Wednesday, December 15, 2010

FIT TO BE YULETIDE: The way I look at Christmas

Every year since I was old enough to appreciate the rich, rococo rites of Christmas, the holiday season has bestowed on me an especially personal, intimate gift: a head cold. Come Christmas morn and, as predictably as the solstice itself, I kneel beneath the tree with a runny nose, a raw throat, and the sweaty upper lip of a mild fever.
     When I was a child, this seemed only right and just: after all, one couldn’t expect all those ecstasies—electric trains, pine needles, “Silent Night”—without the world making one suffer somehow at the same time, to sort of even things out. It got to the point that the sicker I felt, the better the Christmas I knew I was having.
     I’m more sophisticated now, of course. I know that a runny nose is really the product of germy crowds in overheated department stores to which one hikes across the frozen wastes of mile-wide parking lots at this stress-filled time of year. Somehow I don’t think I’m better off for that kind of knowledge.
     Perhaps it’s because I’ve always seen Christmas through the rosy haze of a mild delirium that my views of it are what they are. For example:

  • I don’t think Christmas is Too Commercialized. I don’t think it can be too commercialized, despite all the earnest pleadings of thousands of freshman compositions. I’ve been in love with the whole idea of Christmas shopping since as a kid I spent hours—days—happily biking from store to store to spend my paper-route money on a cardigan sweater for Dad and furry pink slippers for Mom—or, in alternate years, slippers for Dad and a furry pink cardigan sweater for Mom. (At one time I actually believed that furry pink animals gave up their lives for those sweaters.) I have always believed that Christmas is simply the time when we trade the tired, the old, and the abstract for the fresh, the new, and the concrete—when our longest-worn, most threadbare affections are magically transformed into Dad’s uncreased slippers, Mom’s unpilled sweater, and brother George’s unscuffed basketball. The whole idea of somebody wearing or, better still, dribbling a bright new manifestation of my love still strikes me as almost painfully beautiful.
  • It doesn’t bother me in the least that Christmas advertising starts way back when jack-o’-lanterns are still on the stoop, or that somebody is making money off the whole deal. Money and advertising are simply vehicles for smoothing the process of turning old affections into new basketballs.
  • When it comes to Christmas, the mall the merrier. The ideal place to celebrate Christmas is the shopping mall, which puts the hum in humanity and the masses in Christmas. I foresee the day when 20,000 New Englanders—whole Connecticut townships—will gather on the morning of December 25 at the regional shopping mall, all 3 1/2 million square feet of it, there to exchange gifts and sing carols and wander joyously among the ever-green department-store treasures of a culture hung heavy with shiny new things to buy. Periodically there will be reports of whole counties experiencing a kind of mass elation, going on giant Christmas Day shopping sprees, everybody buying everything for everybody else in a kind of giving frenzy—the transcendent human counterpoise to the sharks’ feeding frenzies. I can imagine all of New England wearing brand-new fuzzy pink sweaters.
  • If not shopping malls, then hardware stores. A good old neighborhood hardware store, ecumenically managed, is a wonderful place to Christmas shop. What better Christmas present than a brand-spanking-new shovel. Or a rake. Or a wrench. Oh, to find, lying in the cotton snow beneath a Scotch pine on Christmas morning, an open-ended adjustable big enough to handle the kitchen pipes!
  • I believe children should be given everything you can possibly afford to buy them for Christmas. They should not be subjected to righteous sermonizing about how it’s better to give than to receive, or how it’s the thought that counts. Children know better. The great human urge for something new and something more should not be damped. It is what brought the babe and the wise men together in the manger, and it is what will someday have us shaking hands with the natives of Rigel 6.
  • Christmas morning should, by public ordinance, be cold and darkly cloudy with, yes, a hint of snow. (Do I cliché myself? Very well then, I cliché myself.) The Canadian Clipper should bring Arctic air even to Southern California and Miami, and the houses should glow from within. The brightest lights in the world should be those on the Christmas trees, whatever their size, shape, or tensile strength. Our tree this year is a little Fraser fir, barely five feet tall, with a few strings of unreliable lights. On certain evenings, it is known to blind me.
  • Outdoor Christmas lights (preferably of gaudy colors, not some kind of chic white) should not be taken down before Valentine’s Day. The reasons for this are so obvious that I refuse to go into them. Someday, some Columbus of the soul in a New York suburb will actually turn his Christmas lights on during a dreary rush hour in February, and every citizen in every corner of the state will light up into an incandescent smile, not even knowing why.
  • After decades of pondering the question, I now understand that there is no choosing between Chanukah and Christmas. One is eight delicious mini-Christmases; the other, one gorgeous orgy of a morning.
  • The proper attire for Christmas morning is pajamas and a bathrobe. Period.
  • The platitude “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas” strikes me as a suggestion whose piousness would offend the personage in question himself. I can’t believe he would see anything wrong in my wanting to transform my love for my small son into a baseball glove, some high-powered horseshoe magnets, a penlight, a gyroscope, and a five-dollar pocket watch that I rescue from the bottom of a glass counter in the neighborhood hardware store, where it has lain for twenty years. I say, Let’s put the fuzzy pink sweaters and the magnets back in Christmas. As for that bright little baby on that fresh straw in that old manger of a tired world, he’ll always remain the perfect symbol of the need for a new start that Christmas is all about. He’ll never be out of Christmas.

End of sermon. I feel a sore throat coming on. It’s going to be a good one.

(An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Memphis magazine and was syndicated in several other publications in December 1982.)

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