As a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, I find normal reality sometimes weirder than the wildest of speculations. Christmas is something pretty weird, as full of inconsistencies as a bad movie. It is pagan and Christian, religious and secular. We do things we hate doing, and we do other things we say we wish we could do all year long. Some of us absolutely love it, some of us wish it would all go away. I’m somewhere in the middle. It is a time set apart from the rest of the year in which there are extra activities and things to be accomplished (gifts, cards, decorating, baking, gatherings), and all those things add up to a time crunch. There are rewards for our efforts, sometimes, and sometimes, they seem to fall flat.
My perception of Christmas, and my feelings about it, have been in large part a function of my situation in life. As a child, I looked forward to it with great anticipation. Although I never believed in Santa Claus, I liked pretending to believe, and I loved the whole magical-fantasy trip about it. Even into young adulthood, Christmas was more than a show the grown-ups put on for us all; it was a palpable entity unto itself, with a life of its own, as if lights, decorations, carolers, and Nativity plays somehow sprung up, regardless of human effort.
When we had a young child to celebrate Christmas with, I became the director of the show, and we wrapped and assembled late into the wee hours, so that all the presents Santa had brought could appear magically beneath the tree on Christmas morning. My daughter, like me, could not sustain a belief in Santa Claus. In my case, it was because our house didn’t have a chimney. I couldn’t get past that glaring discrepancy. In my daughter’s case, the “tell” was the wrapping paper. She noticed Santa used the same paper as we did. We enjoyed the game though, leaving cookies for Santa, and greens for the reindeer on Christmas Eve. (One year the reindeer had a bunch of cilantro for their salad.)
Every year, regardless of my stage in life, I anticipated Christmas with a mixture of joy, humor, dread, and excitement. I worried over the gifts, micro-managed the decoration, fretted over baking and cooking, and wrapped it all up on Christmas Eve by watching the NBC broadcast of the Pope doing mass at St. Peter’s. And no, I’m not Catholic.
This year, something happened. I had fewer, and less intense, feelings about Christmas. The “entity-ness” went out of it; it became another date on the calendar, something that humans cooked up. It had lost the inevitable quality it had had. I felt no compulsion, no drive, to put on a show. I examined each of the tasks, and asked, “Why do we do this?”
Cards: There are people dear to me who I simply don’t see during the year, and don’t get a chance to talk to. They genuinely do want to hear from me, and I, from them. It is worth doing the cards. I no longer send them out to businesses, nor will I send a card just because someone sends me one.
Decorations: I looooove lights. I think of my northern European ancestors shivering in a dark and frigid December and think what a mental health boost these winter solstice traditions were for them and are for us. Good work, ancient ancestors, for thinking up such cool and goofy stuff as yule logs, wreaths, and candles. We are indebted to you for all the lights, the colors, the greenery.
Gifts: There is less drama, as our family tends to tell each other what we want. Nonetheless, Christmas morning still has a few surprises to offer, and this is the fun of it. Gift cards are more fun than they might seem, offering days of thinking about what I’m going to get with my Amazon gift card. It’s fun, it’s worth it, but I do a lot of online shopping and only one visit to the Big Mall. When I watch reports of Black Friday incidents on TV, or incidents of shortages of particular toys, where grown-ups are punching each other out for something (does anyone remember Furbys?), then I think Christmas giving might be pure evil. On balance though, with restraint, I like it.
Food: There is too much of it, but it’s the only time of year I eat like this.
So I did this year what I normally do, mostly. I dropped sweet potatoes from the Christmas dinner menu, and substituted asparagus for green beans. Good move. I pulled out a few decorations that I really don’t like, and that don’t fit in with the theme. So I decorated a little less. I wrapped presents, but didn’t fret about whether the bow matched exactly. I skipped watching the Pope. I gave up trying to force Christmas into its former magic.
What was the result, you ask? Did magic happen anyway? Did the Ghost of Christmas Present pop up in the middle of the living room to lend his spectral touch? No. Christmas remained a day on the calendar for me this year, not anticipated all that much, nor dreaded. I was neither sad nor glad when it was over. It was good. Even if it’s not magic, I need this holiday.
Happy New Year!