Yule slide

When I was a kid, my local newspaper would put a little box on the bottom left corner of the front page, counting down the number of shopping days till Christmas. I don’t remember when they would start the countdown, but I know the number always seemed gigantic — googolplex times infinity plus a baker’s dozen — and that I was overwrought with anticipation when the big day finally arrived.

I wish I’d had that countdown box a few months ago — not on the front page of my local paper, but someplace where I might actually notice it, like on the spout of my espresso machine or the door of my wine refrigerator. Because once again the holidays are upon me, and I’m so unprepared.

I’m not sure how this happens. One minute I’m joining the chorus of curmudgeons bitching about how Christmas seems to start earlier every year and the next I’m like, Excuse me, why didn’t anyone tell me that it was December 10? You’d think I’d be attuned to the early warning signs, like when the red Starbucks cups replace the white ones, or when the poinsettias supplant the decorative gourds at the supermarket, or when you find yourself compulsively tuning in to the radio station that plays nothing but that John Lennon Christmas song and Mannheim Steamroller and you’re not sure what a Mannheim Steamroller is but it sounds pretty dangerous, like something you might swerve to avoid on the highway, and suddenly you realize it’s December but it’s already too late: You were in a turkey coma on Black Friday, you dismissed Cyber Monday as a pathetic marketing ploy, and you missed out on all those shipping deals on Amazon.

Sorry, did I say “you”? I meant me. Because that’s where I’m at — visions of a tightly budgeted gift spreadsheet have long danced out of my head. But I am trying to prioritize. First, shopping. Then, decorating. Donating. Tipping. Oh, and Christmas cards. Lately I’ve been sending New Year’s cards, but it’s looking like it’ll be Martin Luther King Day this time.

A few months ago, I saw a family sitting for a professional portrait on the grounds of the McNay Art Museum. They were sweating in cheery red sweaters, smiling gamely despite the heat, and when I realized they were doing their Christmas-card photo, I laughed. Ridiculous! I mean, it’s months before I need to start uploading adorable snaps of my kids to Shutterfly so I can create the obligatory holiday missive, along with the calendars and mouse pads that make giving to the grandparents-who-have-everything so much easier. Right?

Now who’s getting the last laugh? Mr. and Mrs. Christmas Sweater, who probably mailed 300 cards before dawn as they headed to the North Star Mall on Black Friday while I was sleeping off the Zinfandel on my parents’ sofa bed. I bet they even used seasonal stamps, affixing each by hand, instead of just letting the post office run them anonymously through the machine.

Mrs. Christmas Sweater doubtless shipped all of her long-distance gifts via pokey old First Class Mail — why pay for Fed Ex when you’re so on top of things? She’s already baked cookies for her kids’ teachers, as well as lined up frozen turkeys, gently used baby blankets, and brand-new teddy bears for all those school-sponsored holiday gift drives. Hell, she’s probably chairwoman of the benevolence committee!

I’m certain that Mr. Christmas Sweater has already dealt with his sole yuletide responsibility — inflating the snowmen and swathing his homestead with twinkly lights. Or, he’s hired someone else to do it, which seems more likely since it was probably his idea to use a professional photographer for the Christmas card instead of just winging it in the digital age like the rest of us amateurs, who can blame no one but ourselves for missed deadlines or disappointing results.

I believe I have the potential to be like Mr. and Mrs. Christmas Sweater. I start out strong, but can’t keep my eye on the prize. A few months back, I had the foresight to snap up a discounted six-pack of Starbucks gift cards at Costco, to be used for last-minute gifts. That was my plan, anyway, until I decided to keep just one card for myself. And then another ...

Now whenever I hear that John Lennon Christmas song, I feel like he’s personally upbraiding me for my slackery, not to mention the fact that I’ve chugged $120 worth of Starbucks intended for my petsitter and substitute postman: “And so this is Christmas, and what have YOU done?”

Not much, John. But there’s always next