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Like many rural folks, I’ve suffered my share of Yule-tide guilt and grief—much of it self-imposed, and the rest imposed by others who feel I ought to celebrate after their fashion—big sweaters, loads of hot dishes, a surfeit of idle chit-chat with distant relatives who return to our small Middle American towns and ancestral farms just long enough to collect their gift cards. In many ways, I’d argue, the “classic” traditional holiday fete piques the rural stoic archetype in often uncomfortable ways. Don’t get me wrong: my beef isn’t with the beautiful, yes even sacred spirit of the season, but with the straightjacket many of us feel compelled to put on to celebrate it.
Family holiday fetes can be downright claustrophobic for free-range men and women. My Uncle Wayne, a self-professed hillbilly engineer and farm-owner from Pikeville, Kentucky, used to grab me at those inevitably claustrophobic moments during family Christmas on the farm and say, “Hey fella, come outside and let’s smoke a joint.” Uncle Wayne’s “joint” was actually a Swisher Sweet “small cigar,” but our mission was the same: get out of the house for some much needed air and a fresh perspective. Needless to say, Uncle Wayne had married into the family.
Second, the holidays’ requisite uniforms can’t help but confine. My family members, mostly farmers or laborers of various stripes, typically wore work clothes for their workaday lives. The duds they donned the other 364 days a year weren’t especially shabby or smelly—they didn’t reek like a deep fat fryer or an open grease pit or a pig pen—they just looked comfortably worked in. For men and women who worked outside most of their lives, holiday events seemed to require donning the clothes of the office worker—a collared shirt or “nice” sweater, some trousers with a pleat in them, gratuitously thick socks and soft slippers that conferred an anomalous softness on their wearers. Seeing my grandfather—an Osh Kosh B’gosh overalls grain farmer and seedcorn salesman—dressed in some obligingly fleecy Christmassy flannel made him seem suddenly foreign to me, as I am sure he was to himself that day. And maybe it’s because he seemed uncomfortable in his own skin on Xmas that I began to think that everyone around me might have felt a little compelled to put on an act. For whose benefit, I was never quite certain, and I’m still not.
Finally, there’s the holiday celebration protocol itself. Is there an opt-out? A none-of-the-above? Is the son or daughter of rural America allowed to say, a la the Herman Melville character Bartleby, that he prefers not to show up at 10 a.m. on Christmas Day freshly showered and already clawing at that uncomfortable turtleneck he desperately wants out of? Is a grown man or woman permitted to say they’d rather spend all or part of the special day in their workshop, or catching up on their newspaper reading, or studying their new How to Speak Italian book? Maybe, but there will surely be heck to pay. The holiday mafia will see to it that our escapist tendencies are sunk. After all, they know where we live.
Zachary Michael Jack is a seventh generation Midwesterner and the author of many books on rural and small-town culture, including the forthcoming book Wish You Were Here: Love and Longing in an American Heartland.