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Cursedmas, a NaJoPoMo project

Post 21

paulh, not fond of Lord Mudpants

Tableau #12: A badly needed focus

As I was getting ready to take my coffee break, the mailman arrived. I noticed a letter from someone who was in the Thanksgiving focus group the previous year. She wished me a happy holiday, and remembered the group's work with fondness. "It's a shame we couldn't do it again this year," she wrote.

That gave me an idea. I called her up and asked if she would like to be par of a Christmas focus group. She was thrilled at he idea. The other focus group members were equally enthusiastic.

At last, there was a way forward!

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Cursedmas, a NaJoPoMo project

Post 22

paulh, not fond of Lord Mudpants

Tableau #13: I'll strangle Bing if I hear "White Christmas" one more time!

My focus group was eager to get started. Less than two days after I contacted the members, they converged on the conference room at "Top of my head" headquarters.
I had asked them a simple question to get them started: is Christmas a good thing or a bad thing?

Laura had no hesitation about starting the discussion: "They couldn't possibly have designed a worse holiday. Just as the weather is starting to get icy and snowy, the roads clog with extra traffic. And the roads aren't the only places that're crowded: just try getting around in a shopping mall any time in December. Granted, the urge to get in out of the cold would bring more people there, but the stores always seem to be having special sales."

"And the most-wanted items are always sold out," Doug added. "Parents with small children are getting stressed out. If the kids are crying loud enough, it's going to get to anyone else who's there."

"It's the music that gets to me," Valerie said. "You hear 'Winter wonderland' and other snow-related songs almost nonstop, but when you get *real* snow in January and February, those songs don't get played at all. If Tin Pan Alley was trying to get us enthused about snow, they failed. All you feel is a dread of the white stuff as your ears get saturated with reminders of it. I'll strangle Bing Crosby if I hear 'White Christmas' one more time!"

"Oh, I rather enjoy having a time when my friends and family can come over for a nice dinner together," Julia said. "The tree is beautiful. We don't see enough beauty in life


Cursedmas, a NaJoPoMo project

Post 23

paulh, not fond of Lord Mudpants

Tableau #14: Sky fairies and communing with Nature

"I don't celebrate Christmas at all," said Ian. A couple of eyebrows were raised as if to say, "Why are you in a Christmas focus group, then?" He went on to explain that he took extra shifts on December 24 and 25 so his co-workers could celebrate. "I work in a dementia ward. I get it that people can be carried away by their fantasies. I rather imagine that when Jesus was going around with his disciples, some elderly shepherd who had been a longtime family friend began to imagine the whole angels/shepherds/manger scene, and Jesus didn't contradict him, as it all seemed quite harmless. But the disciples took it seriously, and it got embedded in scriptural canon. But no way can I believe that there's a God who cares about any of us. This makes as much sense as believing in a Sky Fairy!"

"Poor Christmas gets it from both sides," said Rosalie. "It's too pagan for the religiously inclined people, and not convincing enough for the nonreligious ones. Santa Claus is supposed to be the spirit of kindness and good fun, but people scold parents for lying to their children about his being real. People even complain about the season's music, as if it was any worse than most pop music (it's not!). They get snarky about the crowds and bad weather, as if the holiday was at fault instead of drivers who don't have the sense to not drive when it's stormy, or parents who bring their children to the very places where they are most likely to behave badly. Who cares if Jesus or Santa make good logical sense? This is pretty much our last shot at feeling good about life before the cold weather comes in earnest."

"I'm sorry," said Ian gently. "I'm trying not to be hard on Christmas or the people who enjoy it. My wife spends Christmas serving dinner at a homeless shelter, because she says it's one of the few really good meals they will get all year. My son, who runs a native plants nursery, believes in Nature and spends December 25th checking on endangered plants and animals in a nature preserve. There's room for everybody at the table. I just can't believe in God the way some people do. That doesn't mean I want to ruin anybody's holiday."

"You're a good person," Rosalie said. "I sing in a church choir, and I love the 'Messiah' and the 'Nutcracker' and almost any holiday movies. Every moment is precious. It will never come again. If I'm always thinking about how crazy the premise of Christmas is, I won't notice some wonderful things happening that will never happen again."

A hush fell over the group as they pondered what they had heard.

"We have refreshments," I said as the panelists got ready to leave.


Cursedmas, a NaJoPoMo project

Post 24

paulh, not fond of Lord Mudpants

Tableau #15: Frothspew coffee in its natural habitat

Donaloca Frothspew held an afternoon coffee hour on the 15th of every month. Staff members were invited to discuss the articles that they were working on for the next month's issue, in a relaxed setting.

The Frothspew house was big but not ostentatious, with hydrangeas and Rhododendrons flanking the front entrance. We gathered in the spacious front parlor. I had never noticed the pictures on the wall before, but now I was aware of the many Christmas scenes.

"Donaloca, I've been wondering who painted the pictures on your walls," I said as I sat down in one of the easy chairs.

Donaloca, who had just emerged from the kitchen with a platter of freshly baked cookies, raised an eyebrow. "I take it that you've noticed my Christmas scenes," she said. "You're welcome to mention them in your article, of course!"

