For the last few years, the company that owns the building I live in has decided to have activities to celebrate their tenants. This works out pretty well. Once a year in the summer, a truck with some pretty impressive built in grills shows up and everyone gets to have burgers. It’s nice. I still don’t know anyone in the building, so there’s a lot of polite smiling and nodding. No one pretends to know anyone’s name and we all get along fine on the basis that there is nothing involved in the situation other than happily eating a meal we didn’t cook ourselves.
It’s the building management company that’s responsible for my sole annual Christmas tradition: The Death March of the Poinsettia.
Because Christmases are a year apart, I always forget that at some point in early December one of the building’s superintendents is going to be tasked with going door to door with a cart and dropping off what is essentially a festive Mexican shrub. In years past, they would post a notice saying that you could have one if you wanted one. Recently the Poinsettia has become more or less mandatory, like a dysfunctional office holiday get-together.
Phase one is upbeat. It’s nice to come home to any kind of present. Usually, if there’s something sitting outside my door, it’s a beer delivery, but a cheerful red plant is nice too. It’s joyous and it’s attractive and it’s pleasantly wrapped in festive ephemera. It’s kind of fun, and a reminder that the Christmas season is coming down the pipe. There will be candy canes and dinner with family and evenings with friends. Everything will be pleasant, except for the fruitcake, which will be consumed out of a grim sense of obligation.
Phase one, if you’re a bachelor type person who is in the middle of commuting four hours a day to brewing school at an improbable distance, ends with setting the Poinsettia down on the kitchen counter and then proceeding to ignore it intensely for the immediate future. The form that this ignoring might take differs greatly from year to year, depending upon your obligations and interests. Maybe you’ll be playing a video game instead of enjoying the Poinsettia; maybe you’ll be learning how to use a financial calculator. All that matters is that the Poinsettia will sit untended for a good solid week. Extra points are awarded for completely failing to take it out of the protective sleeve that it came in.
Phase two might come at any point after the first week or so. Maybe you have a moment free and begin to think to yourself, “Now, I know there was something I was supposed to do.” Typically, this happens early in the morning because the Poinsettia occupies a space next to the coffee maker. Sufficiently caffeinated to face the responsibility of owning a plant, you are finally ready to come to grips with the Poinsettia.
Because you’re caffeinated, rather than just watering the plant and putting it next to the window so it can get some sunlight, you become an expert on Poinsettias by dialing up Wikipedia. You learn that it has a latin name(Euphorbia Pulcherrima), and the reason that it’s associated with Christmas (apparently, it bloomed as a Christmas miracle for an impoverished Mexican girl), and that it was named after the first U.S. Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. You also learn about the care and handling of the Poinsettia. That watering it too much will lead it to wilt; that not watering it enough will lead it to wilt; that putting it in anything other than direct sunlight will lead it to wilt. You become concerned about the fact that putting it next to the window means that it will be directly above the radiator and that it will be too hot.
Finally, having carefully removed the protective sleeve and having watered the plant, you elect to place it next to the window on top of the bookshelf, where, by your estimation, it will get the light it needs, but not be too hot. Unfortunately, this is out of your eyeline on a day to day basis, and you will therefore immediately go back to ignoring the Poinsettia.
Somewhere in the week before Christmas, I hit phase three. Phase three is a good reminder of why it would be a very bad idea for me to own a pet. I get emotional about the Poinsettia, you see. I look up from playing, oh I don’t know… Skyrim, and see that the petals and bracts on the Poinsettia are starting to get tired. Maybe a leaf has wilted so completely as to fall off and the white sap that courses through the plant has dribbled out. It’s a sad looking plant at this point, not unlike that last ratty Christmas tree left on the lot at the end of the day.
I take pity on it and water it far too heavily, thinking to myself, “Well, this is no way to treat a living thing,” and I chastise myself for not taking better care of it. There’s some guilt, but also a certain amount of anger about the fact that I never asked for the Poinsettia. It just showed up outside the door one day. The death of this plant is not on me. It is not my fault that some well meaning person has completely misread my ability to care for an exceptionally hardy shrub.
And eventually, I think back to childhood. I think back to sitting on the sill of the picture window in the library at our house, next to the Poinsettia which would inevitably arrive before the Christmas tree did as a result of whichever worthy charitable appeal was hawking them that year. I remember the sense of satisfaction of knowing that some things would always be a constant. Christmas would always be magical. The presents would always be what you wanted. The turkey might be dry, but no one would care. Someone else would take care of the Poinsettia and water the Christmas tree.
Unfortunately, by this point in phase three, a level of existential doubt has crept into the proceedings. You wonder what your worth can possibly be if you can’t even water a plant. You also wonder whether man is doomed eternally to participate in endeavors that he does not choose.
Phase four is solemn. It involves the disposal of the now dead Poinsettia into the dumpster out back of the building. This calls for a gentle touch, but the walls of the dumpster are too high to deposit it lightly within. While hurling it over the side of the bin, it’s hard not to note that everyone else’s Poinsettia has survived. Depression sets in briefly, until you realize that you’re free.
You have escaped the trappings of Christmas that have been foisted on you by an extremely caring and generous corporate entity. You’ve managed to avoid a tradition that you don’t really understand. You promise yourself that in future, you’re only going to participate in the traditions that you want to participate in at Christmas: Only the things that make people happy. That’s what’s important. Good food, good conversation, time spent with loved ones. You’ll feel good about yourself, and you’ll buy people just the right presents and everything will be beautiful.
It’s a promise you make to yourself that will last until next December, when all of the above events will recur.