I am not, by any means, a curmudgeon. I remember many totally enchanted Christmases, particularly my ninth. My parents’ friend Mr. Hammond had, a week before Christmas, delivered to me a hand-crafted, very simple dollhouse. It was one story, and roofless, but for a child who had previously named and played with families of marbles and buttons, it offered endless possibilities. Mr. Hammond also gave me a vial of gold glitter, and instructed me to sprinkle it onto the dollhouse every night and say “Wiffle Dust, Wiffle Dust, make this dollhouse grow!” Although I was old enough to be skeptical, I was still highly susceptible to all things magical. I wanted to believe. Every night up to and including Christmas Eve, I sprinkled the glitter, incanted the appropriate words, and went to bed.
On Christmas morning, in place of the small house was a three-story Victorian dollhouse made by my father. It had brick detailing etched on the dark red exterior walls, shingles on the roof, and trim on the windows. My grandmother had made curtains for every room; bright cotton for the kitchen, red satin for the library, and pink dimity for the childrens’ room. She had also made bedding for all of the beds, and a braided oval rug for the attic floor. The house was full of furniture, all purchased in England the previous summer – a brass bed for the master bedroom, a piano with a music box in it for the living room, and a full set of dishes, silverware, glasses, pots and pans. A chandelier hung from the dining room ceiling. The house came complete with a proper English family, although by the time their coiffures had been destroyed by attempts at styling, and the patriarch had mysteriously lost his left foot, I preferred that the estate be inhabited by a collection of small toy animals who, along with the collection of my best friend Isabel, had marriages, divorces and rivalries worthy of “Dynasty.” I had been completely unaware of the construction or outfitting of the house, and while I now realize the amount of hard work and planning that went into such a gift, at the time, it was just…magic.
I also remember warmly the early Christmases of my own child. I have pictures of him beaming amidst a pile of discarded wrapping paper and ribbon, crawling beneath the tree, and discovering the rideable Jeep he received when he was three. He was too little to beg for anything, delighted with our choices, and constantly in genuine awe as a real tree was brought into the house, Santa was explained, and gifts appeared in his stocking on Christmas morning. Like my parents before me, I set out cookies and milk on Christmas Eve, ate the cookies, and penned a note to Sam from Santa using my left hand to disguise my handwriting. (A hand mysteriously similar to those of the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny). It is corny but true that the real magic of Christmas, apart from its tremendous significance for Christians, is the purely decanted joy of children, untainted by greed or cynicism.
This year, I am afflicted with S.A.D. (Seasonal Apathy Disorder). The seeds were planted years ago, when I spent several Christmas seasons working in retail establishments. Christmas music (particularly Mariah Carey singing “Santa Baby”) was played from open til close in a continuous and grating loop, and customers were stressed, impatient and often unkind. When I managed an elegant store in Boston’s Copley Place in the early 1990s, we were expected to wrap gifts in front of customers, using a complicated method of laying perfect rows of accordion-pleated white tissue under, around and over the purchased object. It made a beautiful presentation, but more than once a customer’s temper flared as he waited through this process, asking repeatedly why we couldn’t just “put it in a box.” My staff, particularly the dreamy and artistic Roxanne, would answer that we were “not allowed” to do such a thing, and continue to pleat and place at her own speed while the person across the counter grew increasingly belligerent and demanding. There was nothing either “silent” or “holy” about the conversations by the time I stepped in to defend our policy and attempt to defuse the escalating Wrapping War.
Given this rocky history, and the fact that I am no longer a child (even my child is no longer a child) it is no wonder that I have trouble getting into the Spirit of the Season. My dour view of the seasonal cash-grab is not enhanced by what is apparently called “Christmas Creep,” the practice of retail establishments to begin pushing Christmas merchandise earlier and earlier. Shortly before Halloween, on an unseasonably warm day, I walked into Target to pick up a prescription, only to be greeted by Christmas decorations. I like Christmas decorations, I really do, but there is a kind of naturally-unfolding anticipation that should take place during the fall. Long before discount tinsel is hanging from hooks, there should be time to enjoy the spookiness of Halloween, and the gratitude and family gatherings that mark Thanksgiving. I am not, and will never be a “Black Friday” shopper; I feel the same way about reducing Thanksgiving to The Day Before Shopping that I do about re-casting Veteran’s Day and President’s Day as days to buy cheap furniture.
