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Cutting Christmas down to size

C’mon, admit it; you know it’s true.

The holiday gift-giving routine is way out of hand in most households. How often have you heard someone say it? How many times have you said it?

Outta hand.

I’ve believed this for a long time, I’ve talked about it again and again, made resolutions to change, but I’ve done nothing about it.

Every year, I’ve ranted and raved about the problem, but I’ve caved in to what is becoming the most annoying tradition I know. When the bets are down and it was time to throw the cards on the table, I folded. And, when I refer to “cards,” I mean credit cards.

This year is going to be different: I’m putting my foot down, I’m holding the line.

I’m putting an end to a hyperactive holiday, money-wise. This holiday season, there will be no guilt-riddled gift buying orgy, no shopping spree, no attempt to purchase the love of the members of my immediate family with an overwhelming number of grossly overpriced, last-minute presents.

Further, there will be nothing for the legion of parasites used to receiving a holiday gift from Mr. Holiday Cheer. Anyone who is not a member of my immediate family is (perhaps) getting a phone call, a hearty “How ya doin’?” That’s all. The only gifts this season will go to my wife; Aurora and Ivy, my two daughters; my son-in-law, Jon; my granddaughter Forest, and my grandson Banzai.

One gift per person.

No exceptions.

I am through being a pawn, shoved across the economic game board by the insistent hand of American corporate culture. I refuse to be manipulated any longer.

As a result of my determination, my shopping this season has been mercifully limited, and I am done.

How did I know what to buy?

Easy: the same way I know everything else — by watching TV.

My technique was flawless. On my first foray, I waited for a weekend when Kathy was off to Denver and I settled in for a marathon effort. I opened a bottle of cabernet franc and kicked back in the big leather chair in the living room, armed with my remote and a note pad.

I stayed in front of the tube for eleven hours, reviewing the commercials, checking the shopping networks, appraising my options, taking notes, making the hard decisions.

I found a number of interesting items as I watched a touching hour-long drama, “Crimes of Passion: She Woke Up Pregnant.” Likewise, during “Mahogany,” starring the often misunderstood Diana Ross. The commercial breaks interrupting “When Pilots Eject,” produced a gold mine of commercial possibilities.

It was during a break in “The Oksana Baiul Story,” that I discovered the Bracelet Showcase and stumbled on the Diamonique charm bracelet with a precious little shoe ornament.

It was a great start.

After my first adventure in the television market place, I spent more hours on other days watching television in search of the perfect gift for each of my sweeties. I stayed up well past midnight the last few nights, feverishly cruising the full spectrum of channels on my dish, making decisions based on an analysis of personal characteristics, situational needs and lifelong attractions. I assembled a minimum twelve potential selections for each member of the family, then agonized over each list in order to pare it to the finalist.

I did well, if I don’t say so myself.

Take for example the replica Samurai sword letter opener set I purchased for Ivy. There are four titanium knockouts in the set, from three to nine inches in length, suitable for opening any package, with a blade guaranteed to stay relatively sharp for life (or 90 days, whichever comes first). When the topic is knives, the Japanese don’t mess around. It’s tradition for those folks, you know.

For Aurora Borealis, in recognition of her incredible sense of style and design, I selected a set of Instashelves. She can install these triangular beauties in any corner of the house using the expando pressure edges, and she can arrange them to suit the height of her knickknacks, should she ever acquire any knickknacks. As an added bonus, she can douse the lights in the room and click on the battery-powered shelf illuminators to produce a dramatic effect that will be the hit of any dinner party, if she ever has a dinner party. These are so much better than the Thomas Kincaid print I nearly bought for her, even though he is, after all, “the painter of light.”

When it came time to pick a gift for my granddaughter Forest, I hit a real bind. The “Best of Sponge Bob Square Pants” video was tempting, but after a sleepless night, I decided she is too old for Sponge bob and that I needed to locate something more educational, more practical: the rachet-driven wrench/screwdriver from the Slamco corporation of Indianapolis, Indiana. With subsidiaries in Guadalajara, Mexico. This astounding device can reach nuts and screws your ordinary screwdriver or wrench can’t reach. With Forest’s slender hands, the benefit will be magnified. She’ll be able to repair just about anything. Girls develop their minor motor skills quicker than little boys. Did you know that?

I bought the Sponge Bob video and kept it for myself. It’s great: especially the episode where Sponge Bob and Squidbert start a restaurant. If you get a chance to see it, by all means do so. You’ll laugh till you hurt.

