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A Christmas wish: Get back to basics

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It's not even Christmas yet, and I've already gained 5 pounds, most of it on my face (see dotted sketch). Five pounds doesn't sound like a lot, unless it's all in your jowls. Besides, I have been gaining 5 pounds every Christmas for about 20 years now, which adds up to 100 pounds in my face alone. Christmas in your face. Is there any other way?

Meanwhile, round and round the parking garage I go, like John the Baptist, looking for a place to park. As with so many of the saints, I spot things in the future that no one else really sees. So when the brake lights of a Lexus turn crimson, I am waiting patiently for the eternity it takes the driver to actually back out.

I like a lot about an American Christmas. I like the way the kitchen windows steam when there's a roast in the oven. I like the way Nat King Cole croons, "Dressed up like Esk-EEE-mos . . . ." I even like the smiling polar bears on a 12-pack of Coca-Cola and the way Amy Grant looks in a sweater.

But most of all, I like getting a parking space within a mile of the mall entrance.

Into the mall we go, two of the kids and I, looking for a more sensible holiday. For all the obvious reasons, this is supposed to be a smaller Christmas, a more spiritual, reasonable Christmas, a retro celebration in which we return to basics.

Fat (fa-la-la-la) chance. The mall looks like a Trump wedding, or the ascension of an Egyptian king. This is what Christmas would look like if Bethlehem had been located on the Vegas Strip.

Oh, the zoomanity.

Yet, despite the crush, the chaos, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute.

The kids and I hurry into Barneys New York -- a $199 T-shirt? -- then scramble to the Martin & Osa next door -- yes, a $39 blouse!

We dance the "Nutcracker" through Anthropologie, then stutter-step like Kobe Bryant into the humongous Barnes & Noble, which is crammed with folks who look like they're buying their very first book (at age 40).

I promise you, dear God, let me out of this place alive and I will never come to another mall again. I'll never make any more jokes about the way you designed giraffes or question any of your strangest decisions -- like giving Tyra Banks her own show.

Just let me escape this insane parking garage with my two kids, ease out onto the busy boulevard and creep contentedly and safely to my modest fortress in the foothills. In return, I will lead a more virtuous life, drop a fiver in the charity kettle, even cry at Karen Carpenter songs.

Please let me out of this place -- where Christmas is measured in megapixels and $500 purses.

Lord, we need a little Christmas. Right this very minute.

::

I'll never forget the moment we arrived in California. We crossed the state line, and a sign said:

"Welcome to California" (Clothing optional)

I knew right then we'd picked an excellent place to raise a family. I knew right then we'd have some very memorable holidays.

Eighteen years later, we are still happy with our decision, particularly during the holidays. We buy Christmas trees from Oregon, sweaters from Bangladesh, bourbon from Kentucky.

I don't know that I've ever bought anything made in California for Christmas, except for the insanely wonderful stories that fill our TV screens this time of year.

To me, the glory of Christmas can always be found in one of those snow globes of hope and humor that Frank Capra crafted, or from the wry and knowing stories of Jean Shepherd or Charles Schulz.

Idealistic? You bet. Cornball? Give me a double scoop. Hollywood has always had a knack for poking fun at our ridiculous expectations and finding a message in the mayhem. They don't call it Tinsel Town for nothing.

Can you even imagine Christmas without a young George Bailey riding a coal shovel across an icy pond, or Chevy Chase putting a staple through the outdoor lights? How about the way Judy Garland's eyes glisten in "Meet Me in St. Louis" -- like ice rinks -- or Will Ferrell stepping onto an escalator for the first time in "Elf"?

Hollywood is Santa. Its sleigh is brimming with national treasures. Even money-lovin' Hollywood, which gets so much wrong, at least gets Christmas right.

Why can't we?

::

"Dear Jesus, I hope you had a good Halloween," the little guy says during Sunday grace.

He is completely serious. His sisters and big brother laugh so hard, they nearly fall off their thrones. His mom can't even keep a straight face. That's how grace goes lately -- full of inadvertent one-liners.

The other night, we passed the hospital where the little guy was born nearly six years ago to the day.

"Hey, that's where you were born," I tell him.

"Hmm," he says.

"What's wrong?"

"I wonder if they miss me," he says.

::

For our family, Christmas is like a genetic defect. We celebrate it too hard, with too many expectations. You get a hint of this by the obsessive way we pick out a tree.

"I like this one," the little guy says.

"That's a fire hydrant," I say.

"How 'bout this one?" says the little girl.

"Can you spin it around?" my wife asks the attendant.

"Are you taking it dancing?" I ask.

"Dad, let's go to that other lot," the little girl suggests.

Da Vinci never cared this much about shape and form. Rembrandt never cared this much for color. Beethoven spent less time on a symphony than we do picking out a simple 6-foot fire hazard.

Our budget for the perfect tree is $60, but Posh spots one for $89 that she kind of adores.

"Can we eat it for Christmas dinner?" I ask.

"No."

"Then we're not spending $89 on a tree," I say.

When we get the $89 tree home, it turns out to be mounted poorly and doesn't sit straight up in the stand (an extra 7 bucks). At first, we bend it back straight, but once we get the 120 strings of lights and 48,000 ornaments on it, it begins to teeter again. A friend dubbed it the Leaning Tower of Christmas.

None of us has the energy or the time to de-decorate the tree, re-cut the trunk, buy another stand, then decorate the tree again (estimated time: 12 to 14 hours).

So we've started a pool on when exactly it will fall over.

The smart money? Christmas Eve.

::

Dear Santa,

Won't keep you long. You can cancel that Porsche I ordered earlier? Personal bankruptcy looms like one of Dickens' ghosts. I don't fear unemployment so much as I fear daytime television. That would very well do me in.

And I guess my request for peace on Earth will have to wait another year too -- there's no telling what those cowards with automatic rifles will try next.

So here, with a smaller and more-contented holiday in mind, is my revised Christmas list:

* A giant aspirin, big as a hockey puck.

* Two hours Christmas Day to watch the Lakers crush the Celtics.

* One honest moment.

And if you can't manage the other two, I'll settle for the one honest moment, where I have the courage to tell the ones I love how truly crazy I am for them. I am head- over-heels nuts for my wife, my mom, my kids and even my sisters (seriously).

Why I can't be more upfront about this is anyone's guess. It might be because I'm a dad. It might be because I'm originally from the Midwest. It might just be because I'm a notorious goof-up.

But if you can give me one honest moment over the holidays -- maybe two -- I'll tell them all how I feel about them, not to mention a few old friends whom I'm pretty loopy for as well.

Sappy? As a Fraser fir. Sensible? As a Sears sweater.

Welcome to California, Santa. Remember, clothing optional.

For more "Man of the House" columns, go to latimes.com/erskine.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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