Ruining Christmas

Children are prone to hyperbole. I understand this. Overstated pronouncements barely even move the needle on my parental reaction seismograph.

But last weekend I encountered a new psychological phenomenon that both amused and confounded me. Let me paint the picture for you:

Buying our Christmas tree
Despite Barron’s best Scrooge imitation, the Wallaces proceed to checkout at Lowe’s with our Christmas tree.

Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, our family goes to breakfast and then goes to purchase our Christmas tree. We spend the entire day decorating the house — inside and out — so that by the time our heads hit the pillow, we are ready for Christmas.

By a quirk of the calendar, this happened to be one of those years in which Thanksgiving fell on the earliest possible date. Carla and I decided that we would be OK to postpone our annual tradition by a week. Our tree is usually a pile of needles anyway by the time New Year’s Day rolls around, so we thought this might be better to preserve the tree throughout Yuletide.

So we spent the Saturday after Thanksgiving catching up on laundry, tending to the lawn, buying groceries and treating ourselves to an outing to the $2 cinema to catch the runaway blockbuster of last summer “Diary of Wimpy Kid 3: Dog Days.” Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like a summer movie.

The kids seemed to cope with this change of tradition OK until the following Saturday. We went to our closest IHOP, ingested copious amounts of pancakes of several international varieties and set out to buy our tree. This is where things began to go off the rails. The IHOP is literally in the parking lot of Home Depot. Naturally, we thought we’d just pull around, pick out our tree and be on our way.

The problem was that for the last four or five years, we have purchased our tree from Lowe’s, just a few miles down the road. When we announced we were going to Home Depot, we encountered resistance.

“Why are we going to Home Depot?”

“Because it’s right here. It’s more convenient.”

“But this isn’t where we buy our Christmas tree.”

“It’s the same thing except the building is orange instead of blue.”

They were not convinced. We piled out of the minivan and entered the huge tent outside the lawn and garden section filled with Christmas trees. As the aroma of Christmas permeated the air, our children began fussing. I looked over at our oldest who was doing his best “I just lost my best friend” impression, and I listened to the two younger ones debate Home Depot trees vs. Lowe’s trees. That’s when it came.

“You are ruining Christmas for everyone,” Barron said.

I laughed out loud.

“Seriously? We are ruining Christmas?”

“Yes! First, we didn’t decorate for Christmas when we were supposed to. Then we went to the wrong place to buy our Christmas tree. This isn’t the way we do Christmas.”

Still chuckling, I loaded us up in the van and hauled the family down the highway to Lowe’s.

As the day went on and more and more of their expectations went unmet, their emotional dam burst that night before bedtime. Barron was particularly affected by it.

Because we weren't doing Christmas "right," Barron took over and tried by force of will to get us back on track.
Because we weren’t doing Christmas “right,” Barron took over and tried by force of will to get us back on track.

After much reflection, here is my analysis of the problem: A good many of us have wonderful childhood memories of a few magical Christmas celebrations. Those four or five years, or fewer, make such a profound impact on us, that we are conditioned to expect every Christmas to be just as magical as those. As soon as the first stanza of “Jingle Bells” hits our ears, we revert into children, happily baking foods that we know will kill us, purchasing gifts we know we can’t afford, filling our schedules with parties and activities that we know we can’t endure, all in the vain attempt of recapturing our fleeting childhood Christmas experiences.

There is a time between adolescence and parenthood in which Christmas becomes disconnected from its roots. Blame it on Santa if you want to, but the absence of children makes Christmas different. So when we have children of our own, we relive our childhood through them, rekindling our excitement through their anticipation and impatience.

I’m not ready to pronounce this a bad thing. It just is. Dealing with unmet expectations at Christmas is a rite of passage. We all have to go through it. Barron may be confronting that this year, but I predict he will have many more years before he feels the same expectancy as he felt in his early childhood.

Our house still isn’t decorated for Christmas, and lest we risk ruining Christmas for everyone forever, we have to get caught up tomorrow. I am willing to play along and help our children have our “traditional” Christmas.

My real objective, though, is to help them break through the trappings of Christmas and uncover the largely ignored truth of this holiday. Our Savior was born because God loves us. The earlier in our lives we learn to focus on this dimension of the holiday, the sooner we experience true joy at Christmas.

So whether you have a Griswold Christmas, a Ralphie Christmas, a Peanuts’ Christmas or even a Grinch-Stole-Christmas Christmas, I sincerely wish you a Christ Christmas. That’s the best way I know to avoid ruining Christmas.

What are your Christmas traditions? What activities do you engage in every year to recapture the magic? What is it that if you skipped it would ruin your Christmas? Leave a comment and share your story.