I blushed. "Now I remember that you were an art major in college." She nodded. "I'm definitely open to hearing your thoughts about Christmas as an inspiration for artists."

She smiled. I had said the right thing! "Donovan, my late husband, had some wonderful ideas about how to celebrate Christmas," she said, sitting in the chair across from me.
"I don't make a big deal about Christmas now, but I remember when he would hire carolers to serenade the guests who came to our Christmas Eve open house every year. Besides being the hostess, I painted a new Christmas scene every year. The ones on the wall were in storage until yesterday. I brought them out for you, in case they stimulated your imagination. Mission accomplished, I would say!"

"Your colors are vivid," I said, looking at each one as I walked around the room.

"I was what you would call a colorist," she said. "Not in an abstract sense, of course, but I always loved the way primitivists would use bright hues to enliven their landscapes. The colors of the season -- reds, greens, yellows etc. -- are easy on the eye if they aren't overdone."

The other staff members had arrived by now, so we drank Donaloca's excellent coffee while our science writer talked about now developments with plants that could grow potatoes and tomatoes on the same plant. Our international affairs writer urged the world to prepare for a world in which Africa would become an economic powerhouse. Our music writer predicted new genres that might replace rock music -- Baroque-Jazz fusion, for instance, a combination of two of the most successful idioms of all time. Not all of us were convinced by his idea, but his article was sure to start some lively conversations.

When it was my turn, I talked about the comments I had heard at my focus group discussions.

My boss spoke up. "Ralph, you're carrying a rather large burden. Some readers will not want to see *another* article about Christmas, unless it has some spectacular hook in it. You're welcome to let Sir Artifice write part of the article. You will still get full writing credit."

"Sir Artifice will refuse to write any of it," I said. "He told me so himself."

There was a stunned silence in the room, followed by what I can only describe as pitying looks from the others.

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Cursedmas, a NaJoPoMo project

Post 25

paulh, not fond of Lord Mudpants

Cursedmass, 2018 NaJoPoMo



CURSEDMAS

Tableau #1: Sonia Hedspin's Nightmare

"I had the most terrible dream," Sonia said, sitting up in bed.

I opened one weary eye, saw that the clock gave me fifteen more minutes in which to sleep, and closed it again.

"You're awake, aren't you, Ralph?" Sonia said, having noticed the movement of my eye. "It was so lifelike, I'm not positive it really *was* a dream."

I had no choice but to surrender to the situation. I sat up, turned to her with bleary eyes, and said, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, "Your dreams are always fascinating, Sonia. Tell me about it -- we've still got fifteen minutes before we have to go downstairs for breakfast."

"I dreamed that I was visiting the Joneses, who were in Hell and celebrating Christmas."

"Okay, that dream is unusual, I admit. The Joneses would never have been caught dead celebrating Christmas."

"It's almost as if the people who hated Christmas on earth were forced to celebrate it in Hell."

"As a sort of eternal torment?" I exclaimed.

"Yes. Like having to eat your pancakes every day for eternity."

"Ouch!" I knew I was probably the world's worst pancake-maker, but it still hurt.

"Except the apple-pecan ones. Those are good." She kissed me.

It was clear by now that there was no hope of any extra sleep for me. Luckily, pancakes would not be on the menu. I kissed Sonia back, got out of bed, and went downstairs to the kitchen.

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[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

Tableau #2: D. Truman Frothspew's (possibly) demonic idea

I didn't think about Sonia's dream again until midmorning, when my boss approached me with one of his many outlandish ideas. I worked for a speculative magazine called "The Top of My Mind," aimed at erudite readers who wanted to be ahead of the zeitgeist. But not *too* far ahead, as that would not have been cool.

"Hedspin, our big December issue is coming up," he said. "You have a knack for looking behind the meaning of holidays -- your 'What do we have against turkeys?' was a winner last November."

"No kidding," I said, remembering that that one article had made the magazine profitable for the first time in sixteen years. Still, the praise made me wary. I wondered how far afield Mr. Frothspew wanted me to go this time.

The answer, it turned out, was pretty far. "Our algorithm points to the incipient popularity of the diabolical element in Christmas," Mr.Frothspew said. "People are starting to say, 'The hell with Christmas.' See if you can develop that thought in an essay. Who knows, you might win the Gudfernuthin prize again."

The Gudfernuthin Prize was one of the world's best-kept secrets. Only 600 people knew of its existence, and of those, fewer than 100 actually cared. Still, those few had had enough influence to make last November's issue of "The Top of My Head" a best-seller. Mr. Frothspew's grandmother had been subsidizing the magazine for 15 years, and suddenly she didn't have to. Not that she would have batted an eye either way. She was unsentimental enough to have sold stock in her late husband's company six hours after he died.

The Frothspew coffee cup had made a fortune for the Frothspews' company: it kept the coffee warm, but protected the customer's hand from getting burned. A truly useful product, considerably more useful than the family's magazine. Maybe this even proved the scientific theory of entropy.

