A friend told me about getting a Christmas tree this year, and I started thinking about how, very early in my life on my own, I put up lights, sprayed "snow" on my windows, and put up a few decorations along with cards, but that lasted only a season or two. I couldn't tell you then why I stopped, or when I started trying to ignore Christmas, trying to turn it into nothing more than a mid-winter respite from work.
I think now that decorating made me feel lonely. It couldn't bring my mother back; it couldn't bring my father's vitality back; it couldn't transport me back to my family life; and it couldn't be a substitute for a family. "You can't go home again."
Some of my favorite Christmas decorations were a plastic Santa in a chimney (going down, as his bag was full), a tiny Nativity scene that went on top of the skirt under the tree, and a string of green bells we hung between the living room and extra room. There were others, but even now my memories are fading.
For me as a child, these decorations, along with the snows that we usually had, symbolized the specialness of the season. At night, with the lights off and the colored tree lights on, I felt that the trailer looked as warm, comfortable, and cozy as any home, more so than at any other time of the year. It was truly a magical transformation.
One year at the public library there was a caroling event. With snow on the ground and a few flurries in the air, voices raised in song, and little lights all around, I felt more of the Christmas spirit then than I ever have—that the world is a beautiful place, and that all really was right with it. I thought then that I would be able to repeat that experience and that feeling many times, not knowing what it means to be an adult and how rare that feeling would be when I grew up.
The store displays that move native Chicagoans as part of their traditions leave me cold. To me, they have no associations with my childhood, and instead appear to me as the worst of commercialism—expensive, gaudy, overdone, the kind of thing that impresses with size and scope rather than with originality, simplicity, and meaning.
Only once have I felt like a happy child again. It was a few years ago in downtown Oak Park, in the midst of the small, quaint shops decorated with charming scenarios, where I was strolling with a friend. The stores and streets were softly lit, snow was on the ground and then in the air, and for an elusive moment the world itself seemed to be at peace with itself. I can't describe the scene or the mood or evoke it in anyone else; I can experience it, and that only rarely and unexpectedly.
I'm tired of people who run down Christmas. As I wrote last year, you choose what Christmas, any holiday, or any occasion means to you. You can choose it to mean frequenting malls and listening to bad music, out-shopping the Joneses (or your mother-in-law), getting into debt, hating the gifts you receive (or don't receive), and resenting half your family if you're lucky enough to have one. You can choose to spend Christmas whining about the problem that you are part of and contribute to. You can bellyache about everything or try futilely, as I tried, to create or capture the impossible, and make yourself miserable when the magic doesn't work.
Or, instead of stressing yourself out by trying to create joy and being crushed by the inevitable and invariable disappointment when you fail (and getting angry that no one is cooperating with your efforts), you can understand that moments of true joy, of epiphany, are unplanned and unexpected. Let them happen and savor them forever when they do.
In the meantime you can bring joy to yourself by bringing it to others—those out who have no money to spend, no one to buy for or to outdo, and no family to fight with.
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.