“I send greetings to those celebrating the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Rat.” — President George Bush

For some reason, that presidential message cracked me up when it arrived in my inbox Tuesday. I guess I don’t expect presidential lunar rat greetings (though the Chinese New Year is certainly worthy of a presidential shout-out).

Today is the first day of the Chinese new year. It is the year of the rat, the first of the 12-year cycle of animals in the Chinese zodiac. The rat is supposedly a protector and bringer of material prosperity. Rat is also associated with aggression, wealth, charm, and order, as well as death, war, the occult, pestilence, and atrocities. Yippee.

I am personally just worried that the rats of DC will decide, “It’s OUR year!!” and raise a revolt. Have mercy upon us.

Living in the city, there are some rats that dwell in the alley behind our house. I was disgusted when I first saw them one night, climbing the stairs of the two-flat right behind us. Actually, they were so large, I first thought they were small cats or an opossum or something. But no, those were rats. I saw them again another night and another night. I usually just looked away quickly in horror, but then one night I started to watch them. This one rat just kept going up and down the stairs, over and over. It was hilarious. We would look out the window and –oh!, there he was again! — up and down, up and down. We named him The Stairmaster, also The Exerciser. And you know what happens when you name something — it becomes a friend.

There appeared to be two rats, though my research on the species indicates that there are always many more, which is a somewhat disgusting thought. But the stairmaster and his friend — I think my next-door neighbors call him Fred — were not too bad. If it was just them, doing their exercise thing on the stairs, I could handle it. They were almost kind of cute.

We tried to live peacefully with the rats. This was in part because it is really hard to get rid of rats in the city, so I felt resigned to accepting them as neighbors. Whenever I walked outside onto our back patio/yard/postage-stamp, I would greet the world by shouting, clapping my hands, and stomping my feet (the joy of the Lord is my strength, you know) to scare any rats away. All of this may sound insane to my suburban or rural readers, and it is, but just substitute some cuter pesky creature — a raccoon, perhaps — and it may make more sense.

But it gets worse. Last week we were enjoying a peaceful evening at home when we heard what sounded like an animal outside — like a dog or cat that wanted to get in, except we don’t have a dog or cat (sadly). Then the sound was suddenly overhead, like some creature with significant toenails was running around upstairs or in the ceiling. It scurried around and then the sound stopped. I banged on the ceiling — nothing. It was not a mouse — we’ve had those before, and you certainly can’t hear them walking.

It was not a pleasant sound.

It may be time to seek vengeance on the rats.

I was living in fear all of that night, but we did not hear or see anything else. One week later, we still have not heard or seen anything else suspicious (at least not in the creature-in-the-house department), so I am just trying to convince myself it was a squirrel on the roof, or an auditory trick, or the dogs next door. I just pray the year of the rat is *not* the year the rats take over my home. Anyone have a nutcracker and an army of wooden soldiers I could borrow?



When we were in Puerto Rico in November, one of our cab drivers bragged to us that P.R. has one of the longest Christmas seasons around. They start to put up decorations around Thanksgiving (although the Puerto Ricans aren’t so much into Thanksgiving itself) and carry on until they celebrate the beginning of Christmas on Dec. 25th. The party only gets bigger after that, and they have big celebrations and parades and gifts and such for Three Kings Day on Jan. 6th (Epiphany). Three Kings Day is the pinnacle of the season, but the celebrations and decorations and such last until Jan. 15th. I asked, “Why the 15th?” He replied that it was just 3 Kings Day plus another week (an octave, really), because who wants to stop Christmas on Three Kings Day? Makes sense to me.

I am no authority on Christmas in Puerto Rico. I have this from one friendly cab driver, plus the interweb informs me that the P.R. Christmas is long and hearty. Any Puerto Rican readers out there — and I am sure I have thousands, of course — please tell me about the length and intensity of your Christmas celebrations!

What we observed in Puerto Rico was: awesome decorations that started in mid-November and lots of wise men. We saw many decorations, ornaments and iconography with the 3 kings (sometimes the Holy Family was nowhere in sight, just the three wise guys).

I am all about celebrating until Jan. 15th. I love Christmas, and I don’t really start celebrating it in earnest until Christmas Day, so extending the holiday cheer sounds good to me. And since marriage makes it harder for me to be with all of my relatives at once, it seems all the better to extend Christmas now that I have multiple family members all over the country.