But pointing this out would have jeopardized my meal ticket. "I will get right on it, Mr. Frothspew," I said

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[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

[Tableau #3: Long, dark coffee break of the soul]

I mulled over Mr. Frothspew's assignment over coffee. Saying that a lot people disliked Christmas was not exactly news. Saying that their *reason* for Christmasphobia had to do with demonic elements would be taking it further than I cared to go. How badly did I want to continue working for the Frothspew juggernaut anyway?

Well, however weak my pretense of being a serious journalist was, I at least had to look for some pros and cons. But should I start with the pros or the cons? That was the question. Any clergyman could lay out the holy aspects of the season. The unholy ones would take longer to tease out, so I figured I should give myself a head start. Lucifer would be the best source, of course, but I knew nothing about summoning him.

Then I remembered Sonia's dream. I picked up the phone.

"Sonia, I'd like to go over your dream about Christmas in Hell," I said. "Strangely enough, I've been assigned to write an article on that very topic."

"So........, what can you hope to get from my dream?" Sonia wondered.

"Names, for a start. Were there particular demons in charge of trimming the Christmas trees, wrapping presents, etc.? Or was the whole thing done by black magic of some sort?"

"This is a conversation I would not have imagined having with you in a million years," Sonia exclaimed.

I was silent. Maybe this was not the way to go. "I'm sorry, then," I said. "It was a long shot, I know, and apparently a very bad idea. Forget I asked."

I went for another cup of coffee. The Frothspew coffee cup was working perfectly to keep the coffee hot and my fingers comfortable. Maybe Hell was the sort of place where the coffee always burns you when you try to drink it?







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[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

[Tableau #4: Mirror, Mirror, Mirror on the wall]

Sonia was working late, so I picked up some takeout food for supper on my way home from the office. Being somewhat clumsy, I managed to get sweet and sour sauce on my shirt as I was taking the packaged food out of the car. This would require some cleaning up, so I headed for the bathroom. I was not prepared for what I found there: someone had removed the mirror and replaced it with a three-way mirror. Worse, my image was very different from one mirror to the next.

I got it sorted out, though: the middle mirror showed my normal reflection. The one on the left looked rumpled and annoyed, and didn't move when I did. The one on the right seemed to be in touch with a higher plane of being, but certainly not the one I happened to be on.

I was a bit spooked by this!

I proceeded cautiously downstairs to eat my cold Chinese food, food that no longer had enough sweet and sour sauce on it to make it palatable -- if it had ever been palatable. My favorite Chinese restaurant had been bought out by people who thought that you could put Chinese sauce on a BLT. I tried eating the BLT without sauce, and tasted ersatz bacon that might have been made form tofu on a bad day. The lettuce was gritty (had they forgotten to wash it?), and the tomato had last been fresh a week earlier.

What was happening to the world, I wondered? I left the sandwich half-eaten and went back to the bathroom to wrestle with the mirrors-from-hell. What was the worst that could happen? I soon found out.....

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[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

Tableau #5: Granny Frothspew's ulterior motives

I got to the bathroom just in time to see the grumpy guy in the lefthand mirror pick up a phone and start talking. My jaw dropped as I heard what he was saying: "Yes, Donaloca, I am sure Ralph Hedspin will be overwhelmed by his assignment and either quit or be spirited away by some lesser demon."

Donaloca was my boss's grandmother!

I could hear her reply: "You'd better make sure of that! He accidentally did a good job last year, and I lost the best tax deduction I ever had. You know how I hate to pay taxes on corporate profits!"

So the magazine I worked for was a deliberate tax-loss scheme. Did my boss have any inkling of his grandmother's true intentions? Probably not. He was, let's face it, a twit.

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[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

Tableau #6: Christmas through the looking glass

The guy in the lefthand mirror froze, and the guy on the right spoke: "Be quiet, Alpha Ralph." To me he said, "Don't jump to conclusions. It's unlikely that anyone has changed the mirror in the your bathroom. More likely, everything you see now is happening in your own mind. The conversation you just heard never really happened. Compare it with Donaloca Frothspew's generosity over the years. She gives Christmas bonuses, and even helped chip in for the down payment for your house....."

The guy on the left was getting quite angry. "You weren't supposed to say any of that, Beta Ralph!" he exclaimed, whereupon the righthand mirror vanished entirely.

He then reached out of the mirror and took my hand. "Come into the looking glass with me, and I will show you how the evil ones use Christmas for their own ends. The mirror became soft, and I was pulled through it into a world that initially looked similar to my own, but became different once I was beyond the bathroom door.

"Let's face it, you need to see the holiday's dark underbelly in order to write your article,"
he said as we descended a staircase that was the same size and shape as my real one, but covered in carpet that bore a primrose pattern. Was this the famous primrose path?

A well-dressed man in a Glen Plaid suit was sitting in the downstairs parlor. He saw the wariness in my face, and gave a chuckle. "I'm not the devil," he said, giving my hand a friendly shake. He was bald and plump and middle-aged, with laugh-lines in his face.
"Several respected Christian denominations choose to not celebrate Christmas, arguing it's essentially a birthday celebration. The Bible mentions birthdays only for the pharoah of Egypt, and King Herod. As pagans. these were hardly examples to be emulated."

