Some Christmas traditions are straight up weird. Krampus, the German Christmas demon that beats naughty children with a stick, is an uncharacteristically dark and characteristically German part of what is usually a very lighthearted holiday. The Dutch “Black Pete,” according to research is a black man that follows Santa around giving out cookies to kids and telling them jokes. The weirdness comes in when you enter the term “Black Pete” into your friendly neighborhood search engine and you get entirely too many pages of fair haired Dutch people running around in black face celebrating the holiday season. Talk about putting the “Jesus Christ!” back in Christmas…
Weird as those traditions are, I can sort of understand why they exist. They add a little shock of something unexpected to what is supposed to be a relaxed holiday, be that jump scares or racism. A holiday tradition that makes zero sense to me however, are the gift-wrapped boxes of pairs and oranges I saw at various high-end retail outlets this holiday season. If anyone has an explanation as to where this came from, please let me know in the comment section below because punching the phrase “fuq is up with all the Christmas oranges??” gave me no information and sapped any energy I had to conduct further research. Quite honestly, I don’t care where this tradition came from, it’s lame as all get out. Fruit stopped being a C- at best gift once society developed an efficient way to combat scurvy. Fruits’ general lameness as a winter gift is forgivable, bad gifts have been a part of the holiday tradition since those last two Wise Men had to follow the first Wise Man’s gift of gold with the incense they probably got last minute at whatever ancient Bethlehem’s version of CVS was. The truly unforgivable aspect of this gift as a concept is the price. Google “Christmas oranges” right the Hell now. I’ll wait…
What prices did you come up with? Twenty bucks? Forty bucks? I saw one that was essentially a plate of pears with some cheese on the side for like eighty bucks, and it’s when I woke up from a blackout brought on by a sudden spike in blood pressure that I sat down to crank out this post.
Instead of fruit, how about you buy your relatives another plant-based product that’s sure to disappoint them? A good hardcover book (somehow) costs the same as a decorative box of peaches and can gather dust on a shelf for years, which unlike your fancy oranges will rot on your kitchen counter in scarcely a week! I kid of course. In my mind, books make an ideal stocking stuffer for the Christmas season. They’re impressive looking, reasonably priced and in many cases can ACTUALLY fit in a stocking! The trick however, is picking the right book for the right person. Beginning today, and every day until Christmas, I’ll be posting a series of short lists designed to help you pick the perfect book related gift for every type of family member you could possibly have to deal with at Christmas dinner!
Sports Dad: The Professional by W.C. Heinz
I’ve yet to meet a man of my father’s generation that wasn’t into sports as a major pastime. Some dads love to fire up the grill on Sunday and have a few brews while watching the Browns game. Dads in Philadelphia liked to drink ten beers on the way to Lincoln Stadium and take out their Philadelphia-based rage on anyone in convenient battery throwing distance. Other dads like mine developed a lifelong love of the Celtics and Red Sox in no small part because those two sports played a huge role in his childhood. My dad’s younger years spent playing basketball and baseball largely dictated the rest of his life. He chose a career as a teacher and coach (which ended with a trophy case full of awards and two Connecticut state basketball championships) because he learned to love sports as a kid.
Sports can be addictive. I spent four largely unpleasant years in high school as a member and eventual captain of my high school’s wrestling team. I didn’t particularly like the sport, but winning my matches obsessed me. It turned my life into the kind of narrative like the ones I wanted to experience most in the books I read as a kid: a challenge arises (that week’s wrestling match), you bust your ass to beat that challenge, and if you win your match that week, you get to . For a night at least. 95% of wrestling may have been a nightmare, but every time I won was the closest I ever came to feeling like a hero.
The Professional by W.C. Heinz captures this feeling perfectly. Following the story of a boxer and his trainer as they prepare for a career making fight, this book dives head first into the sheer force of will it takes to prepare for greatness in a sport. As you experience the training session that take up the majority of the book, you experience the restlessness, anticipation and physical exhaustion anyone who’s ever seriously been into a sport has experienced. I actually had to take regular breaks reading this book because the feelings it brought out in me were exactly the same jitters I felt the night of my high school wrestling meets. If art can be measured by the emotional response it invokes, this book is a masterpiece. Perfect for former athletes and current sports fans alike.
Wine Aunt: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
This particular family member may not be an aunt per se, but every family has that one auntie-aged woman that loves to crack a bottle of vino at any and all family gatherings. Culturally, wine calls to mind images of sophistication and social class regardless of how much of it you end up drinking and/or vomiting in one sitting. Every person I’ve ever seen get red-wine hammered has done so at an occasion that required some level of dressing up. Your typical wine aunt comes to every family function dressed to the nine’s, but ends said function with the rest of her familial groundlings, tipsy off her tuckus with lip stick smeared and high heels irretrievably embedded in the garbage disposal. That being said, this lady is undeniably classy, able to tell jokes and ruminate on hot topics of the cultural zeitgeist well beyond the point in the evening where her words start slurring. In her mind, she’s the real-life Carry Bradshaw and the perfect novel for this idealized version of herself is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos. Written in 1926, this book follows the bizarre adventures of blonde bombshell Lorelei Lee across America and Europe during that golden age of getting housed in evening wear, the Roaring Twenties. Think F. Scott Fitzgerald or Edith Wharton if either of those two could tell a decent joke. The general classiness of the settings of this novel contrast nicely with the wackiness that ensues, and the characters display enough verbal wit to keep you chuckling throughout, even if the jokes are almost 100 years old. This book reads smoothly and pairs well with whatever chardonnay middle class white ladies buy by the jug these days.
