If you want to grow up to truly loathe Christmas, there are two things that need to happen. First, you need to be born on Christmas Day. This pretty much guarantees that the number of Birthday parties you will ever have will be between 1 and 2. It also limits the amount of “real” birthday presents to about a handful over your lifetime. At least until you meet a gorgeous woman who decides to celebrate your half birthday on June 25th every year, and you fall in love, get married, have babies and live deliriously happy ever after. But still, you get used to the “Merry Christmas… oh, that’s right. It’s your birthday, too.” (Followed by a long embarrassed look and awkward silence that means they’d forgotten it was your birthday until reminded.)
The second thing that will absolutely ruin Christmas, is being raised on a farm. Christmas Eve/Morning becomes a Kabuki dance of getting chores done around social requirements and family “fun”. Not that I didn’t like being raised on a farm; the older I get, the more I appreciate having come from a farm. Being from a farm gives me insight on other people from agrarian and pastoral societies; there is only so much different raising crops and animals can be from culture to culture, and if fact, I’d love to sit the old men from my home community down with the old men from Kunduz or Maymaneh and provide translators, so they can bitch about the weather and the government together.
The other thing being raised on the farm does for you for Christmas, is that it takes away the really crazy gift requests you can ask Santa/your parents for. A pony? We had a herd. A gun? I’ve had a gun as long as I remember. Since I was driving from the age of 12, and we always had a bunch of vehicles around for the taking, asking for a car was not even something you had to do. So Christmas was kind of like just another day, with more hassles than “normal” days.
But a couple years ago in Faryab, I was having an outrageously bad Christmas. I was missing my home and family; was assigned the task of escorting some incredibly unprepared and unsuitable people for Afghan service around Qaysar and Maymaneh, and the weather was bitterly cold. Riding in the back of an open truck we hitchhiked a ride in, with my blanket wrapped tightly around me, I was wishing I was anywhere else but here.
To make things worse, an Afghan National Policeman was blown up by an IED on the way to our destination, and we ended up taking him to get medical help. The folks I was with were not dealing with this well, with one gawker and a couple turning green around the gills. Once we’d stabilized him and got him to a doctor, we encountered some Norwegian soldiers, who invited us to a Christmas eve party at their place.
When we arrived, what happened next was somewhere beyond surreal. Just to touch on the high points, I think I consumed my weight in pork products, chocolate and alcoholic punch during dinner. Then, I sat in a daze, while a Japanese woman, who had been educated in the Northeast US, proceeded to vent to me about how one of the people I was accompanying had insulted her deeply. This was funny on two levels. First, I agreed with her completely on this offensive and ill-suited person who I was shepherding around, but this did nothing to slow her down from her hour long rant. Second, this completely Japanese woman had the prototypical clenched jaw Katherine Hepburn Connecticut Main Line accent and way of speaking that was beyond hilarious based on her ethnicity. To make it even funnier, instead of turning her head, she would turn her whole body, and punctuated her points by pounding the low table between us with her fist.
Some of the Norwegians then rescued me from this entertainment and hustled me to something called “The Sauna”. Attempts to go back to my vehicle to retrieve a pair of shorts were stopped by these descendants of Vikings, many with forearms seemingly bigger than my waist. So, I soon found myself, naked, in a crowded sauna with a combination of large muscular Vikings, and petite, buxom Valkyrie, all pretending that they weren’t completely starkers. Drinking Stella Artois, of course. It was bad enough that I was attempting to ignore the state of undress, which I was not particularly comfortable with, but one of the Valkyrie was a relatively important person in Norway, out visiting the Norwegian troops and for some reason relative fame makes nudity even more awkward.
After an awkward and uncomfortable time in the sauna, I found a reason to withdraw, more or less gracefully, and then retired for the evening, in my ersatz bed, where I immediately started to freeze.
After a very unsatisfactory night of almost sleep, I arose, and went out to actually get something done. I visited with the Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock for Faryab Province, and over chai and snacks (called nokel) of raisins, almonds and dry seasoned ramen noodles, we discussed germinating pistachio trees at the Faryab tree nursery. When asked when they would be able to germinate the 60,000 seeds that were donated to them, he asked if I would come with him. I internally shrugged and jumped into his pickup truck, and we drove through Maymaneh to the tree nursery on the edge of town.
Upon arrival, we were greeted with 60,000 open bags of soil, each of which had a pistachio seed in it. I was delighted to see them all lined up, ready to germinate and then to be transplanted in other people’s pistachio forests.
I could not help but notice, though, a Buzkashi pony tied up in one corner of the tree nursery. For those who do not know it, Buzkashi is the closest thing to war one can get on the sporting field. It is a game fought between two groups of horsemen, over the headless corpse of a dead animal. People and horses can and do die during matches.
The caretaker for the nursery had evidently brought his horse, so I walked up to talk to him about it. One of the people with us decided to go over and pet the “pretty horsey” (a stallion, btw) and the “pretty horsey” proceeded to try to attack him, only being brought up short by it’s lead. Evidently Buzkashi ponies are a mite bloodthirsty, which is not surprising.
Now, I am a cowboy from way back, and worked with mean horses until I left home at 23, so I wasn’t going to let this horse think he was boss, so I walked over to him, speaking gently, in a low tone, but forcefully. The horse instantly became calm and interested, whickering and nuzzling at me, with his ears forward. He evidently recognized a horseman when he saw one, regardless of accident of birth. It took me about half a second to find his “sweet spot” and gave him a good scratching, which he gleefully received. I noted that the guy who tried to pet him now gave him a very wide berth.
The caretake came over, and we talked about the horse for awhile, and he walked off. Next thing I knew, he brought out a blanket and a saddle and saddled up the horse.
I asked the old man how the horse reined, and he smiled and told me to just get on the pony. I got right up on him, and off we trotted. The caretaker’s smile was explained immediately, as I came to a “T” intersection and just as I decided to turn left, the horse turned left, before I could rein him. Puzzled, I started to prepare to rein him to turn right, and right he went, before I could do anything. We rode all around town before I finally figured out this horses’ apparent ability to read my mind. This pony was “butt-reining”. When I started to think about turning, going faster, slowing or stopping, I would shift just a little on my pelvis, and he would feel that slight change and react accordingly.
I have met and worked with some damned smart horses before, but nothing compared to this little rocket’s ability to anticipate my every move. I have never, ever had a more enjoyable ride, and by the time we’d worked up a good lather and returned back to the nursery, I was loathe to give him up.
It was with a certain sadness I gave him back to the caretaker and got back in the pickup to go back to my temporary home.
In my life, I’d had some fun little Christmases, I guess. Now that i think about it, that Lionel train set I got when I was 5 was pretty darned sweet. The first Christmas with my lovely wife was absolutely amazing as well. Actually, to admit it, I guess I could actually “like” Christmas, if I weren’t so set on being so contrarian about it.