"So, Christmas itself is based on pagan practices?" I said, sitting in the easy chair (a much nicer chair than the one in my real parlor) across from him.

"You already know this," the man said. "Christmas trees? Jeremiah condemns the decoration of them as idolatry. Choosing December 25 as Jesus' birthday? No one knows when he was born."

"I thought this was based on the belief that Jesus was conceived on March 25," I replied.

The man nodded. "They came to some interesting conclusions in the early church," he said. "Anyway, I'm just here to help you begin your journey. The Jehovah's Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists, and historical Puritans have refrained from celebrating Christmas, without in any way losing their commitment to Christ himself."
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[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

Tableau #7: A stairway to paradise it's not.

"You've heard how Christmas is arguably not even a good religious practice," the man said, leading me through the kitchen and dining room to an unfamiliar door. Now I'd like you to meet some people who consciously and deliberately work to make Christmas indubitably unholy." He opened the door, revealing a stairway that descended into the darkness.

"I've never seen this door before in my life," I protested, shrinking back from it.

"How do you get into your cellar, then?"

"By going outside and around to the side of the house. It's a quirk of the architect."

"Look, do you want to meet people who can help you with your article or not?" He sounded cross.

I nodded feebly. He gave me a powerful flashlight, patted my hand, and pushed me to the edge of the stairs.

I had no idea how far down the stairs would go, but as soon as I was on the top step, the door was firmly closed behind me. With a sigh, I began my descent. Thirty steps down, I reached a landing, which led to yet another descending staircase. This happened 42 times, after which I reached a large, brightly lit room full of people monitoring computer terminals.

"Ah, there you are," said a man who looked like the cheerful soul I had met in my parlor. "I'd like you to see the breakthrough we've just made." He hurried me down one aisle and up the next, showing me examples of children who threatened their parents with grievous injury if the children didn't get what they wanted for Christmas.

"It's a perfect storm of breaking the Fifth Commandment, which requires that children honor their parents."

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[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

Tableau #8: Tell us if you're jealous

I was led to the entrance to another large room, similarly full of people glued to their screens. Here the Commandment being broken was the Tenth, which frowned on covetousness. Every time someone became envious of the gift that someone else received, a cheer went up. Judging from the noise, this was happening quite often.

"Do these things just happen by themselves, or is someone going around whispering disparaging things in people's ears?" I asked the woman who seemed to be in charge.

"We have hardworking agents almost everywhere this time of the year," she explained. "We find out what someone wants for Christmas, so we can urge the people choosing a gift for him not to get it. Then we make sure some other family member will receive it. gift."

"You say that you 'urge' people to do this," I said, still puzzled.

"Yes. If someone is choosing gifts in a department store, one of our agents happens to be the person who helps the gift-buyer. Or, if the purchase is being done online, we have special software that intercepts the process. If people discuss what they intend to give on Facebook, we have a very large number of agents who keep close tabs on what people express a desire for..."

"So they don't, in fact, receive it," I finished.

"Exactly. Last Christmas we dashed he hopes of fifty-seven million people. We have some new software and an even larger workforce to increase the number this year."

I was starting to regret I had ever agreed to write on this topic.

The third room I entered held an interesting surprise that raised my spirits somewhat.











[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

Tableau #9: A way out

It was a much smaller room than the others. Only one person was there to greet me: Beta Ralph, who had graced the righthand side of my mirror in the bathroom.

"How did you...?" I exclaimed, but he shushed me.

"I read your mind," he said. "It's easy to do when you're dreaming."

"I'm....dreaming?"

"I've told you this before, in your bathroom. If you don't believe me, try looking at the last room you visited, to see if it's the same as before."

"It can't be!" I exclaimed as I beheld a broom closet.

"That proves that this is a dream. What's *not* a dream is that you can't report *any* of what you've seen so far in your article. Caverns under your house, where demons are manipulating millions of people in an effort to thwart their enjoyment of Christmas? Come on! No one's going to buy it."

"Do you have anything I *can* use, then?" I said sadly, sinking into a chair that conveniently seemed to be right behind me.

"You're a journalist, aren't you? Journalists go out into the world and ask people what they think. You could ask, 'do you think Christmas is a good thing or a bad thing'?"

"Ah, I see! But wouldn't I burn a lot of gas going to the hundreds of strip malls in my area?"

"You could make a bold move: Ask your boss for airplane fare to the Mall of America, the country's largest shopping mall. 40 million people visit it every year"



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[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

Tableau #10: Never forget that you could be replaced by a computer

Beta Ralph snapped his fingers and I promptly woke up. I was sitting on the bathroom floor. The mirror was the way it had always been, and Sonia was knocking on the door, asking if I was all right.

As I sat down to supper, I wondered if I should tell Sonia about my dream. After all, I
had listened to her dream. In the end, I went with the most abbreviated version possible.

"Demons in the cellar plotting to turn children against their parents and steer people away from giving appropriate gifts?" she said, chuckling. "That's one for the ages."

"Do you think I could include it in the article I'm writing?"

"They'd think you were going bonkers, unless it was labeled a short story or, better yet, a comic book."

