Crustacean Christmas Revisited

Have you ever typed “crustacean Christmas” into Google? It probably says something about the oddity of our family tradition that an Artist’s Road blog post about it is the first entry on that list. Today I’ll provide a sequel post, but first some quick background.

It started with a Christmas tree ornament my wife purchased many years ago when she lived in Baltimore–a wooden, red crab with a bow. It escalated when I took my wife and kids through one of those holiday light display park exhibits, and we saw a 10-foot-tall Christmas crab. The final kick likely was my wife’s family tradition–learned during her childhood growing up on a New Jersey beach–of cooking shellfish for Christmas Eve dinner.

In 2008 I bought a 4’x8′ sheet of plywood and a can of red spray paint, fired up the power saw, and this was the result:

A tradition was born. In 2009 we decided to take it up a notch. Why settle for just one crustacean? Why not three? In the end, a biologist would say we ended up with two crustaceans and a mollusk, but nonetheless–after a lot of painting by the four of us in a cold garage–we debuted for our perplexed neighbors the Crustacean Choir:

Now we were on to something. Obviously 2010 would have to be even more ambitious. What if, I said, we didn’t need a spotlight to illuminate this year’s display? What if we used hundreds of Christmas lights, around and in the display? What would that be? Naturally, we came up with a Christmas tree. We’d use as ornaments our crab, lobster, shrimp, and clam. It was relatively simple to cut out, and while there was a lot of painting to do, I set up the saw horses in our living room this time, allowing us to paint in welcome warmth. Here it is in the daylight:

And here it is at night:

This fall I came up with an idea to top the last three years combined. For one, I decided to introduce two new characters. Second, it would be even bigger than before, using two 4’x8′ boards, with each character having his own board. It would actually tell a story. And the antagonist would be a character familiar to readers of The Artist’s Road (although phenomenally unfamiliar to my neighbors). Here’s the sketch I drew a couple of weeks ago:

This would require a lot of work. Sketching on the plywood, cutting it out, painting all of the sections of Mr. Bacon and Mr. Scallop. And all the while I wondered if people would get the premise–that the scallop was about to be bacon-wrapped–or if they would get that and then say “But what does that have to do with Christmas?”

Of course, any reader of this blog knows I don’t usually worry about what others think when I go off on a creative tangent. But the time our family has together during the holidays does stay front of mind. And this would require a lot of time. Time spent together as a family, yes. But time that could be spent in other ways.

Last week I pushed the bright orange cart into the lumber aisle at Home Depot. I picked out the right plywood (I learned that you need at least 5/8″ in thickness; the Christmas Crab was only 1/4″, and as the temperature rose and fall he warped, looking like he was trying to curl himself into a crepe). I’d ring this up, take it home on top of my unhappy car, then head to the craft store for new paint. I walked myself through this set of activities. Then I left the orange cart in the aisle and walked back to my car.

It’s important to spend time with loved ones. And family traditions matter. But at what point does a tradition become labor?

We scaled down our Thanksgiving feast this year, with me grilling dry-rubbed game hens instead of roasting a turkey. That freed up more time for us to be together as a family, and also provided a tastier bird than the vanilla ice cream of poultry. Perhaps I could extend that concept to Christmas. After all, our children are teenagers now. Soon enough they might have other plans during the holidays.

Tomorrow was the day I was going to cut out Mr. Bacon and Mr. Scallop. Sunday was the day allotted for family painting. Now I don’t have to figure out how to fit both planks of plywood in our living room for a toasty painting party. Instead, we are going Saturday to Mount Vernon, to spend a few hours seeing what George Washington’s Christmas would have been like if he had erected twelve Christmas trees (presumably none of them cherry trees). Tomorrow we’ll put up our own tree, and the only labor I’ll do beyond that is making some chocolate cocoa in a saucepan.

I’m sure my neighbors will be disappointed that we’ve chosen this year to go with a more tasteful Christmas display. But as we gather Sunday evening by our decorated tree–my son stoking a fire in the fireplace, my daughter trying to capture a sparking flame with her camera, my wife and I taking in the scene with marshmallow-and-cocoa mustaches–I don’t anticipate any regrets.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

18 Responses to “Crustacean Christmas Revisited”

  1. Fantastic. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s darn creative. I love those pieces where you start reading and you think it’s going to be about one thing but it turns out to be something else….and yet they are combined somehow.

