Actually, Christmas began with the Labor Day weekend, a traditionally busy shopping time but less so this year, because folks are freaked out. Lots of people didn’t start their shopping early and a lot of us still aren’t ready to begin. The mortgage crisis. The lead-embellished toys. Gas prices. The Fires. Food prices. The hateful, tedious campaign. The horrible news of strife and death everywhere around the world. There was an Earthquake in California. Robert Goulet died. I once heard someone describe the poinsettia as the Robert Goulet of botany… which is funny and true, and brings us back to Christmas.
I used to love Christmas when I was a little girl, even after I found out Santa was an urban myth. For one thing, it didn’t start until after Thanksgiving – the day after, yes, but no one tried to steal Thanksgiving’s thunder. Right after we took down the construction paper pumpkins and skeletons and ghosts from the school windows, up went the turkeys, Pilgrims and Indians and they stayed up for a whole month. I was in many a Thanksgiving school play. Once I recited Hiawatha in Assembly.
The weather was cold and got colder still. Within a week of Thanksgiving, those little swags of garland and lights shaped like stars went up on the avenue, linking lamp posts on opposite sides of the street, creating a low-tech fairyland. The alleged Santa held court at Macy’s and parents didn’t think a thing of letting their kids sit on his lap. Ladies began to wear Christmas corsages on their coats, little clusters of glitter-covered pine cones and holly leaves dotted with tiny, shiny Christmas balls, tied up with a red bow. We would send Christmas cards out and Christmas cards came in, dozens and dozens of them. I was sent to Woolworth’s to buy a few of the economy-size boxes of 50 assorted cards; it was something like $2.79. My father thought those people who went to the card store and spent $5.00 on boxes of 20 fancy, matching cards were crazy.
Around December 15th we got the tree. They were tall and plump when I was a child, but by the time I was in my teens, they had been downsized to pathetic little Charlie Brown trees. My father thought those people who spent $30 and $40 on more hearty Christmas trees were crazy. But whatever it looked like, we decorated it with old ornaments in muted 50s colors, and colored lights that looked like gurgling thermometers, and aluminum foil icicles that used to slip off the tree and turn up in my dust mop in April.
As Christmas Day drew closer, we played carols on the record player and drank eggnog with rum, and people would come to visit us and we would visit them. My friends and I exchanged little gifts – mugs and earrings, candles and scarves. I bought my parents sleepwear and books. They showered me with toys and clothes and money. But by the time I was in my 30s, they had simplified their gift to me. It was always the same: a bottle of Anis Anis cologne, a carton of Marlboros and a check for $100. Years later, a girlfriend laughed and said it sounded like a hooker’s Christmas haul. I don’t know; I was happy…
It’s all different now, so frantic, actually mean, and joyless. When Thanksgiving finally rolls around, a full month of false seasonal mirth and relentless sales pitches has already passed. Everything on TV, from commercials to programs to station breaks, paints a Hallmark/Rockwell/Currier & Ives portrait of Christmas that has never existed for anybody, but nonetheless makes millions of people feel cheated, dysfunctional and miserable. And broke. Because it’s all about the presents, the stuff.
I don’t mind that they took the Christ out of Christmas; I think it makes the holiday more accessible to more people as a secular party-time (and anyway, a lot of folks have begun putting the Christ back in... which is a double-edged manger). I can even accept that the message of peace, love et al is entirely seasonal. What I can’t bear is that whatever specialness and sweetness Christmas had left has been smashed down by a commercialism so insidious that each year, I want to escape to some pagan isle where the winds are balmy and there isn’t a ho-ho-ho to be heard. Meanwhile, I’m not shopping. Shsssh! I’m just trying to keep my head down and my spirits up. God willing, the season of miracles will be over before I know it.