The next morning I arrived at my office determined to get started on the article one way or the other. On the wall facing my desk there was a poster of a robot with its finger pointed i my direction. There was a caption: "Remember that *you* could be replaced by a computer."

At one time or another, Mr. Frothspew had threatened all of us writers with giving assignments to Sir Artifice (our artificial intelligence program) if we refused to write them ourselves. This usually convinced us to write any articles that he wanted us to write. Just for fun, though, I decided to run my dream through Sir Artifice to see what he/she thought.

Sir Artifice's analysis was sobering: "You should never tell anybody about your dreams. Here's a website that explains why:
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/why-you-shouldnt-tell-people-about-your-dreams/ "



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[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

Tableau #11: There are some assignments even a computer will refuse.

I then asked Sir Artifice about the wisdom of going to Mall of America and asking people if they thought Christmas was a good or bad thing.

Sir Artifice was not encouraging about this idea either: "You don't have the resources to do a proper poll or survey. Let's say there are 100,000 people in the Mall on a given day. It's physically impossible to query all of them. If you asked every hundredth person, you'd still take days asking the thousand people you've selected. And you don't have many days available. Your article is due by November 23rd so it can run in the online issue on December 1. There's not much margin for error. I have other objections if you'd like to hear them...."

"You might as well tell me," I said with a sigh.

"Objection 2 is that people are not thinking about Christmas yet. They *will* start thinking about it on the day after Thanksgiving, which is November 24, the day *after* your article is due."

"Is that all?" I asked

"No, one more big objection: much of the important work on public attitudes to Christmas has already been done by other people, and better than you could do it. For starters, here's a website that finds people losing interest in Christmas:
http://www.pewforum.org/2017/12/12/americans-say-religious-aspects-of-christmas-are-declining-in-public-life/
Your boss is a blockhead for even giving you this assignment. He would get no cooperation from me if he gave it to me to write. For better or worse, it's all yours."

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[The story's premise in a nutshell: Ralph Hedspin writes provocative articles for a postmodernist magazine. His December assignment: tease out the diabolic elements in the Christmas season. Will he need an exorcist before he's through?]

Tableau #12: A badly needed focus

As I was getting ready to take my coffee break, the mailman arrived. I noticed a letter from someone who was in the Thanksgiving focus group the previous year. She wished me a happy holiday, and remembered the group's work with fondness. "It's a shame we couldn't do it again this year," she wrote.

That gave me an idea. I called her up and asked if she would like to be par of a Christmas focus group. he was thrilled at he idea. The other focus group members were equally enthusiastic.

At last, there was a way forward!

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Tableau #13: I'll strangle Bing if I hear "White Christmas" one more time!

My focus group was eager to get started. Less than two days after I contacted the members, they converged on the conference room at "Top of my head" headquarters."
I had asked them a simple question to get them started: is Christmas a good thing or a bad thing?

Laura had no hesitation about starting the discussion: "They couldn't possibly have designed a worse holiday. Just as the weather is starting tet go icy and snowy, the roads clog with extra traffic. And the roads aren't the only places that're crowded: just try getting around in a shopping mall any time in December. Granted, the urge to get in out of the cold would bring more people there, but the stores always seem to be having special sales."

"And the most-wanted items are always sold out," Doug added. "Parents with small children are getting stressed out. If the kids are crying loud enough, it's going to get to anyone else who's there."

"It's the music that gets to me," Valerie said. "You hear 'Winter wonderland' and other snow-related songs almost nonstop, but when you get *real* snow in January and February, those songs don't get played at all. If Tin Pan Alley was trying to get us enthused about snow, they failed. All you feel is a dread of the white stuff as your ears get saturated with reminders of it. I'll strangle Bing Crosby if I hear 'White Christmas' one more time!"

"Oh, I rather enjoy having a time when my friends and family can come over for a nice dinner together," Julia said. "The tree is beautiful. We don't see enough beauty in life."




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Tableau #14: Sky fairies and communing with Nature

"I don't celebrate Christmas at all," said Ian. A couple of eyebrows were raised as if to say, "Why are you in a Christmas focus group, then?" He went on to explain that he took extra shifts on December 24 and 25 so his co-workers could celebrate. "I work in a dementia ward. I get it that people can be carried away by their fantasies. I rather imagine that when Jesus was going around with his disciples, some elderly shepherd who had been a longtime family friend began to imagine the whole angels/shepherds/manger scene, and Jesus didn't contradict him, as it all seemed quite harmless. But the disciples took it seriously, and it got embedded in scriptural canon. But no way can I believe that there's a God who cares about any of us. This makes as much sense as believing in a Sky Fairy!"

"Poor Christmas gets it from both sides," said Rosalie. "It's too pagan for the religiously inclined people, and not convincing enough for the nonreligious ones. Santa Claus is supposed to be the spirit of kindness and good fun, but people scold parents for lying to their children about his being real. People even complain about the season's music, as if it was any worse than most pop music (it's not!). They get snarky about the crowds and bad weather, as if the holiday was at fault instead of drivers who don't have the sense to not drive when it's stormy, or parents who bring their children to the very places where they are most likely to behave badly. Who cares if Jesus or Santa make good logical sense? This is pretty much our last shot at feeling good about life before the cold weather comes in earnest."

