Yes, Virginia...December 22, 2008
Permit me a day's respite from my usual cynicism to wallow in sentimentality. Oh, and today's column isn't recommended for children under the age of about 10.
35 years ago, I was a believer. That didn't make me unique. I was one among many. The public school I attended at the time was predominantly Christian, so most of my friends were like me, held in thrall to the big man in a red suit. I felt sorry for my Jewish classmates. No Santa. No tree. Just a funny-looking candleholder and a dradle. Of course, they got presents on eight days instead of one, so I suppose that took some of the sting out of it.
People often pontificate about "the commercialization of Christmas," and I suppose there's some truth to that sentiment. But are the presents really all kids care about? On the surface, that might appear to be the case, but gifts can be overrated.
As a five-year old, Christmas was about Santa Claus. 'Twas the night before Christmas, and all that. The presents were secondary, a welcome byproduct of a magical night that, even at that young age, I recognized defied all of the physical laws. Santa Claus could not exist, yet somehow he did. The presents were proof of it. They were the tangible evidence that he was more than a pleasant fable.
When I was a child, Christmas was a series of small rituals. The first of these was in many ways my favorite - watching those cheesy TV programs that the networks rolled out every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I watched them all, good and bad, but had my favorites. Then, about two weeks before the Big Day, my father would start the decorating process. A wreath was hung on the outside door, lights adorned the bushes, and stockings appeared hanging from the hooks on the fireplace mantle. The day when those things happened (usually a Saturday) confirmed that Santa was indeed getting ready to board his sleigh.
Some people have White Christmas memories. Not so for me. Snow in New Jersey was typically a January/February event (recently, not even that). December snow was atypical and snow on the ground Christmas morning was rarer than a Phillies postseason berth (remember - we're talking about the early '70s here). So I'll let others wax nostalgic about the beauty of a snow-coated holiday. Those are their memories, not mine.
The Christmas tree didn't go up until the weekend before Christmas. This was, of course, a huge day. For many years, we had a cut tree. On a couple of occasions, my father got a live tree (complete with a huge root ball). Of those two, one survived the planting and still stands in the side yard of that house. The other withered and died. Trimming the tree was an all-day orgy of ornaments and tinsel. Especially tinsel. Hanging it strategically strand by silver strand could take hours. I was a perfectionist about tinsel. At five years old, I had the patience for that (if for little else).
Then came Christmas Eve, the best day of the year. For me, the highlight was never Christmas. From the moment the first piece of wrapping paper was torn, it was all anticlimactic. In fact, I was often bummed out by late Christmas afternoon. Not because there were no more presents to open (there often were). Not because a return to school loomed (it didn't - it was more than a week away). But because Christmas night is as far away from Christmas Eve as it's possible to get: 364 days, to be precise.
My memory cannot differentiate one Christmas Day from the next. They all run together. But every Christmas Eve stands by itself, clear and crisp, wreathed in the sepia of nostalgia. There are similarities, to be sure: dinner, church, a few moments sitting silently gazing at the tree, then the difficulty of getting to sleep. Waking up in the dark of the night and wondering if He had come. Sneaking into the living room and seeing the pile of presents under the tree, all neatly wrapped and stacked. One year, I thought I heard Him on the roof, but it must have been the wind.
Belief in the impossible is one of the great gifts imparted by childhood. Children are not expected to be realistic or practical. They do not have to worry about providing. To an adult, what could be more absurd than an overweight, immortal man in a silly red suit visiting billions of homes in one evening as he charges across time zones in a reindeer-powered sleigh? To a child, what could confirm more that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy?
The presents under the tree are never more majestic than when they are unopened. At that time, they represent the possibility of dreams and the fulfillment of the impossible. What they contain is irrelevant. That they are there is not. Even in this age of commercialism, I think that's still the case more often than not. Gifts, even well-liked ones, are quickly discarded. But the memories of them under the tree, wrapped in paper and garnished with bows and ribbons, reflected in a multi-faceted dance of light and scented with pine, will outlast anything as mundane as a toy or a possession.
Obligatory movie tie-in… Movies are like Christmas. There are many times when the anticipation of a film can be sweeter than the actual experience of watching it, no matter how delightful that may be. Some of my most special movie memories are not of viewing the film but of savoring the build-up to the moment when the projector began running. There's magic in that as well. Perhaps not as much as in Santa Claus, but more than enough for an adult to get a taste of what is normally reserved for children on Christmas Eve.
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