We are entering those last couple of chaotic, frenzied days before Christmas dawns and a new kind of frenzy begins: the tearing of gift wrap. People are racing around, some shopping for the first time, some finishing up, and others just putting finishing touches on their purchases. Meals have been planned, ingredients purchased, people making their lists and checking them twice. Some got started months ago and are looking on smugly at the ones who are still racing about, trying to get everything done. Let me be clear: I am not one of those smuggy McSmuggersons.
It has become exhausting, the whole thing, hasn’t it? The stress of simply making ends meet is hard enough the other 10 or 11 months out of the year, but the pressure that is exerted upon people to outperform, to exceed expectations, to go above and beyond to make it “an unforgettable holiday” is just staggering. Gone are the days when the toys Santa left underneath the tree had manageable price tags. Maybe it was hard, even then, to afford everything, but it certainly wasn’t as overblown and inflated as these days of Ipads, $800 cell phones, and $100 hoodies. Even the “lower end” items aren’t affordable; a parent has to basically pray to the Santa God to be able to find that hot item in the store because if it can’t be found, then it’s off to EBay to bid on one and pay twice or more than the original price because God forbid Junior might be disappointed.
When I was a kid, I was seldom disappointed at Christmas. My wish lists were never grandiose but we were very poor, and I know that it was hard for my mother and grandmother to afford things. I remember festive holidays, although I do not remember what it was like for them underneath the tree. I recall my homemade gifts and gifts crafted at school (every parent in the 70s remembers at least one gift from their child made of oak tag and macaroni, painted and glittered) and maybe a gift for each, store-bought with allowance money or babysitting money. I don’t know who filled their stockings when I was too young to do it. I imagine they went without.
Parents are going without again. Maybe in most cases, they always have. When I was raising my kids, their father and I always made sure there were gifts for each other. Christmas was the one time of year, aside from birthdays, when we went all-out. We spent the rest of the year focusing on the kids. If I wanted new shoes, I knew that Christmas was the time to ask. Or a coat, or a bottle of perfume. There simply wasn’t money for stuff for ourselves at any other time of year.
Nowadays, we are such an instant-gratification society that we fill the needs and wants year-round. We’ve conditioned our kids to expect it, too. Your 14 year-old broke his cell phone? You go get him a new one. Even if you go into debt, you just…..you do it. The alternative is to listen to him bitch. Or for him to be maligned in school. Things are different now; society is technologically driven. If you buy your 4 year-old a stuffed animal, it comes with a specially-coded tag that you can scan with your cell phone and input on a website, and then your 4 year-old can play wonderously adventurous games online, using an accurate representation of her new stuffed animal. And yes, by age 4, of course your 4 year-old can navigate her way around a website. When I was 4, I could read and write, but “computer” wasn’t even a word to me. I could make a mean mudpie, though, filled with sweet pea pods and milkweed, and cajole a 3 year-old into eating it. Those were the sum total of my advanced skills.
Those simpler times are gone. All the yuletide joy found at Christmas seems to be gone, too. My daughter-in-law and I were recently talking about how fun it used to be to go caroling. People used to do that, walking along the sidewalks of their neighborhoods, singing carols and occasionally being invited in for cocoa. Neighbors would bring out cookies. It was beautiful, especially when it snowed and the whole world was a bluish-white and the snowflakes glittered and the Christmas lights twinkled and when you finished a song, the silence in the air was the most perfect “sound” you had ever heard. On perfect, Christmas nights like that, one could be lulled into believing in the story of a child laid in a manger by young, exhausted parents and a star lighting the way. One also believed in the magic of Santa Claus and his reindeer and nothing was more exciting than climbing into bed on Christmas Eve and wondering where the jolly fat man was at that very moment.
Are those days gone, blown aside by technology and innovation; cast off as old-fashioned traditions; or even worse, deigned politically incorrect and out of time with the way things are today? When was the last time you sat, by the light of a Christmas tree, sipping something hot, and listened to some beautiful music? When was the last time you stood outside in the bracing cold and opened your mouth to catch a snowflake on your tongue?
Do you want to build a snowman? Yes, I know I just cursed you by putting that song into your head, but is that such a bad thing, really? How about going out after a new snowfall and making a snow angel, or having a good, old-fashioned snowball fight, followed by hot chocolate while your winter clothes lay in a cold, wet, heap by the door? Can you use your imagination and recall the way wet mittens smell? Do you remember what it was like to step in a wet puddle made my your boots as they dried by the door?
You can, if you try. The magic of Christmas is not found in the latest gadget, or must-have item. It isn’t found by going into debt for months to afford one day. It was never meant to be the retail-driven behemoth it has become. And it makes me very sad to know that plenty of people have never known those simple joys of Christmas. Lots of people dislike A Christmas Story because it has become a sort of tradition, watching it at least once (or in bits and pieces throughout Christmas day) and laughing about the funny parts. The thing about that movie, though, is its simplicity. It manages to convey everything I remember loving about Christmas, even though it took place a good 35 years before I was born. It harkens back to simpler times, when there was wonder on a child’s face at Christmas. Now, we are all, every one of us, jaded.
My wish for you all this Christmas is to find that wonder, reacquainting yourselves with the joy. Hold it within you, if only for a moment. As Tom Hanks’s Santa said, in the wonderful film, The Polar Express, the magic of Christmas lies within your heart.
Merry Christmas, my friends.