"I'm sorry," said Ian gently. "I'm trying not to be hard on Christmas or the people who enjoy it. My wife spends Christmas serving dinner at a homeless shelter, because she says it's one of the few really good meals they will get all year. My son, who runs a native plants nursery, believes in Nature and spends December 25th checking on endangered animals in a nature preserve. There's room for everybody at the table. I just can't believe in God the way some people do. That doesn't mean I want to ruin anybody's holiday."

"You're a good person," Rosalie said. "I sing in a church choir, and I love the 'Messiah' and the 'Nutcracker' and almost any holiday movies. Every moment is precious. It will never come again. If I'm always thinking about how crazy the premise of Christmas is, I won't notice some wonderful things happening that will never happen again."

A hush fell over the group as they pondered what they had heard.

"We have refreshments," I said as the panelists got ready to leave.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Tableau #15: Frothspew coffee in its natural habitat

Donaloca Frothspew held an afternoon coffee hour on the 15th of every month. Staff members were invited to discuss the articles that they were working on for the next month's issue, in a relaxed setting.

The Forthspew house was big but not ostentatious, with hydrangeas and Rhododendrons flanking the front entrance. We gathered in the spacious front parlor. I had never noticed the pictures on the wall before, but now I was aware of the many Christmas scenes.

"Donaloca, I've been wondering who painted the pictures on your walls," I said as I sat down in one of the easy chairs.

Donaloca, who had just emerged from the kitchen with a platter of freshly baked cookies, raised an eyebrow. "I take it that you've noticed my Christmas scenes," she said. "You're welcome to mention them in your article, of course!"

I blushed. "Now I remember that you were an art major in college." She nodded. "I'm definitely open to hearing your thoughts about Christmas as an inspiration for artists."

She smiled. I had said the right thing! "Donovan, my late husband, had some wonderful ideas about how to celebrate Christmas," she said, sitting in the chair across from me.
"I don't make a big deal about Christmas now, but I remember when he would hire carolers to serenade the guests who came to our Christmas Eve open house every year. Besides being the hostess, I painted a new Christmas scene every year. The ones on the wall were in storage until yesterday. I brought them out for you, in case they stimulated your imagination. Mission accomplished, I would say!"

"Your colors are vivid," I said, looking at each one as I walked around the room.

"I was what you would call a colorist," she said. "Not in an abstract sense, of course, but I always loved the way primitivists would use bright hues to enliven their landscapes. The colors of the season -- reds, greens, yellows etc. -- are easy on the eye if they aren't overdone."

The other staff members had arrived by now, so we drank Donaloca's excellent coffee while our science writer talked about now developments with plants that could grow potatoes and tomatoes on the same plant. Our international affairs writer urged the world to prepare for a world in which Africa would become an economic powerhouse. Our music writer predicted new genres that might replace rock music -- Baroque-Jazz fusion, for instance, a combination of two of the most successful idioms of all time. Not all of us were convincd by his idea, but his article was sure to start some lively conversations.

When it was my turn, I talked about the comments I had heard at my focus group discussions.

My boss spoke up. "Ralph, you're carrying a rather large burden. Some readers will not want to see *another* article about Christmas, unless it has some spectacular hook in it. You're welcome to let Sir Artifice write part of the article. You will still get full writing credit."

"Sir Artifice will refuse to write any of it," I said. "He told me so himself."

There was a stunned silence in the room, followed by what I can only describe as pitying looks from the others.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Tableau #16: Light fires, dance, and give gifts

I had enough material for an article by now, but something still didn't seem right. As I was settling down in bed, I realized what it was: None of us had anything to compare Christmas to. We put up with it, sure. We made the best of it, but what would have filled the gap if Christmas had never existed?

The next thing I knew, I was waking up on the morning of December 22. I could hear a band marching along the street in front of my house. Looking out the window, I saw floats going by. The Sun King waved from the first one, and some of the later ones were covered with roses or tropical fruit trees.

I dressed hurriedly and went down to the street. "You're late for the Sun King's dance," said a small boy who was hurrying by. Sure enough, a tall man in bright yellow robes was dancing in front of a large fireplace. Clowns were everywhere, handing out candy and gifts to the many children, most of whom looked as if they had been there all night.

"Happy Solstice Day," said the Mayor, who was wearing a green suit and throwing rose petals. "Be sure to take part in the drawing. You might not win, but it's good luck to participate."

"Would I have bad luck if I didn't?" I wondered.

"We don't know, because everyone has always taken part," he whispered in my ear. "Please don't take the chance that Spring will be ruined because you didn't take part."

In the town square a large-screen TV had been set up, tuned to a station that monitored celebrations all around the world. "Here in Sweden, we are honoring St. Lucia, an early martyr who was killed for bringing food to persecuted Christians in Rome" said the announcer. "On the Solstice, girls wear white dresses with red sashes and wreaths of candles on their heads. People call on their neighbors bearing baskets of cookies, which they drink with coffee."

The scene shifted to China, where Dong Zhi was in progress. It was night there now, and large groups of people were celebrating with brightly colored rice balls and special dumplings.