For Banzai, no question: the Your First Emergency Room set from Sanguine Industries. The assemble-it-yourself set includes plastic replicas of all the basic ER stations, plus a full complement of ER staffers, right down to the orderlies. The Bonz was first put on a snowboard at age 14 months and now, at a little less than 3 years old, he is skiing and boarding, riding the chair with mom and dad. He needs to become as well acquainted with the ER and its procedures as early as he can. The familiarity will be comforting.

For Kathy, after some profound teeth grinding, I rejected a video called “Darin’s Dance Grooves” which would have allowed her to master all the latest steps as performed by our favorite pop stars, in favor of the Cool Touch mini fryer. Avocado in color.

What a perfect gift idea! Kathy has been ragging me about throwing a get-together and what makes for a heartier or more memorable bit of fellowship than an evening huddled around a mini fryer? A basket full of cocktail weenies and jalapeno poppers, some fondue forks, and the party is on! A glass or two of a cheap Zinfandel and we’re off to the races. We will be the talk of the town. Veritable social lions.

Jon was a bit of a problem but, outdoorsman that he is, he is sure to enjoy the Toasty Toes heated socks. These beauties keep your feet warm in the most severe conditions. I’m sure the problems with burns have been solved. That’s the problem with North Korean products — it takes some time before they work through the design flaws. I got a great price on these socks!

A lovely gal named Beth gave me some advice during her show on the Home and Garden channel. Beth solved my last problem: how to wrap the presents?

In a stroke of what can only be described as nearly mystical good luck, I learned neutral colors are the rage this year for gift wrap. What is more neutral than the pleasant nutty-brown color of a paper bag? And, what an incredible coincidence: I’ve got a stash of bags! Some of them with a minimum of print on the sides.

I realize the family will be a bit miffed by my change in attitude and what it’s produced. We’ll get together and they’ll huddle up and look at me expectantly, ready for the usual torrent of useless gifts they’ve grown accustomed to receiving.

When each learns she is to receive only one package I imagine the atmosphere in the room will be, oh, I don’t know ... nastier than a conference of Pashtun warlords discussing how to split the opium trade.

But, the tension will dissolve at dinner.

The question is what to serve when we gather to open our gifts. This will be crucial. The meal must match the occasion.

The ancient Greeks had a system wherein they matched foods with moods. Each food possessed certain taste and textural qualities which, in turn, corresponded with the “humors” (“humours,” if you need to be precious) of the diner. Provide the correct mix of qualities in the food and you engineer the intellectual and emotional responses of the eater.

Sounds good to me.

After an analysis of potential moods, (“humours” if you will), and after asking myself how I want the folks to feel as they discover their gifts this year, I’ve settled on: Insentient.

The menu choices were obvious.

We’ll start with a bracer: martinis, shaken, not stirred. Double up on the gin. Hold the vermouth. Hold the olive.

For our main course: filets of beef in a cognac sauce. Easy business: sear the seasoned filets in butter and oil over high heat and finish them off in a hot oven until medium rare. Take the filets from the pan and put them on a warm platter; tent the filets with foil. Hurl a jigger or so of cognac in the pan and set ablaze, burning off the alcohol, taking care not to set the hair on your arm or your eyebrows on fire. (If this does happen, however, I can assure you from personal experience that the kitchen sink spray is your best friend.) Add some beef stock, some cracked black pepper, a smidge of demi-glace and reduce. Plop in a teensy bit of stone ground mustard and a splash of heavy cream, reduce and finish by swirling in a few globs of unsalted butter. Serve in a boat. Use large straws to finish off the remaining sauce in the boat at meal’s end.

Perhaps a glass or two of a stout cabernet with the entree. Perhaps three. Maybe four.

Our vegetable side dish: cabbage with nutmeg, braised in wine. Plenty o’ wine.

For dessert: pears poached in red wine. Plenty o’ wine.

How about some rum cake? A touch of Gewurztraminer with the dessert should work out well and, of course, nothing beats a few belts of sauterne with the cheese course.

Nothing could top a toddy or two prior to unwrapping the gifts, huh? Providing no one keels into the holiday candles, it should be a rip-roaring, and meaningful, multi-cultural, hands-across-the-sea holiday celebration. For a change.Everyone should enjoy their thoughtful gifts. And after each recipient has marveled at the authenticity of the occasion we can each down a snifter or two of brandy.

True, Forest will have to find her own way to bed.

But, look at it this way: She’ll be able to take it apart with her holiday gift.

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