selected my mass-produced toys from the clearance tables at K-Mart? Is the world today cheaper, more disposable, and more materialistic because my blue-collar parents bought what they could afford where they could instead of giving me hand-made, free-traded, earthy-crunchy artisan wares bought from from independent sellers?

Mannequins and reflections

We live in a nation where you have the right to worship where you please or not at all, and you similarly have the right to proclaim your beliefs (religious or otherwise) from a slow-moving truck if you so please. To each her or his own, right? And yet, what troubled me about the acquaintance who prided herself for not buying Toy Y at Store X was her very pride: we each have the right to decide what, where, and whether we spend our cash, but isn’t it downright pharisaical to condemn another parent for her or his choices?

Mannequins and reflections

What bothers me about the “Christmas is too commercial” rant is how it, like a drive-by Christian’s sermon, is typically directed toward other folks. I can’t recall ever hearing a concerned citizen say “My family’s holiday is too commercial,” which is unusual considering the amount of credit card debt the “typical American” carries. Instead, the “Christmas is too commercial” spiel always seems to be directed toward other Americans, not me: the problem with society, this rant suggests, is that other parents are buying too many presents of the wrong kind from the wrong places. The source of this presumably pervasive problem, in other words, always seems to be that elusive wraith, Someone Else.

Mannequins and reflections

J and I didn’t set a price limit on the gifts we exchanged; we simply tried to find gifts we knew the other would like. For J’s birthday, I spent what some would deem Too Much on tickets to go to a New England Patriots game; for Christmas, J spent I-don’t-know-how-much to transform my dog into art. Was either gift Too Expensive, Too Commercial, Too Whatever?

Mannequins and reflections

In my mind, only J and I (and perhaps Jesus himself, if He’s keeping an eye on our checkbooks) can decide. As for me, I pay my credit card balances in full each month, but I love my friends who don’t; I occasionally shop at Target, Wal-Mart, and the like, but I love and respect those who choose otherwise. To each her or his own, right?

Mannequins and reflections

One way to celebrate a holiday is by condemning those who celebrate differently than you do, and the same applies to shopping. It’s easy to target the upscale shops of the world’s Newbury Streets as being the source of modern materialism; it’s easy to see and condemn folks who pay top dollar for designer clothes while the Politically Correct of the world choose overpriced organic veggies over name brands. When it comes to both shopping and salvation, maybe we all should see to our own souls rather than shouting about the sins of others. As the Bible itself teaches, it’s better to tend to the log in your own eye than sweating over the speck in another’s.

A striking likeness

It’s not everyday when someone sneaks around behind your back to orchestrate the perfect present. J initially struggled to figure out what to get me for Christmas, and perhaps my giving him Patriots tickets for his birthday didn’t make matters any easier. But about a month ago, he claimed to have the Perfect Idea. “You’ll never guess” was all he’d say about the gift-in-the-making; all I knew was at several points he surreptitiously mailed envelopes I wasn’t allowed to see.

Smile, Keene

Those envelopes, it turned out, were addressed to artist Bren Bataclan, whose “Smile Boston” project I’d blogged when it took a road trip to Keene, NH after the flood of October, 2005. I didn’t claim the smiley-faced painting I found at the Keene State College student center back in 2005, figuring that someone else needed a smile more than I did. But the first time I visited J’s house, I smiled to see a Bren Bataclan painting in his living room: not one he found, but one he’d bought. On the secret checklist of “good traits” and “bad traits” every woman keeps when she first meets a man, I silently checked one in the “good” column: “Supports local artists.”

I knew Bren Bataclan painted whimsical, brightly colored characters; I didn’t know that he also accepts commissions to paint cartoon-like pet portraits. Now that I’ve seen Reggie’s cartoon alter-ego, I have to say the pairing is perfect. Reggie’s personality has always been goofy, and his orange poofiness is a perfect subject for painted whimsy. Bren perfectly captured the big, silly fluffiness of a dog he’s never met, thanks in large part to the various photographed portraits J took and secretly sent in those envelopes I wasn’t allowed to see.

In my opinion, the Perfect Present is one you never even thought to ask for, something you wouldn’t have bought yourself but you can’t imagine living without once you’ve received it. J’s commission of this portrait perfectly qualifies. “Loves me, loves my pet” is one of those good traits I’ve silently checked on my secret checklist of good and bad traits, and this year’s Christmas present merely highlighted that fact. It’s not everyday that someone transforms your beloved baby into a whimsical work of art.

Thanks to J for photographing Reggie posing alongside his portrait, which is still wrapped in plastic to prevent him from licking his likeness.

Extension corded

It’s beginning to look a lot like…extension cords. J tells me they keep the lights wrapped around the towering spruce tree in downtown Waban year ’round, and he’s probably right. But I don’t remember seeing these extension cords on previous dog-walks, so I’m guessing they don’t keep Festive Holiday Tree plugged in all year, just during the Festive Holiday Months of November through February-ish.

Be-bulbed

Yes, February-ish. I met J last January, and the first time he gave me directions to his house, Festive Holiday Tree was a notable (and conveniently illuminated) landmark. Newton is a largely Jewish suburb of Boston, and Waban is a largely Jewish section of Newton. This means there aren’t many Christmas trees in Waban, but Festive Holiday Trees are a different story. If you keep your Festive Holiday Tree lit until sometime in February, no one can accuse you of celebrating Christmas at the expense of other sectarian holidays. Instead, Festive Holiday Time, like Festivus, is a celebration for the rest of us.

Plugged in

Apparently it takes a lot of extension cords to keep a Festive Holiday Tree lit. In the past, I’ve used the metaphor of laptop power cords to refer to the way different religions tap into the same unnameable power source, and I suppose that applies to Festive Holiday Trees as well. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Buddha’s Enlightenment, or any of a number of light-focused winter festivals, you have to light your fire somewhere. It’s heartening to know a nice Jewish neighborhood like Waban makes room for both a Festive Holiday Tree and a Catholic born-again Buddhist who believes in truly eclectic holiday decor.

Every year, I think “they” (i.e. the Powers That Be who put up and plug in Festive Holiday Trees) are getting an earlier start on the season…but then I realize it’s later than I think. While I’m still getting used to the fact that it’s November already, the rest of the world is zooming into Thanksgiving. If Thanksgiving is here, can Festive Holiday Time be far behind? A quick check of my blog archive shows I posted a similar picture of the Festive Holiday trees in Keene on–you guessed it–November 18 last year. Whether “they” live in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, “they” have an impeccable sense of timing.

So whether your Festive Holiday Tree is a ginkgo with a light-lined trunk or a spruce with bulb-bedecked branches, ’tis the season for everyone.

Towering, with extension cords