    Have fun at Mt. Vernon. We love that place.

    • Hi Callie. Glad you like essays like that; the only problem is hoping people keep reading, which you did! Thanks. You know, it was so long ago that I took the kids there that they don’t remember it, so this will be great.

  2. I just had to laugh out loud when I first saw this!! I mean how many houses do you drive past with a big gigantic red crab hanging out on Christmas? Lol!! But very cool and inspiring! You should never lose your roots and keep traditions alive!
    Good times!!
    happy holidays

  3. If I were your your neighbor, I would miss the crabs. I love New Year’s Eve in Annapolis with the Blue Crab that turns Red at midnight.

    We are changing up our decorating this year, but with a more bittersweet tinge. My kids are sad that this year, with our house on the market, my husband and I have decided against the inflatable Santa on the lawn. They miss going out and saying “Good night,” to Santa every night before bed.

    Thanks for letting us share your process.

    • For us, the Crab hangs inside our garage, nailed to the wall (the only thing that keeps him flat). The Crustacean Choir is on our back deck, where we can see it from the living room and dining room. And the Crustacean tree is on our porch, sans lights however (just illuminated by the porch lights).

      That is very sad about the inflatable Santa. I understand the reasoning, though. Your kids need to develop a new Christmas nighttime ritual this year!

  4. Patrick, if the bottom ever falls out of the writing market, you’ve got yourself a future as a crab artist. I’m sure there’s quite a bit of call for that out there in the marketplace. Can we look forward to your Mr. Bacon masterpiece next Christmas?

    • Not sure what the market is for a crab artist, but I think I’d be good at times at being a crabby artist.

      Not sure about next year. It likely wouldn’t be Mr. Bacon, though. I lost control of him online, he now roams from blog to blog without so much as a “how do you do” to me. I thought I could seize control of him again by constructing him out of wood; I mean, how many bloggers would do that? But twelve months from now I suspect my muse will be directing me to something completely new.

  5. Wow, I would LOVE those crustaceans on a neighbor’s lawn, and of course where better than in Maine?? Yet I have never seen anything half that creative or entertaining! Nonetheless, as the mom of college+ kids, I applaud your decision. Those family times are precious and getting moreso everyday. I count myself lucky to be headed into the holidays with exactly the same goals you have: with both our kids home doing very similar activities as yours. Good times, the best! And definitely no regrets.

    • Thank you, Julia! Yes, the lobster from the crustacean choir would go perfectly in Maine. And frankly, here in the mid-Atlantic a crab shouldn’t be so out of place; there was one in that local light display, after all! I’m glad you liked them, and endorse how we’re handling the holidays this year. All the best to you, your kids, and your man!

  6. You are so wise to let the labor-intensive traditions go. I am stripped down to no traditions this year . . . just working on creating a fantastic future for my man and myself. And this is going to be the best. Christmas. EVER. :0)

  7. I love this tradition!

    My daughter asked that we stay home this year. Usually, we go home, which is a five hour drive, and have to visit a multitude of relatives, all in different places. So it’s exhausting.

    This year, we’re staying put and I’m quite pleased with that. Yesterday my daughter and I made sugar cookies and frosted them. That has become an annual tradition with us and one that I love.

    • Good for you! You’re forging a new tradition, a redefinition of “home for the holidays.” I couldn’t help but notice you used the word “home” both for where you live now and where you’re from. I like the idea of that word for both.

  8. Patrick, I think you can expand your thinking here. You are breaking this tradition because it’s too much to do in this limited time, but if you start now, it’ll be a very casual project leading up to Yuletide 2012. Perhaps you could do a Crustacean of the Month and then set them all out in December?

    Where there’s a will, there’s a way! ;-D

    • There’s a lot to be said for that approach. It’s funny; I just posted a new blog post about how I am a planner, but with these holiday displays–note my family relies on me to come up with the concept every year–I tend to wait until very close to the holidays and wait for the spirit to move me. Well, I can seek out the spirit whenever I want!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] Business conference. Or it could be a moment of personal discovery, from organizing my thoughts to juggling work and family. Another crossing sign I saw in south Jersey. Like those baby ducks, I'm walking as I try to […]

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    […] of personal craft projects in your post: You heard me. The first Crustacean Christmas post, and the follow-up post the next year, included photos of family holiday display projects, namely plywood characters we drew, cut out and […]

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