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The Christmas Convert

A (not quite) Christmas story from Beijing.

There is no zealotry like the converted. My wife each Christmas is proof of the cliché.

Not that my wife is a religious convert. The times I have taken my wife to a church inevitably result in a series of snarky comments along the full spectrum from “amused horror” to “epic disdain.” Keep in mind that I was raised a Unitarian and even that was too churchy for her.

For those unfamiliar with the religious landscape of 19th-century New England, allow a momentary digression. The Unitarians (or Unitarian Universalists to use our full post-merger name) are one of the most secular and liberal of all possible denominations. A survey at my home church once found only half of the congregation believed in God.

There are any number of old jokes, most by way of Emo Phillips and Garrison Keillor, which may help illuminate:

Q: How do you know an Unitarian is protesting something?

A: They burn a question mark on your lawn.

or

Q: Why do Unitarians sing so slowly?

A: Everybody is reading ahead one line in the hymnal to see if they agree with it before deciding whether or not to sing the words.

It’s a religion where the prayers should probably start: “To whom it may concern…”

My mother, who, when I was little, worked as a church secretary at the UU church in Haverhill, Massachusetts, once described the denomination as “Atheists with children.” At a party, I may or may not have once used the phrase: “Jews with a bad attitude.” Most sermons involve a minimum of five of the world’s religions and at least one quote from Thich Nhat Hahn mixed together in a heady stew of politically correct and gender inclusive spiritual nourishment.

Let’s just say that as religions go, this is about as far from Evangelical bible thumping as it gets. When asked their views on organized religion, many UUs I know tend to make Christopher Hitchens sound like Ben Carson.

So, when my wife describes going to UU services as being “too churchy,” you get the idea of where she sits in terms of converting to any particular religion. But even if Jesus is, everywhere but Starbucks, the reason for the season, my wife doesn’t care. She is a hardcore Christmas fanatic. Which means every year, her Grinch husband (me) needs to establish and refine a carefully curated set of guidelines lest the Christmas cheer runneth over into other months. Like July.

Last year it started in mid-October. I returned home from work and found my wife – and those of you who know her will understand best why this was so bizarre – dancing around the apartment in her pajamas and a Santa Hat singing (sort of) along to the Christmas song “Sleigh Bells” blasting from our stereo.

I say “sort of” because she only knows the first line. This means my initial attempt to understand what was going on went something like this:

“Honey. Whatcha doing?”

[Singing. Sort of.] “Just hear the sleigh bells ringaling da-da-da-duh-a-ling duh-duh-duh-da-duh”

“I’m confused.”

[Singing continues.] “Dah-dah-dah Dah-dah-dah dah-dah-dunh-da-dunh.”

“I thought we agreed. Not until after Thanksgiving.”

To her credit, she did wait until it was nearly Halloween. This represented both a significant improvement over the year before AND a better sense of restraint than US retailers and advertisers.

Nevertheless, we try in our house to be seasonally appropriate. So I redirected her attention to a small stash of Halloween candy and let it go.

Flash forward to this past Wednesday. I’m up at 5:30 a.m. for a call to Europe. She’s up at 6:00 because she will be spending the day with one of her top clients. From the hallway I hear…Christmas carols.

Into my office she twirls, playing Charlie Brown Christmas on her iPhone and telling me that “Christmas time is here because Snoopy says so.”

“48 hours, honey.”

“You are making Snoopy sad.”

“48 hours and then we can do 24/7 Christmas Carols, dress the dog as a reindeer and the cat as an elf, whatever you want.”

“Hmmmnh. I’m not listening. Christmastime is Here,” she said as she twirled out of sight.

Or at least out of my office. Apparently, that twirl is now the Yuletide version of dropping the mic.

My wife is a serious professional, with a high pressure job. She is one of the brightest and most rational people I’ve ever met, well known for her dry and ironic sense of humor. But something about Christmas just brings out the whimsy.

And she is not alone. During our first Christmas in China, over a decade ago, we had to scour the sketchy Russian markets of Yaobaolu to put together enough Christmas swag to decorate the house. A take-out duck dinner from Tianwaitian completed the festivities. Today, Christmas in China is big business and it is the rare commercial establishment in Beijing where the halls are not epically decked with reindeer and Santas. The celebration has become so popular among the younger generations, that last year one university took the step of trying to “ban Christmas.

It’s Friday now. Thanksgiving is over. So the music is now on 24/7. This weekend we’ll watch Love Actually and decorate the house. For as much as my wife likes to complain about my Grinch-iness, I too really like the holiday season. And I should be grateful that I’m married to someone who, however maniacally at times, has come to embrace an aspect of her husband’s culture.

So, le the yuletide roll. Christmas is coming.