I am particularly bothered by the extension of Christmas Cash Grab season this year, because it so clearly pits desperate retailers in a bad economy against families struggling in the same, dark waters. Although we are advised to teach our children not to nag for things, and to understand, in a general way, the realistic gift-giving limitations imposed by family circumstances, it’s a tough battle in the face of ads and store displays that begin, in October, to make all things seem possible. I cannot imagine having to explain to a small child that Santa will probably be less generous than he was last year, because a parent has lost a job. I am also haunted by the specter of families fighting to save their homes from foreclosure, or to pay medical bills, making the necessary decision to cut back on previous Christmas spending. It may be bad parenting to try to create a reasonably bountiful and joyous Christmas for one’s children. I think it is not, and that unless one has raised children in a firm regime of austere simplicity where the family has always given a donation to The Humane Society in place of personal gifts, it is terribly difficult to make the shift from the full-on Christmas seen in every store and television show to the budget Christmas that may be required by a pile of past-due bills.
I am not, frankly, in the mood to decorate the house, buy a tree, haul ornaments and angels and santas down from the attic, buy gifts or sing carols. For the past several years (mostly because of my own sentimentality) I have also trimmed and then taken down my parents’ Christmas tree, baked their Christmas cookies, and decorated their house. I am having real trouble seeing past the presentation of “The Reason for the Season” not as the birth of Christ, but as a retail bonanza, and an endless source of work. About that: while some aspects of the celebration are undoubtedly Pagan, and the holiday has been commercialized to the point where it might appear completely secular to a Martian, “Christmas” is, by definition, recognition of Christ’s birth. Whether one is or is not a Christian, if Christmas is celebrated, its basic import should be acknowledged. My Jewish mother acknowledged it, and we were always perfectly clear about the fact that while she did not personally believe in the Christian religious tradition, we had family and friends that did (including her mother-in-law) and we were to respect and honor their beliefs. It would, I think, help to counteract the selling out of Christmas if we could all find something genuinely spiritual in the season, whether that “something” is religious faith or recognition that we are blessed to have the family and friends that surround us.
My sermon having concluded, I will confess that I am caught, at the moment, between my serious disenchantment with this whole Christmas thing, and the fact that others in my family, those of sunnier dispositions, will be anxious for decorations, cookies and mysteriously shaped packages. (Not under the tree because the dogs eat them). I have to do this thing, and, as my father says, “anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
I’m going to start slow. I am going to make a choice, right now, that no matter how many news stories I read about dwindling supplies of Scotch tape, or the projected unavailability of silver PS370s after November 28th, I will not begin Christmas until Thanksgiving has been thoroughly and graciously enjoyed. I will, instead of sweating the sending of cards, acknowledge that I have failed to send them for twelve straight years, and forget about the whole thing. I will use the money I would have spent on cards and stamps to buy food for the local Food Bank. I will shop when I want to, at small, local stores that are grateful for my business and have not spent their money on Assault Advertising. I will stop and savor the things that I really love about this time of year, from the first snowfall, to the intoxicating smell of our tree, unreproduceable by Glade’s best scientists. I will stop. When I am overwhelmed, overplanned, and slipping into panic, I will stop and try another day. Or not. No one ever died from having only one kind of Christmas cookie, or a tree from a tree lot instead of the idyllic tree farm in the woods with $3.00 cups of spiced cider.
If we are all together, healthy and able to relax expansively into a break from school and work, we will be fine. I will have to work at shutting out the ads, and take deep breaths when Martha Stewart attempts the Vulcan Mind Meld from her Connecticut farmhouse. If I can focus on relaxing, no, wait, that sounds wrong. If I can relax, and let things be as they are, maybe I can reclaim the joy of this season. It’s worth a try.