In New Mexico, it was still dark but the Sun Priest of the Zuni Indians was waiting to announce the exact moment of the sun's birth with a long, mournful call, after which 12 masked kachina clowns would dance. A film of the previous year's events was shown.

I heard a choir practicing "Good King Wenceslas" in the church which bordered the square. I saw a woman who was going in that direction. "We're getting ready for Saint Stephen's Day, which is on the 26th," she explained when I talked to her. "Come with us and join our feast. We'll be having ham and oysters. The children will then go from house to house with a plastic wren, asking for money for charity or school projects."
---------------------------------------------------------------------------


Cursedmas, a NaJoPoMo project

Post 26

paulh, not fond of Lord Mudpants

Tableau #17: But what about Christmas?

It was then that I realized I sort of missed Christmas. I found myself in a seedy shopping mall where a quarter of the stores were boarded up. Nevertheless, there was a Santa Claus doing his best to give the child on his lap a bit of holiday spirit. Dumkin Donuts and Bigbucks Coffee were offering half-priced cups of holiday blends to shoppers. The greeter at Mall Wart was dressed in a Santa Claus suit, and there were animatropic reindeer behind him.

I heard "Good King Wenceslas" again, sung by the same choir I had heard earlier. I saw the singers clustered around a Victorian-style streetlamp. An overhead duct was pouring fake snow down on their heads. As hokey as the scene was, it was also charming in an earnest way.

It struck me that I had never followed through on the idea of asking shoppers what they thought of Christmas. I couldn't explain why I had gone from November 17 to December 22 without noticing the days in between, but there were plenty of shoppers to ask now.

"Excuse me, Ma'am,” I said to an older woman who was looking at a display in the window of Needless Markups, "I'm writing an article about Christmas shopping. Could you spare five minutes to answer some brief questions?"

When she turned toward me, I was surprised to see that she had three eyes and two mouths. "Fjjh erxdfvbui," she said.

Just my luck that my first interview would be with someone from another planet.

I promptly woke up.

Oh, well, I would just have to start writing the article using what I had gathered so far.


Cursedmas, a NaJoPoMo project

Post 27

paulh, not fond of Lord Mudpants

Tableau #18: When the Froth is on the pumpkin Latte....

I lay awake in bed, hoping to get back to sleep, but that wasn't going to happen. I reached for the pad on my bedside table, hoping to jot down any ideas that happened to come. Sonia had already arisen -- this was her early day at the office. After fifteen minutes of scribbling, I decided to go downstairs and have breakfast with her.

"I can offer you a cranberry muffin with a pumpkin omelet," she said cheerfully, giving me a kiss.

"I guess I should be grateful there isn't turkey in everything," I said.

"That's for next week," she said with a wink.

When I arrived at the Frothspew Building, I noticed a banner spread across the storefront on the right: "Opening next week: The First-Ever Frothspew Coffee Shop. Free coffee on Black Friday." Another surprise was that my boss, D. Truman Frothspew, was inside directing workmen who were setting up shop.

A third surprise awaited me when I got to my office: my boss's office was being rearranged by Dominic, his half-brother. "It's a privilege to meet our award-winning writer," he said jovially, shaking my hand. "I will need lots of help setting up in Donovan's job, so I'm promoting you to assistant managing editor."

"Are you the managing editor now?" I said, stunned.

"Yes. Donovan will run the coffee house on the ground floor -- surely you noticed it on your way in." I nodded. "He is also contracted to write one article a month, starting with an account of the sort o work that goes into a startup. It should be fun to read. Oh, and how is your Christmas piece coming along?"

"I have lots of material," I said truthfully, "and the real challenge is to sif tthroughit for the gems that need polishing," also true."

"If you need any help from Sir Artifice, just ask. We've discovered an override that would make him willing to write whatever parts you need. It's your call, though."

"I will have it ready soon," I promised. All of a sudden I felt a surge of motivation that had been absent for the month so far. All morning I wrote, and finally it was done.


Cursedmas, a NaJoPoMo project

Post 28

paulh, not fond of Lord Mudpants

Tableau #19: The Article is finished!

How to prevent Christmas from seeming like Cursedmas

by Ralph Hedspin, staff writer

We all have different outlooks on Christmas, whether we are religiously inclined or just trying to keep our kids/inlaws/etc. happy during a hectic season when *everyone* seems
to be having a good time. Or maybe it's we ourselves who need some R&R during one of the only lulls in our busy schedules. If we're movie fans, there will be lots of great holiday films to see. If we don't get invited to many parties, our chances of getting invitations multiply from mid-November to New Year's Day.

It's the stress of extra shopping, planning, and traveling that usually gets to us and makes us, in weak moments, imagine that Christmas is an evil institution calculated to make our kids disrespectful and our loved ones unable to get us the gifts that we would most like to have. Are there demons in underground caverns, watching computer terminals as their evil agents in department stores (or online) steer our significant others toward gifts we don't want? We'd never admit to having this suspicion (it would be a one-way ticket to the funny farm), but who hasn't entertained this idea in a moment of fatigue or frustration?

