From the age of five until I was 11 or 12, the period between late September and December 25th was probably the closest experience I’ll ever have to doing heroin. Almost as soon as the bitterness at having to go back to school had faded away, I’d feel a tiny spark of excitement and anticipation that would steadily begin to glow brighter and spread with each passing day. By Halloween it was like a campfire. By mid-November it was a bonfire. And by early December, when the city of Salem pulled their mildewy old candy cane decorations out of storage and started hanging them on streetlights all over town, the bonfire had gotten out of control and was burning the entire forest to the ground.
I’m never going to experience that particular brand and intensity of joy again. It’s not that I’m unhappy or I think my life is getting worse; it’s just that the sort of joy I felt in the weeks leading up to Christmas as a kid does not occur naturally. That intense, all-consuming anticipatory glee only happens because of several factors working together:
1) It’s easier for children to get extremely excited about things because they haven’t experienced enough crushing disappointments to teach them the importance of realistic expectations.
2) Because kids have virtually no disposable income, there’s no shortage of things they want to have but can’t get for themselves.
3) For the same reason, they’re not expected to get gifts for anyone else, so the holiday is simply no strings attached free stuff.
4) Family members, schools, and religious groups actively encourage children to be excited for Christmas.
5) Corporations spend millions on R&D to develop toys that kids want, and millions more on advertisements to get kids so excited about those toys that they make their parents’ lives miserable.
Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think there’s going to be another time in my life when Western society as a whole makes a concerted effort to see to it that I’m as happy and excited as can be for several weeks. Maybe if I was the first person to walk on Mars, or if I kicked Vladimir Putin in the beanbag or something – but even that wouldn’t happen every year.
You can look at this and say that my childhood was warped by capitalism run amok, that Christmas is too commercialized, that I missed the point of what Christmas was actually about, but I think you’d be wrong. My parents weren’t Christians and neither was I, and for several years I paradoxically didn’t believe in God but did believe in Santa Claus.* Even though I didn’t buy into the theology of Christmas, I did buy into the concept of people buying things for me on Christmas, and that alone made it my favorite time of year
*I guess there’s a beautiful sort of kid logic to that – Santa Claus rewarded me for good behavior up front whereas God wanted me to wait until I was dead.
The thing is, when I look back at those childhood Christmases, I don’t really remember a lot of the gifts I got. I remember getting a Christmas tree and decorating it with my parents, the house smelling like pine needles, the lights on the tree glowing in the darkened living room at night. I remember watching It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve and eating Mom’s Finnish korvapuusti on Christmas morning, the only ethnic thing my family ever did. I remember Dad endlessly quoting A Christmas Story as we opened presents: “Oh wow, a PDA organizer, THAT’S MIIINE! Hey, a beer machine, THAT’S MIIINE!”
The fact that somebody who’s had virtually no religious influence in his life could have so many fond recollections of Christianity’s biggest holiday is a pretty big win for God, all things considered. My childhood Christmas memories are some of my happiest, and yeah, a lot of that happiness was contingent on me getting free stuff, but a happy kid is a happy kid, damn it.
Our past 14 or so Christmases have gotten progressively more low key. Much of the reason my parents made a big deal out of Christmas was for my benefit, and as I got older and less susceptible to wonder, there were fewer reasons to go to all that effort. First to go was the practice of stringing Christmas lights on the house; this year, a week or so before I flew home, my parents broached the subject of doing away with another tradition.
“Would you be terribly offended if we didn’t bother with getting a tree this year?” Mom asked me gently over the phone.
“No!” I said. “Not at all!”
I hadn’t been Christmas tree hunting with my parents since high school – the tree was always just set up when I came back from college or LA. I loved decorating the tree when I was six, but 20 years later it had lost some of its zest. And when you think about it, it’s already weird enough putting a dead tree in your living room – doing it out of a sense of obligation when nobody is particularly interested is downright crazy.
Midway through dinner on my second night home, the other shoe dropped:
“Yeah, by the way, we’re not really doing gifts this year.” Dad said, practically as an aside.
I slumped back in my chair. “Oh, what a relief. I didn’t get you guys anything either!”
I had a kickass Christmas this year – I’ve been sleeping a lot, hanging out with my parents, eating the incredible food my Mom makes, drinking the incredible wine my Mom buys, and watching our Christmas movies (the one family Christmas tradition that will never die). It wasn’t preceded by several weeks of excitement so powerful that I was unable to sit still, but that’s okay, because I’ve also been spared the devastating childhood letdown of December 26th.
Christmas comes every year whether you make a big deal out of it or not. Tree or no tree, God or no God, presents or no presents, it’s a damn good excuse to eat rich, buttery food with people you love, and that alone is worth getting excited about.