Personal

Anticipating Christmas

Time for some ho-ho-holiday hypocrisy.

Come late fall every year, more and more people on my Facebook feed complain about, among other things, the increasing real estate Christmas seems to be taking up on the calendar.  

And, I mean, they’re not wrong.  It used to be that, if you were ambitious, the weekend after Thanksgiving was the time to start shopping, looking for a tree, hauling out the decorations, yada yada yada.

This year, I walked into Big Lot mid-October and saw Christmas trees.  Like, there were actual, honest-to-God pre-lit artificial firs standing opposite displays of plastic jack-o-lanterns.  Candy canes and candy corn sat adjacent to one another on the shelves, in some sort of unholy, pan-holiday alliance.

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Unbelievable.

So, recognizing that this is a legitimate problem, I do what little I can to not feed into it: I refuse to shop on Thanksgiving or Black Friday out of solidarity with retail workers (who are overworked, underpaid, and disrespected, especially during the holidays), and I don’t blast the holiday carols or deck the halls until after after I’ve eaten my turkey.  

But in the privacy of my own head, I’ve got to level with you:  I’m humming “Jingle Bells” before “Monster Mash” is done playing on the radio.

It’s not that my friends don’t have some genuine, legitimate complaints about “Christmas culture” – not the least of which is how much more pervasive it’s become and how commercial it is – and it’s not even that I don’t agree with them, because for the most part, I do.  In the rational part of my brain, I do. But I can’t help it.  I just really love Christmas.

And it’s not that I’m an overly religious person, either.  I was raised in a Catholic household, though I left the Church sans regrets as a teenager.  My husband is a Jewish atheist, and my son is being raised without a religion (though we celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah as cultural holidays).  I always say “Happy Holidays” or “Enjoy the Season” in the spirit of inclusiveness, and I balk at any claims of there being a “war on Christmas.”  At any other time of the year if you were to come to me and ask if I’d like to talk about Jesus, I’d nope the hell out of there at warp speed.  Come December, though, and suddenly I’m assembling Nativity scenes and singing about a tender, mild infant being born in a manager.

Now, I think the reason I’m so able to get behind the Christmas narrative when I am generally not religious is because the Christmas story encapsulate so many things that, despite my religious apathy, I have to admit are pretty wonderful, not the least of them being compassion, hope, family, and the joy of new life.

But it’s not just about getting “on board” with Christmas. Christmas is, for me, one of the only holidays I can think of that fosters this sense of anticipation.  There are other holidays that I look forward to, sure, but Christmas – Christmas I wait for.

And I think that’s really the crux of it – why I love Christmas so much, why (despite recognizing how valid my friends complaints are to the contrary) why I’m personally okay with the almost ludicrously extended Christmas season.  I miss that positive anticipation.

Christmas for me is so deeply rooted in that period of childhood where magic is real and you are so, so willing to believe any fairy story that makes life less mundane and more beautiful, and one of the most wonderful parts of the belief in the Christmas mythos is the joy of waiting for Santa – the wondrous, awed anticipation of the surprise of Christmas morning – and all the traditions and rituals leading up to that are imbued with that same sense of expectation.  That feeling that you and the ones you love are waiting for magic to happen.

I have so little of that in my life anymore.  We have so little of that in our lives anymore.  There are no more surprises, no more secrets, no more waiting – we have been so conditioned by convenience and instant gratification that we have lost the jittery pleasure of suspense.  We have forgotten that the wait for something wasn’t always an inconvenience – it was part of the experience.  It was part of the excitement.

I don’t get excited anymore.  I get anxiety.  I worry.  I dread.  Even for those things that I’m genuinely looking forward to, I don’t feel the same sense of pure excitement that I did at Christmas – it’s tainted by the effort of planning, the emotional burden of obligation, the dozen tiny sacrifices that go into every decision you make as an adult.  I don’t joyfully anticipate – the best I can wish for most days is a sort of hopeful anxiety.

And of course I’ve peaked behind the curtain, now – belief in Santa is a thing long, long since in the past, and I’ve seen Christmas as an adult and as a parent now, and yes – it’s different.  It’s not the same, anymore.  Nothing ever really is, from childhood to adulthood.

But muscle memory is strong.  And the heart is a powerful muscle.

Because those traditions and rituals – both the ones specific to my family, and the ones we’ve cultivated as a culture, like the movies and specials and carols – still illicit the same, borderline reflexive excitement.  If I hear “O Holy Night” while driving down a snowy street after dark, suddenly I’m twelve years old and we’re on our annual Christmas Eve pilgrimage to my Aunt Helena’s.  I catch the smell of pine and dusty plastic, and I’m eight and digging through my grandmother’s collection of (gloriously tacky) ornaments and helping my mom decorate the tree.  I wake up in the middle of the night in the liminal space between Christmas Eve and Day, and my instinct is still to look around for my sister and brother, their sleeping bag strewn on the floor of my bedroom, the TV in the corner still idling on the menu screen of the last DVD we were watching.

And as time went by, as belief in Santa faded, those were the moments that came to be the magical ones – those traditions, those rituals. Those shared nights with family.   Those car trips in the dark where everything seemed sort of unreal.  Those nights huddled together, waiting for morning.

I came to anticipate the anticipation.  The beauty of counting down to one perfect moment.  The delicious suspense. The joy of every moment along the way.

 

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