Toilet trouble

I believe every homeowner should be able to patch a hole in drywall, install a ceiling fan and stop a running toilet. If self-reliance and resourcefulness aren’t Southern traits I don’t know what are.

My two-week battle with a running toilet tested my convictions in ways that both surprised and infuriated me.

It all started with a stuck flapper. The upstairs commode used primarily by our three boys would run because the flapper would somehow become stuck in the upright position, allowing water to flow ad infinitum from the tank into the bowl.

In addition to an inflated water bill, this relatively minor nuisance also produced one or two incidents of overflowing the bowl when one of our dear offspring clogged it. After several weeks of having to remove the lid and push the flapper back into place, I finally committed to making what I knew from experience to be a simple and inexpensive repair.

FAIL! Do not attempt to install a Mansfield flapper valve on an American Standard toilet. I believe the technical problem is, as my plumber told me, "It don't work."

I stopped into Home Depot, headed for the toilet plumbing aisle and was reaching for the $2.98 rubber flapper when I was engaged by an under-utilized employee, eager to help. The orange-aproned gentlemen announced he was a plumber by trade and insisted I purchase a top-of-the-line, Mansfield flapper valve and not just the flapper itself. This device, which I had never seen before, was $8.98.

Still inexpensive enough not to raise any alarms, I was taken in by his expertise. He then proceeded to explain the wonders of the pressure valve and asked if I had ever tested my home’s water pressure. Naturally, if one doesn’t know one’s water pressure, one cannot begin to work on a toilet.

So I added a $20 water pressure gauge to my nearly $10 flapper. As I scanned my items at the do-it-yourself checkout lane, my certainty and pride at addressing root causes rather than just surface symptoms began to wane. Doubt crept into my mind as I walked slowly to my car, studying the packaging on the two items.

First, I realized that I had been talked into spending 10-times what I had intended. Second, I discovered that to install this “best flapper valve in the world,” I would have to remove the tank.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and I should have stopped right there, turned around and exchanged my purchases for a $3 flapper that would have fixed my known problem. But I didn’t. Good ol’ Southern self-reliance, remember? No, instead, I spent the next two hours wrestling my toilet.

After I finally got the old flapper valve out and the new one installed and tank reattached, I turned the water back on to the tank and proceeded to clean up the mess.

That’s when I heard it: the first shot in the uncivil war between me and that toilet. The refill valve kicked on for a few seconds and then fell silent. I suspiciously eyed the toilet and decided it was just adjusting to the new valve.

After two weeks of the toilet sporadically running for a few seconds every three or four minutes and my changing the level of the refill valve float dozens of times, I finally decided it was more than an adjustment period that was the problem.

I attached the water pressure gauge to the spigot at the back of the house. The Home Depot expert had informed me that a household pressure should be between 40 and 80 PSI. I left the gage attached for 12 hours to allow for any pressure fluctuations. It topped out at 120 PSI.

I reluctantly returned to the scene of my first debacle and detached the tank again and started the process over. With my laptop on the vanity showing the “how to stop a running toilet” video, I checked every possible cause of the problem. Finding no obvious mistakes in my handiwork, I reattached the tank and discovered a new problem.

Not only was the toilet still running every few minutes, it was now leaking. At the pinnacle of frustration and depth of despair I sought the phone number of our neighborhood plumber. The cloud of failure overtook my mood, and what started out so well was now headed into the dreaded contractor zone – all because of a $3 flapper.

This is my toilet tank, conveniently labeled for all you do-it-yourselfers and arm-chair plumbers to marvel at. This is how it looks after someone who knows what they are doing has fixed it.

A few days later, our plumber friend came over and had our toilet working properly in less than an hour. As it turned out, the “world’s best flapper valve” only works on toilets made by that manufacturer. He replaced the refill valve, which was also damaged in my repairs, and we were back in business. The tank looked exactly as it would have if I had simply replaced the flapper as I had originally intended.

But the not-so-helpful Home Depot helper was right about my water pressure. Our plumber told us that Lilburn runs its water pressure higher than most municipalities, and he gets a lot of business in the area replacing home water pressure valves. Failure to address this problem, which is not something undertaken by even an ambitious do-it-yourselfer, leads to much more costly failures such as the hot water heater, faucets and even washing machines and dish washers.

All told our bill was about $400, roughly half of what it would have been were not for our friend’s aggressive discounting.

So what life application could I derive from this encounter?

I amended my credo about what home projects everyone should know how to do. I now believe every homeowner should have the phone number of a good drywall contractor, electrician and plumber.

Your mental health is worth something.

Can you tell a similar tale about a household project gone wrong? Are you still kicking yourself for turning something simple into a complete mess? Share your story by leaving a comment below. It’s therapeutic!