“To perceive Christmas through its wrappings
becomes more difficult every year.”
—E.B. White,“The Second Tree from the Corner,” 1954

Christmas Lost

I lost Christmas. It wasn’t all at once. It was more like a color photograph exposed to harsh sun too long. First everything is vivid and distinct. Then one day the images are blurred. The colors look tired. It wasn’t a new problem.

In 1934 Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Peterkin wrote A Plantation Christmas. It laments, “I hear that in many places something has happened to Christmas; that it is changing from a time of merriment and carefree gaiety to a holiday that is filled with tedium; that many people dread the day and the obligation to give presents is a nightmare to weary, bored souls; that the children of enlightened parents no longer believe in Santa Claus; that all in all, the effort to be happy and have pleasure makes many honest hearts grow dark with despair instead of beaming with good will and cheerfulness."

What happened to me? It certainly wasn’t because retailers forgot the holiday.

As the 21st century sprinted along, I’d spot the first sign of Christmas in a big box store on Labor Day weekend. A giant snowman would suddenly appear. He loomed over Back-to-School displays, daring people to skip fall and move right to winter. My chest tightened. What was he doing bouncing around up there near the cavernous warehouse ceiling? It was 80 degrees outside. Maybe he’ll hit a light and explode, I’d think grimly.

I hadn’t always been grumpy about Christmas. I loved it. My best part-time job ever was a three-week stint wrapping packages at the local department store, The Leader, when I was a high school junior. We worked in a small room with an open counter facing the retail floor. Behind us were a dozen huge rolls of holiday paper in every style—solid colors, stripes, children’s designs, snowflakes, metallic patterns, winter floral. A pegboard on the left was loaded with tape, scissors, yardsticks, and a rainbow of ribbon canisters. The right side supported towers of white boxes in every size for items from jewelry to blankets. Complimentary wrapping was free. For one dollar customers could upgrade to more elaborate bows, extra tissue paper and enclosure cards. Handing finished packages across the counter to delighted shoppers made us feel like Santa’s elves. The store is gone now. So is most wrapping. Presents are delivered in brown cardboard boxes from “fulfillment centers.” No one gets to choose what color ribbon.

***

I propped our three holiday record albums against the wall behind the portable record player, ready to spin as soon as the last Thanksgiving plate was cleared. Andy Williams crooned, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as we washed what felt like every dish, pot and pan we owned—mute testimony to good fortune we didn’t take for granted. The next day we’d scour tree farms for that Holy Grail—the perfect tree. Mission accomplished, it leaned against the house in a water bucket for another week before we dragged it inside.

Meanwhile, I decorated every corner. Wax snowmen candles took up residence in the bathrooms. Artificial centerpieces adorned every table. I bought red and green taper candles by the box. Ceramic dishes shaped like reindeer, toy soldiers and holly, together with Fitz and Floyd platters, filled kitchen counters. Santa’s of every description, every era, every country, invaded the living room. Music boxes crowded the den fireplace. Banks of poinsettias flanked two tall toy soldiers in the entry.

We incorporated both families’ traditions. Christmas Eve—the main event; or is that Christmas Day? Gifts—opened on the 24th  or 25th ? Church—away or readings at home? It was a slippery slope down the mountain of more. A majestic mountain, but a mountain nonetheless.

My sister filled her children’s stockings and arranged bags of toys and treats for them. Adults tried to sneak a quick few minutes by a succession of tall trees that presided over the chaos. They reminded me of Star Wars’ C3PO in a green dress—shiny, elegant, loaded with stories others forgot. Like brides, they were always beautiful…even when they weren’t. At the same time, my mind raced toward tomorrow’s “to do” list. Celebrated actress Meryl Streep once complained no new movies should be released during the holidays because as a wife and mother of four, it was impossible to see them. She was busy orchestrating the formidable logistics Christmas unleashes. I identified.

I missed subtle signals all wasn’t well in Oz. Just because the celebration stayed the same didn’t mean the people did. Parents aged. Children became teenagers, teetered on the brink of adulthood, slipped over the edge, and cast off for new shores. The holiday began to feel like a wet blanket of expectations laid over busy, distracted lives.

We needed a new pattern. It was hard to admit. Unspoken questions went unanswered. Who does what, when, and where during our national holiday (the Super Bowl notwithstanding) is a hard conversation for a family not noted for candid conversations. Especially after decades of the same routine. Especially when everyone else seems at ease with their celebrations. Even harder conversations are ones that begin not with “who” and “where” but with “why” and “how.” Why are we celebrating? How can we best do that? Things came to a head several years ago.

***     

The large pot simmered halfheartedly on the stove. An unappetizing film congealed over what had been an Italian sausage soup intended for Christmas Eve dinner. Peering at it, I groaned. It looked like a wayward science experiment. In the living room, the untouched afternoon hors d’oeuvres had hardened into a checkerboard of dried cheese and stale crackers.

No one arrived on time. The last relatives rushed in at 5 p.m. They collided in the hall with one son who announced he was leaving at 5:15 to settle his young children in their own home for Christmas Eve. We gathered in the kitchen for a quick blessing that sounded more like a eulogy for the expired soup. The faces around the center kitchen island were shadowed. Not from the recessed  lights above. From the fatigue of a long, stressful season for everyone.

The next day Jim appeared and disappeared like the Cheshire cat. Other people bounced on and off their smart phones, pulled by invisible cables. Awash in torn wrapping paper, the living room was an impressive replica of a construction demolition project. The children looked dazed, the adults exhausted. At dinner I studied the group at the table, drilling the image into my long-term memory. I knew something had changed.

Sometimes we know when an event is a turning point. Graduations, retirements, weddings—these are milestones we recognize. Other times shifts surprise. That Christmas I realized we couldn’t gather again in exactly that way. Too many difficult travel miles separated us. Too many lifestyle differences. Too many religious perspectives. Too much commercial pressure.  Too many people tied more to their screens than their physical location. Too little time for reflection.

My mind flipped through a catalogue of things I heard worked for other families. Some people alternate years seeing their adult children. Some visit their children’s homes. Others sprinkle relatives and friends through the entire season—not telescoped in one or two days. Some gather on New Year’s Eve. One family I know celebrates the first weekend in December.

On the other hand, a few create enough pressure that family attendance is required. One friend says flatly, “I told the kids don’t leave me alone on a holiday.” Folks might be slumped on couches, buried in their devices but they’re there. Demands seemed the antithesis of the holiday. No family needs more guilt. So now what? I had no idea. Maybe it was time to give up and skip it altogether.

- from Nearer to Spring: A Story of Christmas Lost and Found in Letters