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December 27, 2004

Holiday Special Issue/Merry Metamorphose!

I know there's a lot more to Christmas and the holiday season than giving and getting presents. I'm also aware we've allowed our holiday to focus more on the mall than the manger. But the frosty fact is, with carols ringing and Santa in stores by the 5th of July, the great Yuletide buy-wrap-and-ship frenzy plays a major part in almost everyone's annual festivities.

I try hard to preserve the true spirit of Christmas. I keep the wassail bowl full and visit our local live nativity scene, which, several years ago, received national coverage when a "loaner" camel starring in the manger scene escaped up six-lane Rt. 50, creating a very unmerry Christmas Eve for the local police.

While we still try to keep in mind the true spirit of the season, opening gifts around the tree is truly an enjoyable part of our celebration.

And, because our large family extends farther than most, I make an effort to get myself out of the barn and into the shops for my own holiday buying binge, although not until after swim suits and sand pails stop sharing window space with snowmen.

Meandering the aisles, I make every effort to stick to the gift lists family and friends have suggested, choosing what they really want instead of going by the "if I like it, you'll love it" system my mother-in-law practices oh so faithfully.

Alas, she remains under the (false) impression that her Yuletide choices cannot help but transform me from country mouse to city sophisticate, hoping to awaken the joy of walking in four-inch stiletto heels while dressed in what our hounds chase from November through March. (I refer to the year of the fox coat debacle.)

Amazingly, she's never come to terms with the unreliability of her system.

If I were to operate under the same premise, would I witness mother-in-law flying into raptures as she peeled the festive wrapping from a brand-new full-cheek snaffle?

I think not, although I've been tempted to turn the holiday tables just to see her reaction.

It's Right Behind The Yellow Leisure Suit

Each and every Christmas, it's been mother-in-law's tradition to buy me exactly four presents she believes will encourage lifestyle changes. At least as far as my minimal wardrobe goes. She had to start somewhere.

To date, the experiment has failed abysmally, and, barring my unlikely appointment as editor of Vogue magazine, it always will. Still, tenacious woman that she is, mother-in-law continues her Christmas gift plan, sincere in the belief she can eventually improve and update the contents of my closet.

As if.

It was only last year that I discovered the perfect solution for handling her unsuitable gifts, the gifts that I wear once before relegating them to the far reaches of the attic, tucked behind my husband's mustard yellow leisure suit.

And, frankly, the overwhelming success of last year's plan leads me to hope to find similar gifts under the tree this year.

In fact, I wouldn't mind a whit if they were an exact copy of "mother-in-law Christ-mas gifts 2003," proving once again she fails to understand that cashmere and even faux fur are wasted on someone who spends the better part of her day, as she describes my life, "scraping dirt off animals and unmentionables out of barns."

Nor does the fact that she sees me wearing or using her gifts a maximum of once deter her from yearly attempts to change my low- to no-fashion sensibilities by giving me something I would never buy for myself.

In a thousand years.

And I hope she does it again this Christmas.

Here's why.

Last year, the first of her four presents was tucked into a lovely box wrapped in elegant gold foil and red satin ribbon. Unlike her daughter-in-law, mother-in-law has never once been reduced to wrapping gifts in feed sacks tied with baling twine after running out of supplies at 3 a.m. Christmas morning.

She watched with shining eyes as I extracted an obviously pricey lizard clutch purse from several hundred layers of tissue, clasping her hands in near prayer with the certainty that this year she'd found "the abso-lutely perfect thing for carrying your most precious valuables."

Since "my most precious valuables" consist of a comfy but rather bulky Stubben saddle and a pair of field boots that took me about 20 years to properly break in, I had serious doubts they would slide into that lizard clutch. Instead of telling her this, or confessing my aversion to all things made from the clothing of creatures who look much better wearing it themselves, I simply said, "thank you," throwing in a few oohs and aahs for good measure.

It was, after all, Christmas, when the spirit of good will toward all is supposed to prevail.

And, fortunately, mother-in-law always offers me the receipts, not in case I don't like the item--which never crosses her mind--but in case some hidden flaw requires an exchange.

I returned the clutch the very next day and immediately used the proceeds to purchase a brand-new sandwich case, convinced the sterling silver-topped flask would clearly meet mother-in-law's criteria for an equally elegant "carrier."

Looks Like A Squirrel Costume

I'm sure most daughters-in-law would pay more attention to a mother-in-law like mine, a genuine high-fashion maven who hasn't gained an ounce over the past 40 years, due, I suspect, to her diet of unsweetened water and wood chips.

As someone who believes wearing polyester is a punishable offense, you can understand how much it pains her that her favorite son's wife is comfortable in burlap and barn boots. Although she's tried valiantly throughout the years to bring me into the ranks of the fashionable, unfortunately for her, dressing "in style" comes in around 652nd on my list of things that matter.

Still, in mother-in-law's never-ending quest to pluck me from the ranks of the chic-impaired, she also gives me a new dress each year that does not have any (a) denim (b) equine symbols or (c) pockets large enough for carrots.

Last year she boxed and beribboned a unique, ultra-faddish, gray Italian sheath she thought looked like an Orsini original.

To me, it looked like a squirrel costume.

If it came off the runway, as she professed, it was definitely being chased, I said, but only to myself.

After all, it was Christmas.

Once I figured out which hole was for the neck and which hole was the arm, I tried it on while she ooh-ed and aah-ed and the rest of the family excused themselves before they exploded. After spending close to half an hour extricating myself from the dress and plucking silver fuzz from my scalp, I wrapped it up, then returned it the following morning. With the refund, I purchased a deliciously heavy black Melton coat to replace my 24-year-old jacket that was much worn, frayed, snagged and perhaps slightly outgrown.

"Are you enjoying your present?" asked mother-in-law a few days later.

"More than you can imagine. Those Europeans really know how to make beautiful clothes," I answered, not entirely untruthfully.

Mother-in-law's third gift last year was a pair of solid gold earrings the size of hula hoops. While they may have looked perfect on Jennifer Lopez, if I wore them they would have snagged on my wheelbarrow handles. Keeping that danger in mind, within 24 hours they'd morphed into a heavy English halter made of better leather than all my shoes and belts put together.

Besides, it had gold buckles. All right, brass.

Her final gift to me last Christmas was a two-ounce bottle of obscenely expensive French perfume that would have asphyxiated our goat. While it might have eliminated the need for fly repellent, it was returned and exchanged for some really stunning galloping boots.

All right, so I may not be the picture of haute couture when I'm out in public. But I've got the best-dressed mare in the county.

And, if all goes as well this year as it did last, when I go to church on Christmas morning to say thank you for all my bounty, I'll really mean it.
 
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