December brought overtime. Lots and lots of overtime. As usual, old man Scrooge (a large software company in the NorthWest) wheeled and dealed with Paula to avoid the threat that she would actually use her vacation to avoid losing any in the usual year-end accounting-based theft of employee time. "Trust me," the miserable old miser said, "It'll be off the books, but you can just take some extra weeks later! And here, have an extra lump of coal to heat your office!" Bastard.
Meanwhile, at home, there was little Christmas spirit. No time for tree. No time for lights. Well, no space clean enough to put up a tree. And many lights were still sitting in the yard from last year, but plant life had overgrown it in a tight weave and we could not pull it free to plug it in. Besides, there was Asian Neighbor. We live in classic suburban isolation where we don't really know our neighbors, but we know of them: Asian Neighbor, Canadian Neighbor, Microsoft Neighbor, Plumber Neighbor, Rental Neighbor, and so on. Asian Neighbor, after years of declining effort in the face of Paula's escalating light war, had sprung into action the day after Thanksgiving, with a full-yard extravaganza of lights everywhere, bright candy canes, and something that was either meant to be a small deer or a large coyote. This further lowered our decorating morale.
In the end, all we managed were two red/white fur collars with jingle bells for the dogs. Every day, I would remove the elastic jingle-collars from the doorknob, pop them onto the dog's necks, and parade down the street festively. So long as we kept the shades down, the neighbors might regard our gaily jingling excursions and imagine that our house was full of Christmas trees, presents, and lights. Clever, I thought.
At the beginning of December, the inquiries began. First, circuitous: "I don't know what to get you for Christmas." Then direct: "What do you want for Christmas?" I began early, too. "I don't want nuthin' for Christmas!" I recited, while stomping around the house. To which I eventually added "We have everything we need, and the rest are things that can't be bought." This sounded sage to me, but it was seen for what it was: sandbagging.
The armistice held until about the middle of December. Then, one day, I looked up and saw a wrapped box on my piano keyboard. "What. Is. That?" I punctuated with stabby points of my finger. "Just a little present for you." Paula replied without looking up from old man Scrooge's laptop-for-home-work-because-we-don't-need-no-union. I stared at her, but she wouldn't look up. "It begins." I said grimly. "Capone" was playing in my head. "He pulls a knife, you pull a gun," Sean Connery was burring thickly.
Three days later, two presents appeared. Five days later, Paula noticed them. "What's this?" she said. "Just a couple of presents." I said. We danced the verbal minuet. "I just have one or two more for you." "I just have the one big present, and maybe one or two small things." "I meant to get something for you, but it's out of stock." "I ordered something, but I don't think it will get here in time." Sandbagging. When you find a strategy that works, stick with it.
The endgame commenced in the final week before Christmas. Paula was on "vacation", which of course meant monitoring work via old man Scrooge's laptop to keep higher-paid people from making too big a mess before the new year. It was time to show a few cards without revealing how many were left in my hand. More presents appeared in Paula's stack. "You said you had hardly any presents for me!" Paula accused. I shrugged and stated the obvious: "He who gives the most presents wins." The Christmas Game was past the point of pretending anymore.
There were other fronts to the battle, of course. Boxes to ship to distant friends and relatives, having only the faintest clues of how big a response was necessary to ensure victory. It was a lot of wrapping. A lot of boxes. A lot of things to think about and keep track of. We were having trouble remembering what we had got people last year, in order to avoid duplicates. The strain was showing. We were beginning to make mistakes.
After the boxes went out, I was shoving Christmas debris aside to make room for a plate to eat dinner when I unearthed something buried and screamed "What Is THIS?" It was a wrapped and labeled Yankee Candle for friend-Helen in Florida, whose box had already shipped. We stared at each other accusingly, each thinking "If we lose by a single candle, I'll blame you."
The final days were most intense. It was too late to get anything shipped without giving an undeserved Christmas present to UPS. Paula hopped in her car for a day of shopping. I gathered more cards into my hand and bided my time, laying them down carefully and slowly. The day before Christmas Eve, UPS arrived. "My last present for you!" I exclaimed. "You said that wasn't coming until after Christmas!" Paula accused. "I know. UPS is great, ain't they?"
On Christmas Eve, I remembered I had long meant to reprint and laminate that favorite recipe as a gift. What could be more personalized and heartwarming than that, I thought, Christmas Game points cha-chinging in my head. As I put my coat on, Paula said suspiciously "Where do you think you're going?" "Just thought of a few last-minute items I've been meaning to get," I replied, running to the door with alacrity. "I can buy more presents, too!" Paula yelled, as I got my hand on the doorknob. "My presents are made with love; yours are just revenge-presents," I called out. "Two can play that game!" she shrieked. "Two can play, but only one can win!" I yelled as I slammed the door.
Christmas was anti-climactic. We celebrated with the relatives, firing our fusillade of presents at them, absorbing their barrage in return. Not every skirmish fell our way, but mostly we won. As with every war, it was the children who took the brunt of it, spinning high on sugar, their little attention-deficited brains slammed by one present after another as though they were in some kind of cruel CIA experiment.
At long last, we got home on Christmas Day and could relax, enjoying the peace that would hold for another 11 months. Or so I thought. Paula leapt from the couch and shouted "Don and Helen!" How could I have forgotten? A distant aunt and uncle had stealthily fired a cruise missile of presents at us by shipping them to the in-laws. We had no warning before Christmas Day and hadn't gotten them anything. We had to form a response immediately. We began ransacking the house and the depleted "Miscellaneous Xmas Gifts" box trying to come up with anything.
"I found something for Uncle Don," Paula said, "but what are we going to do for Aunt Helen?" Something in the back of my mind stirred, and I sat down to think. Suddenly I leapt up and grabbed her. "Is there not a Yankee Candle sitting here, already wrapped, that already says From: Ron&Paula To: Helen?" I shouted. Paula quickly remembered what I meant and shouted back "Yes. There. Is!"
We looked at each other and began to tear up. It was a true Christmas Miracle. In the distance, we heard the faint sound of bells jingling. The dog collars had fallen off the doorknob.