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Chris Erskine: Online, the sweater looked like a puddle of baby sheep. What was I to do?

A tree full of ornaments by the kids
Among our treasures: a tree full of ornaments made by the kids when they were small.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

Christmas and I go steady for about a month. Then we break up. Everything in moderation. Well, except the holidays.

Last week, I tipped the tree lot attendant 20 bucks, which is pretty generous. I once worked a charity tree lot myself, so I know the backbreaking work and how the sap coats your palms like layers of stale honey.

Looking back, maybe the $20 tip wasn’t enough. After all, I’d made a lot of stupid jokes during the tree-buying process and also talked the kid attendant down on the price.

“Dad!” scolded my younger daughter, Rapunzel.

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“I’m not some chump,” I assured her.

Though I am kind of a chump. I just hate to be one so publicly.

Honestly, you could just give me candlelight for Christmas and I’d be happy. Candlelight and my kids, maybe a passive-aggressive pet wolf that lies at my feet while I cook, snagging bits of flying bacon and other schmutz.

I’m a sucker for the sizzle of the stove. And the candle glow of early winter — in the windows, in the choir faces, in the skies that resemble big bowls of silver soup.

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I’m a sucker for everything, I suppose.

When I was a little drunk the other night — on wine and friendship — I impulsively ordered my lovely and patient older daughter a beautiful sweater while sitting on the couch.

It looked really terrific, but what doesn’t look good online? Satan looks good online. Even wolves look good online, which I think is how we ended up with this one.

Anyway, the sweater looked like a puddle of baby sheep. When it arrives — if it arrives — the sweater will probably be made of plywood and there’ll be one sleeve missing. That’s how online shopping works, especially if you’re a little drunk on wine and friendship.

Look, Christmas feels all on my shoulders this year. Used to be my late wife, Posh, took on much of the overspending, so now it’s up to me to overspend.

At this point, I’m just buying things to buy things, which was always Posh’s guiding principle when it came to gifts.

Then there’s the food. In the kitchen, I keep looking for shortcuts. Chili in a can. Pre-sliced potatoes. A little plastic boat of dried-out deli chicken.

But I’m finding at this late stage in my life that there are no shortcuts. You get back exactly what you put into things.

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The big test is Christmas. You get exactly what you put into it — or maybe a little less.

I must be something to watch during the holidays — just ask the kids. I can pull a schnitzel just watering the tree. Or burn my tongue on another big spoonful of schmutzenvogel, an old family recipe made of pheasant lips, garden gloves and gin.

Of course, my biggest fear is that my son will grow up to be just like me, though he deserves better. The other day, one of his sisters and I were listing all my teen son’s best attributes and came up with:

  • After he eats, there are always little crumbs in the corners of his mouth.
  • He falls asleep so easily.
  • Good with wolves.

Amazing, right?

Plus, he is the most affable and resilient teenager ever. I’m really starting to love the skinny idiot. He is my true north. He is my Christmas candle.

Guess we are all candles, if we choose to be. We can brighten a holiday in the simplest ways — a joke, a phone call, a note to an old pal.

Listen, I know Christmas can be confusing: figgy pudding? What the fig is that? And where did this Trans-Siberian Orchestra come from? (Don’t tell me Trans-Siberia, because even I know that’s not a country anymore.)

What a mess sometimes. Yet within the holidays are these very human moments — these sizzling little interludes that make us smile and carry on: the sore schnitzels, the bungled shortcuts, and especially the unexpected kindnesses of strangers and friends.

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As you may know, we live in a wobbly three-bedroom house built by cretins, without a single nail, apparently, in half an hour. To hold it together, they mixed paste with cherry pie.

Our house flutters like a sail in the chill December wind and jumps a little whenever the UPS truck rumbles past. If you hang something on the wall, the wall falls down.

But as Christmas nears, our house just glows — with Posh’s memory, and the beautiful echoes of the wry Chevy Chase references our late older son used to make.

It glows with the candlelight of their smiles, come and gone.

And with fresh laughter too, like when Rapunzel gets her insanely thick winter mane caught as we decorate the tree.

“Ouch-ouch-ouch!”

“What?”

“I’m caught!”

I know, kid. We all are.

It’s Christmas.


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