Drunk Uncle (“Drunkle”): Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis
The working-class male version of the Wine Aunt, your Drunk Uncle (hereby shortened to “Drunkle”) has been the life of every family party for decades. With his loud voice, seemingly limitless mental store of jokes, and characteristic beer belly, the Drunkle will ensure that every family gathering is filled with the dulcet tones of whatever music teenagers in your culture listened to thirty years ago at tooth-crackingly high volumes. Drunkles trade wine for cheap beer and shots of the liquor bottle nearest at hand, often to the horror of whatever derivative of aunt they ended up marrying. In the effort of preserving their marriage a few more years, I offer Everyday Drinking by legendary literary drunk, Kingsley Amis. A British academic with a body reminiscent of an autumn squash, Amis is more rightfully known for his hilarious novels smack-talking life in England during the 50’s , 60’s and 70’s (you should probably add his novel Lucky Jim to your Christmas list right now), but this collection of essays about drinking is pretty funny. Covering every topic of drink preparation and consumption imaginable, Amis uses his characteristicly English wit to put a light-hearted spin on what was clearly a terminal drinking problem. He even includes recipes for his favorite cocktails that will class up your drunkle’s cocktail repertoire while at the same time doing nothing to lessen his overall consumption. The booze quizzes at the end of this book are kind of lame, but the essays themselves are worth reading for a laugh and can be tackled in small doses. This last fact is key, as any drunkle that reads with any regularity is likely already a famous writer
Middle Class Mom: A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
If Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road teaches you one thing, it’s that living a suburban life is full of unfulfilled dreams and domestic horror. The sheer boredom of life in the burbs made some of the best music of the last forty years and created a generation of adults so starved for stimulus that dreck like the Fifty Shades series has become the biggest literary sensation since Harry Potter. Poorly written, cynically marketed and entirely forgettable, the greatest sin of this series is that most of the weird BDSM nonsense its characters get up to will likely put you in traction if you try it in real life. Also, watching your mom read it if you have even the vaguest idea of the plot is gross as hell. I’m not going to judge anyone for reading some smut, but the least one can do is read well written slut. In the interest of preserving the literary tastes of housewives across the great flyover states of this nation, I present American letters’ finest example of smut as literature. Enter A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. Following the ups and downs of a relationship between a young American tourist and his equally young French mistress (told unreliably by a pervert of a narrator that’s basically fantasizing all the sex scenes in the book), this novel contains some of the most graphic love scenes I’ve ever read. Every scene of this book, sexual or not, is brilliant and outside of the bedroom Salter paints a moving picture of two people that can’t decide if mutual attraction is blossoming into actual love or not. I love this book. It’s erotic but not gross, and the actual interactions between the two main characters makes it one of the best romance stories (and overall books) I’ve ever read.
Burnout Cousin: Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Schlain
Every family has its Phish fan. Or that old uncle that followed the Grateful Dead and hasn’t grown as a person since Chicago 1968. Or even that bearded cousin who reeks of patchouli oil and is absolutely insufferable about discussing New Age medicine and half remembered Buddhist philosophy at Thanksgiving. Whatever your relationship to this person, they are the family burnout. In the school of life, these people chose to the buck the system and went straight passed the room where socially conscious political radicals are made and stumbled instead into a janitor’s closet full of self-indulgence and hookah smoke. For this particular relative, I recommend the history book Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD, the CIA, the Sixties and Beyond by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Schlain. This book tells the story of LSD’s creation and eventual illegal testing of said drug on American citizens by the CIA. Intellectually rigorous while also being entertaining, this book gathers together the stories of every glorious counter-culture wackadoo of the 1960’s. Disclaimer: though I realized I threw a solid amount of shade at modern day hippies like twelve lines ago, I love reading about the crazy nonsense guys like Abby Hoffman, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey got up to during this time period. Reading the stories of these men and how they connected and intersected with each other over the use of LSD made reading this book feel like the literary equivalent of a party where all your favorite people are invited. It’s the closest a history book is going to come to the film Animal House and can serve as a way to bring together fans of the sixties, drug culture and well-written works of historical scholarship. Such unity would no doubt have brought tears to the eyes of both Ken Kesey and Abby Hoffman.
 Thanks, the Dutch!
 The lesson of that story should be to always set a spending limit for Secret Santa gifts!