A cynic has no easier target than Christmas. As November wanes and December waxes, garlands rise incrementally around the malls, Fox renews its annual War on Christmas™ coverage and the radio stations shuffle over to endless repeats of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” the holiday season reboots with all the originality and fervor of the latest superhero remake. As the ornamented train shambles into the station, it brings with it the usual trappings of tinsel, spiked eggnog, impossible toy wish lists tailored by marketers and advertisers, hour-long quests for parking spots and harried photographers trying to capture the split second between tantrums as the toddler squirms on the lap of the weird bearded guy in the fuzzy red suit. Movie studios roll out their usual December double act of just-in-time-for-awards-consideration artsy pieces and cheaply-cobbled- usually-starring-someone-from-a-failed-sitcom holiday fare for our consumption along with the millions of slain turkeys, pigs and tofu sloths we will burn for five hours and set amidst the plastic paraphernalia of our impeccably adorned dining room tables. We will then gather the clan of people we’d ignore on the street if they weren’t related to us and consume our approximate body weight in shortbread and stuffing while hoping we don’t have to be subjected to yet another lecture about kids these days from the annoying uncle who dips too deeply into the punch bowl.
I nearly succumbed to this attitude the other night, while propelling our otherwise efficient and modestly economic vehicle at a funereal pace over gray sludge-strewn streets behind a throng of other roving metal boxes bent on the same destination. Patience burned away to embers, and if not for the presence of my son in the back seat I have no doubt a few choice profanities would have splattered across the inside of my windshield. Other than the exhaustion brought on by the end of the work day fused with sub-zero temperature and the (excuse the hyperbole) sheer inhumanity of total darkness at 5 p.m., there was no reason for it. But for that brief moment, my Christmas spirit was absent, as though I’d left it in my other pants. It is, I realized, a challenge to keep it. No wonder Scrooge needed three scary-ass poltergeists to get him back into shape.
Christmas, as we’ve come to know it now, practically dares you to hate it. It dares you to throw your hands up in resignation at the consumerism, the kitsch, the frequently awful music, the endless toys demanded from Santa that will be forgotten by February and the obsessive desire of some to recreate a neo-Dickensian display of forced family unity. The pursuit of the “perfect Christmas” can be more of an exercise in stagecraft, as in designing the ideal movie set to permit the spontaneous eruption of merriment. The “spirit” of Christmas is codified in a series of boxes to be ticked off: tree, lights, cards, food, brown paper packages tied up with string. I’m an atheist as you well know, but I sympathize sometimes with the Christians who put the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs up out on their lawns alongside the backlit nativity scenes. What are we celebrating, really? The desperation of retailers to make up for months-long dry spells with one orgiastic year-end blow-out? The ritual removal of millions of trees from the ecosystem to spend a few weeks inside living rooms before they are ground up for mulch? Nerves frayed to the point of splitting in ensuring that everything goes exactly as planned and the turkey doesn’t catch fire?
To me, Christmas is best enjoyed broken down into small moments that form a series of triggers of positive emotions, both in connections to Christmases past and the forging of new memories to be cherished in the future. The indelible scent of pine caught in the faintest whiff as you stroll into the kitchen for breakfast. The adorable hand-crafted googly-eyed gingerbread man ornament smiling with a red felt mouth from within the branches. The glow of candles and garland lights saturating the house with warmth as banks of frozen white pile up outside the windows. The glint of those lights reflecting off the shiny wrap of the piles of gifts crowding the base of the tree. Snowmen standing valiant guard outside. The taste of cranberry, of red wine, of orange and of chocolate, popped into one’s mouth when no one is looking. The scratches and pops on an old vinyl recording of a favorite holiday tune performed by a long-deceased crooner. The telltale rattle of Lego in an unopened gift. Fighting drowsy eyes to watch the 1951 A Christmas Carol for the thirtieth time while clad snug in brand new pj’s. The silence of a house asleep, waiting for the arrival of Mr. Claus. The face of the exuberant child beholding the bounty for the first time as cracks of sunlight spill through the windows and yawns escape lips. The hug exchanged following the reveal of that most treasured item on the list that justifies in a heartbeat the hours spent combing the stores to find it. And at the end of everything, sitting back on the couch, hot cocoa in hand, spouse curled up alongside, reflecting on a year of significant ups and dreary downs and thinking about the promise of new days to come. Your mileage may vary, of course, but like the song says, these are a few of my favorite things.
You have to look for these little slices of wonder, be aware when they manifest and relish them before they disappear. It’s the only way to avoid getting caught up in the pressure cooker that can often be the holiday experience and the overall dread of the inevitable January credit card bill. But even the most notorious of failed Christmases will have its sublime moments hidden amidst the veil of falling snowflakes. So grab a few this year and put them in your stocking. They’re the best gift you can give yourself.
What are yours going to be?