So, this year my family is celebrating Christmas Puerto Rico style. We had Christmas with Ned’s family in Colorado on Christmas Day. More gifts during the 12 days of Christmas in California with Ned’s grandparents, his aunt and uncle and his brother and his wife. On 12th Night we had a party and gift exchange with some friends in D.C. Then this past Saturday, Jan. 12th, we had a tardy Christmas with my sisters, brother-in-law and tiny, oblivious nephew (who spent Christmas day in the hospital, but now is doing fine).

Our tree is still up at home, mostly because I was in Iowa and New Jersey since Epiphany. Ned and I will probably have the last round of gifts tonight, then say goodbye to Maria the Tree … just in time for the end of the Christmas in Puerto Rico…

It is the 11th day of Christmas. I still have the lights up in my cube, and Ned and I will make Christmas cookies and egg nog, celebrate 12th Night and exchange gifts this weekend. I recognize we are out of sync with the secular world, which starts doing all of this in November and quits on Dec. 25th. Alas!

I love Christmas music, and I miss hearing it in stores and public venues. However, my friend, the bug, confirms that the worst part of working holiday retail is the soundtrack. So I suppose my loss comes to the great joy of all the mall employees out there.

But I know at least some retail employees enjoyed their holiday tunes. The trendy Pulp store on 14th street in D.C. had a positively elf-like Christmas cheer when I was there in December. It was near closing time, and I assume the employees were itching to go home. But when “All I Want for Christmas is You,” started playing, they began to cheerily bop to the music and then proceeded to repeat the track THREE TIMES. “All I want for Christmas is yoooooou!” After the first playing, one employee shouted to the other, “Hey, we’ve got to listen to that one again!” Then after the second round, “one more time!” And for the fourth time, “Sorry everyone, but we’ve got to hear that again!” I would have been a bit weary of the song, but it was so nice to see trendy D.C. retail employees enjoying random Christmas cheer. I felt the love.

My one major workplace overdose of Christmas music was in my freshman year of college. I had a great job as “front of house staff” at the Koger Center for the Arts, a big auditorium in Columbia, SC. I would usher, take tickets or work the coat check for various shows. It was the perfect job for me, because I got paid to see all sorts of things I loved — like the SC Philharmonic and traveling Broadway, dance and music productions. I also saw more than my fair share of graduations and school ballet recitals — that’s when I was especially grateful for the 20 bucks I made each show.

In December, the Columbia City Ballet (a decent local professional ballet company) used the Koger Center for its many Nutcracker productions. I love “The Nutcracker,” so I signed up to work every performance. Ticket-takers or coat check people would stay outside and read during shows, but, as I mentioned, I love The Nutcracker, so I signed up to usher inside the house for each show, so I could be sure to see them all. As it so happens, my little sister was in another production of The Nutcracker that year at a different venue, so I also bought tickets to that see her show several times.
In total, I saw The Nutcracker 18 times that year. I have to say, by time number 15 or so, it was getting a little old. By the end of the run, I was pretty sure I could have been an understudy for most of the roles, except for the part where it would have been near-impossible to make my body do the things my mind had memorized (i.e. pirouette).

I remember when I went home for Christmas that year, one of my sisters cheerfully put on Tchzaikovsky’s Nutcracker, but I had to request its removal. I couldn’t hear it for the 20th time.

I eventually recovered and enjoyed ushering for The Nutcracker in subsequent years, though with greater moderation.

Those many Nutcrackers are still etched in my brain, and when I hear the music, I usually picture the Columbia City ballet dancers. This means that when The Nutcracker is playing as background music, I end up narrating along with it: “This is the ballroom scene, the adults are dancing around, and here is where Uncle Drosselmeyer enters, he is waving his arms, he is spooky… this is when the Christmas tree is growing … this is the Chinese tea dance, they are pointing their fingers in the air!” My husband recently informed me that this is slightly annoying, but I don’t know that I can stop it.

Tomorrow is the last day of Christmas, so I will be cramming in all my Christmas CDs, listening to them all as much as possible. The Nutcracker will be among those, and Mariclare Miranda will be playing the part of the widow in my mind’s ballet. I only hope the real-life rats that hang out behind our house do not join in the re-enactment.