So, here are some guidelines for navigating this turbulent season.

1. You may belong to one of the Christian sects that consider Christmas inappropriate at best and blasphemous at worst. Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses take positions along this spectrum. They think of Christmas as a birthday celebration, pointing out that the Bible only mentions two people who celebrated birthdays: Pharaoh, and Herod, one of them a heathen and the other one an enemy of Jesus. All we can offer you is the thought that Christmas is not *just* a birthday. It is also a celebration of the paternity of God. There's no shortage of celebrations of God's gifts to the world in the Bible. Could this be regarded as one of them? The angels who sang to shepherds sang "Glory to *God*. Jesus was not named. Maybe there's some food for thought. Or maybe not. Well, we tried.

2. Maybe you aren't interested in any of the religious aspects of the season, but you'd like to find some comfort in the world. Try signing up for a nature walk in a nearby conservation area. The trees may be dormant. They may even be covered with a bit of snow. But Birds will probably be foraging for seeds from the wildflowers that once bloomed. There will be berries of various types. You may hear mice in their burrows. Squirrels may be dashing about getting the last of the acorns. If there are evergreens -- hemlocks, spruces, pines, cedars -- you can look for cones. The trees may be sleeping above the ground, but the roots might still be growing. This is an important time for them. If trees had minds, maybe they'd be dreaming of the beautiful Spring and Summer to come. Think of the future that lies ahead. Carrying this one step further, you could take your cue from the many cultures where the festivities center around the Winter Solstice.

3. Are your children afraid of Santa Claus? Do you dread the crappy music and tacky window displays in the shops you go to? There's better music at many churches and live events. For decor, visit the Fine China section of a department store like Mazey's. It's hard not to like their Christmas patterns. Jeremiah would not approve of the ornaments on Christmas trees, but can you resist a really well-appointed one? It is said that shoppers in a non-Christian country such as Japan love to walk past stores with brightly colored Christmas trees in the windows. Those same shoppers spend Christmas Eve at home with their families.

4. The heavy traffic? The snow and ice? We can't think of solutions to these. Maybe this is one area in which you can help us. Send your ideas to [email protected]
We'd love to hear from you. Maybe your suggestions will brighten the lives of others in years to come!

Wishing you a not-cursed Christmas.
Ralph Hedspin


Cursedmas, a NaJoPoMo project

Post 29

paulh, not fond of Lord Mudpants

Tableau #20: Pregnant with possibilities

When I got home that night, Sonia's face had the kind of smile that I hadn't seen since -- well, since our honeymoon. "I have some good news for you," she said.

"And I have good news for you," I replied.

"My news is that yesterday I got a positive on my pregnancy test. Today I skipped work and went to the doctor to confirm it. I'm going to be a mother, and you'll be a father, Ralph."

"My news isn't quite so earth-shaking, but it will help us pay the bills when there are three of us instead of two. I've been promoted to assistant managing editor," I said.

Words aren't sufficient to describe the tender scene that followed. It involved a very long kiss among other things, though. "There might be more than three of us," Sonia added as we were sitting in the living room afterward. "With the fertility drugs I was taking, the doctor thinks I might be carrying twins ...."

"More elves for Santa's workshop," I observed.

The next day seemed like an anticlimax, but there was yet another surprise waiting for me at work: Donaloca had prevailed on Donovan to ask me to play Santa Claus in the new coffee shop. I spent the afternoon being fitted for a Santa Claus suit and getting tips on how to be a proper Santa. After I got home from work, Sonia's friends were gathered in the living room to congratulate her. I was surprisingly tired when I went to bed that night.


Cursedmas, a NaJoPoMo project

Post 30

paulh, not fond of Lord Mudpants


Tableau #21: When you're young, you believe in Santa. When you're older, you don't believe. Then you realize: now you *are* Santa.

No sooner had my head hit the pillow than I found myself dressed as Santa Claus in the cavernous spaces of the Frothspew Coffee Shop. I briefly wondered how they had found so much space, but the cheers of hundreds of children brought my attention to the armful of presents I was carrying, and the distance between me and the chair I was supposed to sit in. As I carried the presents, my foot caught in a fold of the carpet, and I went sprawling, packages flying in every direction.

It was bad enough that the children burst out laughing, but then they started singing:

"Who comes down the chimney head first every time?
Who brings Dad a ball gown, and baby a fifth of wine?
Santa Klutz, Santa Klutz.
The kids all love him,. but they think he's nuts!

I managed to get back on my feet and deposit the presents next to the chair and sit down. I noticed that I wasn't wearing any padding to make me look fat, yet the chair was hardly roomy. Had I somehow put on a lot of weight? Yikes!

A pair of twin boys came and sat on my lap. "Daddy!" they exclaimed, throwing their arms around my neck. "I'm Santa Claus," I explained."

"Yes, but you're also our Daddy," they insisted. Sonia was standing ten feet away, but for some reason she was blushing.

I leaned back to get a better look at them. The resemblance to Sonia was striking, but they also resembled D. Truman Frothspew.

I felt as if I was going to throw up, but the Sandman took pity on me and allowed me to wake up from what was a very bad dream.


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