Over time we all gravitated to our own pursuits. My brother kept to his room in order to catalogue the many ads that would teach him to be a professional sniper. Often he’d stack telephone books in his closet then from a perch on his bed fire into them with a BB gun. Practice for his future. Dad gave up drinking when he retired. He worried that without work he’d devote himself too entirely to the hobby. Mom got into cancer, felt it was best to involve herself completely, and died. I stayed in the basement. The next generation of Zelda had arrived, and I wanted to stick to something familiar.
In a way that’s what traditions are for: establishing familiarity. The ritualized behaviors of a family become the inclusive ceremonies of new friends and lovers. They give us something to look forward to, preplanned customs to make the holidays less hectic. It’s the comfort of knowing what will be, which we rarely do, and the knowledge that we belong to something unique that can be shared. The simplest example of this: my Christmas story is my own, but everyone has one.
They don’t always involve heartwarming memories, like camping down in the basement to make sure passing relatives never saw the lights on, but they tell us more about ourselves than we may want to admit. Good Christmases in fucked up families are a way of accentuating what’s missing from the day to day, while bad Christmases in functional families are God’s way of saying, “It’s your turn.” But the main point is at certain times of the year, no one points fingers. We take it all on the chin because it’s Christmas, and there’s always next year.
Next year to get it right.
And we will. Because if Christmas is about anything, hope springs eternal. Although, that brings me back to something I heard John Malkovich paraphrase, “Hope is what we’re left with when reality has left us nothing.” Or maybe he was quoting, and I’m paraphrasing. The point is still there. We cling to the best outlook because it does no good to be miserable this time of the year… though it’s easy.
The holidays are about believing there is one time along the calendar we can dive into a bubble, an impermanent protective shell. Here to dwell till the morning after when we have to reenter the world at large. However, for a scant few hours we can believe there’s still something left to make us smile easily.
Since there may very well be.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s something to be said for holiday optimism, a time for prefab smiles. The one occasion we can expect to feel good, no matter what life has thrown us. And this hasn’t been the best year for many of us. Money is tight, mortality is well in view, and Independence Day seems to be HBO’s sense of the season. Yet, there’s still a reason to be jolly.
Because there’s always next year.
But this year, which matters now, is fresh in everyone’s mind. So what’s to say?
It takes a certain kind of pessimism to hate Christmas. Yes, it has become too commercialized. Yes, most decorations look like proof Day Laborers have a Winter season. Yes, it might not be what you wanted. But when has it ever?
We all remember Christmas well. It’s the beauty of childhood nostalgia. However, it’s rarely what it seems. In fact, as we get older, it should become more apparent what Christmas meant.
In my house, Giftmas always meant a month without certain amenities. Call them the new petty luxuries, but kids notice when Dad refuses the casual trips to Blockbuster, or when Mom starts buying generic cereal, take-out becomes mythological, or the sudden influx of beer when credit card bills are due.
It all gets obvious when we get older that we were too caught up in our own bullshit to realize just what our parents went through to give us a temporary smile. Some toys you’ll love for a few months, but they know, as we might get now, those won’t satisfy for long. Some game that you’ll finish in three days only to want something new. The shirt you’ll wear till it isn’t cool anymore. It all goes to show they understood, even if they didn’t understand. “Why they want it, I don’t care. They want it. I got to get it.” Money can’t buy your own happiness, but it can get someone else’s.
I started with tradition, but I’m still there. Christmas is about giving more than you can afford. Sometimes that means buying bullets for a four hundred pound man to ensure he can still imagine being a sniper. Sometimes it means buying a gift you can’t afford for the smile it garners, short as it lives. Sometimes it means nothing at all till years later when someone understands it was the best you could offer. Because Christmas isn’t about what you get, it’s about what the gifts mean. And sometimes the gifts are just being together with the people you love.
The tradition is giving hope, and hoping you get a little back. I hope you all get what you deserve… What you want, what you expect, what you are. That’s the essence of Christmas.