That story kept popping into my head in the run-up to Christmas this year, perhaps because my dad had a health scare this fall. That he came through his scare so very well was a gift, and while we were never really concerned that he wouldn't be, I was more than usually thankful that he was with us when we had our family Christmas feast.
But it's that part about stuff just appearing with your name on it, too. I caught myself thinking this year that Scrooge and the Grinch have begun sneaking into my Christmas. "Didn't Christmas used to be easier?" I muttered as I stuffed a string of lights back into the tree for the seventh time today after cat shenanigans under there had dislodged them. Or "When did presents get to be a hassle?" I asked an unobliging roll of scotch tape while tubes of wrapping paper rolled away from me and a mess of ribbon tangled itself up in a ball. That's the thing about adulthood and Christmas: if you want trees and twinkle-lights and cookies and presents with ribbons, you gotta do it yourself. Nothing just appears with your name on it. And people start expecting things of you. Or, perhaps more accurately, you start expecting things of yourself.
And that is the game-changer. Obligation is the great ruiner. What does a six-year-old say when faced with an afternoon of baking? "We get to make cookies!" What's a thirty-year-old say? "Man, I still gotta make the cookies. When am I gonna make the cookies? Do I really hafta make the cookies?"
And the thing that made Christmas great as a kid, aside from all the other great things (I still can't quite believe that we do all these neat-o, wonderland things: we get to bring a tree into the house? really? we're going to make three kinds of cookies at once? and eat dessert every night for two weeks? I get a present for no reason? I get more than one? Seriously, where's the candid camera?), was the freedom from obligation. It was vacation, and it wasn't just vacation, it was break, it was a lull, a pause. It's finiteness made it special--Christmas break was to be savored, cherished, because it was fleeting, not like summer vacation, which seemed to stretch before you into forever. And just as Christmas no longer just appears with your name on it, once you've hit adulthood, life no longer pauses to allow you to stay home in your footie jimjams for two weeks either. And for all the talk of peace and gladness and silent nights at this time of the year, it's almost a cliche to point out that The Holidays can be a time of great stress and frazzled nerves and harried bustling about.
We entertained our families for a Christmas dinner this year (not on Christmas Day, which I thought would lessen the stress, and maybe it did), for the first time. And I was very happy to do it. But I don't think I sat down for more than five minutes together during daylight hours for the week previous to the big day, and I know I slept for about fourteen hours straight the night after. Hats off to my mother, who used to pull such a thing off with a child underfoot and while spending most of the daylight hours in question at a job, something I currently do not do. I used to poo-poo people who got cranky at Christmas-time. How could they harden their hearts to all this greenery, to all this sparkle and tinsel and joy? But I'll fess up. There were a few moments--during the fifth run to the grocery store for the absolute last thing we needed for the feast, the nineteenth time I vacuumed pine needles up from under the tree, the thousandth time I went into the closet with the door that sticks after just one more gift tag--when I asked myself, "Why do we do this? Why all this bother, all this extra work, all of our own making, why?"
Yes, I, too, can hear Linus quoting the Gospel according to Luke, can hear, "And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown" in my head as if the television were on in the next room. But I don't think all the hustle and bustle has anything to do with a babe in a manager. Not for me, certainly, who was not raised Christian, and not, I think, for anyone. Christmas, of course, for the devout and surely, for the religious, is a holy day, and perhaps some people do think of the Christ child and Mary and Joseph every time they see a Christmas tree or eat a Christmas cookie or receive a Christmas card or kiss under the mistletoe or get a bit tipsy on eggnog at the office Christmas party or give Jimmy an ipad wrapped in Rudolph paper or hear "Sleigh Ride" at the mall for the eight thousandth time or vacuum up pine needles again instead of just when they light the advent candles or when they go to the Christmas Eve service. But I doubt it.
For me, Christmas is about family and friends and love, yes, and we celebrate those things by visiting, by breaking bread together, by exchanging cards and gifts. But Christmas is also about renewal, about bringing green things and light into the house at a time of death and darkness and looking toward the time when life will return to the Earth even as winter falls. And I think, at least for me, that from there springs the frantic push to create Christmas, to make it perfectly wonderful, perfectly lovely, perfect. It's a preparation for starting over, for the new year, and in being so, it is also a kind of cleansing. Rush, rush, hurry, hurry. Clean this, bake that, wrap this thing, address that envelope, how neatly can you tie a bow?
And to some there is a great let-down on Boxing Day, or even on Christmas afternoon--all that preparation, and for what? It's all over in just a few hours. But I love Boxing Day. Not as much as Christmas Day, my glee for which no amount of adult-y stress has yet been able to diminish, but quite a bit. Christmas is the essence of the season, is a distillation of good feeling toward fellow beings, of love and joy. But Boxing Day is the longed-for lull, Boxing Day is the the footie jimjams day, the lounging-in-a-heap-with-a-book day, the close-enough-to-being-ten-again-as-makes-no-difference day. This is what all the rush was for, this is the release for which we were building up all that pressure. It wasn't for Christmas. Christmas would have come, as a wise man once said, without all of those trappings. The trappings, the bother, the extra work, was so that when it was all over we could have a bit of a break and then remember how good our ordinary lives are, so that we can be relieved to return to them, so that, by contrast, a regular old Tuesday seems quite a lovely thing after all.