Robert Pinsky  

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 1 1997 3:30 AM

Robert Pinsky  

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       Since we're leaving for California tomorrow morning, today my wife Ellen and I take down the tree and wrap up the Ugly Ornaments. About 15 years ago, when we still lived in Berkeley, my youngest daughter came home from Discounts Unlimited on San Pablo Avenue with a lump-like synthetic sparrow, rust colored with magenta speckles, with a sparkly loop coming out of its scalp. Only 5, Biz was already ironist enough to claim that she bought it--"Santa's Hell Bird," it was called--because it was the ugliest thing in the world.
       Her older sister took the challenge, and the Ugly Ornament Contest was underway. Competition has become astoundingly intense and solemn over the years, with firm rules evolving. The entries, only one per person, must be undoctored and originally intended as tree ornaments, and each entry has a name, used in the formal balloting and speeches. The names--"Open-Wound Rudolph," "Nuclear Santy," "Hairy Candy Cane," " Carmen Miranda's Christmas Revenge," " Tropicana Nightmare," "Pope on the Half Shell"--have often gone over the bad-taste line. The middle daughter won last year with " Genital Warts Noel," for example, and classic entries have included " Thalidomide Angel," " Adeste Scoliosis Larva" and the All Time Grand Champion, " Social-Disease Santa," a red-faced, cockeyed plastic abomination filled with decades-old candy beads and purchased--like some fabled champion dog or racehorse--for a nickel at the Berkeley Flea Market.
       It isn't easy to convey the spirit of this competition, which is a little more serious and less cutesy than it may sound. People are not above vicious remarks about other competitors. ("That's not ugly--it's cute.") Pedantry about true ugliness, as distinct from mere tackiness, silliness, etc., abounds. Into this mania, many outside the original family group have been drawn in: A cradle-Catholic poet laureate, who must remain nameless here, once mailed in a machine-embroidered ball with a portrait of the pope on it (it lost). And Frank Bidart, usually a Christmas guest, has made memorable speeches. In the early years, the Ugly Ornaments went on the mantle, with only the winner going onto the tree in a victory ceremony. But years passed, the carton of Uglies filled up, and now it is an All-Ugly tree, with chains of lights as the only straight-ahead decoration.
       Entries are revealed on Christmas Eve and the speeches and voting take place after Christmas dinner. The speeches evolved from a tie vote and runoff in the early years, when a dead heat between Biz and me produced a runoff vote (she won). Now there is always a runoff between the top two, with speeches by surrogates chosen by the contestant. In this year's runoff, our guest Peter Sacks spoke on behalf of "Meat Torch" (a kind of gilded pummel, with a tassel of stiff strands that look exactly like fresh meat extruded from the holes of a grinder; my daughter claims that as she carried it toward the register at Filene's Basement, an elderly lady stopped her to ask, "What is that?"). With his polite manner and South African accent, Peter made a memorably learned disquisition, involving the Gnostic sage Valentinus' vision of the Worst Possible Outcome as a red ball, and concluding, holding it in the air, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the End of Civilization." But Frank Bidart, speaking for my wife's "Scoliosis Larva," carried the day with a few well-timed references to TheTexas Chainsaw Massacre.
       Underneath our maybe offensive derision of what someone, somewhere intended to be ornamental, there must be anxiety, I suppose. The Ugly Ornament Contest should be forgiven any meanness or complacency it commits, because it is a way of escaping the pressures of celebration--to be truly merry, in a word.
       Of course, what I wrote yesterday, about my Jewish gangster grandfather's Christmas tree, makes the holiday sound too easy. It's in the nature of American life that the season to be jolly is a season to be jumpy, as well. The very things I'm most patriotic about--our cultural mixing and improvising, our social fluidity, our moving around--combined with our nervously promoted abundance, make Christmas a subtle test, if not a trial. And if your parents did it perfectly, all the more tension for you. So horsing around, in an organized way, is in order.
       What's more, as we discovered, and as more than one guest has pointed out, the whole tree, the ensemble, with all of the Uglies distributed, is not ugly: With its irregular pyramid of foliage, little lights, and splashes of various forms and colors, it looks like any other American Christmas tree. It's only the close-up inspection that makes you uncertain whether to barf or make merry.

Robert Pinsky is an American poet. His latest published work is The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996.

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