Despite all my best efforts at it, I’m not much of a “reason for the season” sort of guy. Knowing that we celebrate it in late December because Constantine mandated it in the 3rd century as a way to stamp out Saturnalia doesn’t take away any of the magic. Neither does the fact that the Christmas tree only became a thing normal folks did a couple centuries ago, when Queen Victoria’s husband brought his German heritage onto the British Isles.
The history matters. It bonds me—it bonds all of us—to this one stretch of time every year where our moods collectively synchronize. The happy moods—like when we pretend we’re still kids and lie underneath the tree so we can get a good stare into lights as they corkscrew their way to infinity. The unhappy moods—like meandering an enormous box store wondering what the hell you’re going to get your adult children, who have full-time jobs but would be just as happy with a check for January’s electric bill.
I have always been in school in one capacity or another. So Christmas means hiatus. It’s a time where the days of the week blend into a vague miasma of daylight and darkness. Sundays (today is one of those I think) feel a lot like Thursdays. I shave less and wear my pajamas more often. Unlike other holiday breaks, Christmas also means an imprisonment of sorts. The frost, the cold, and the snow (when we get it) performs its elemental harmony and creates a temporal wall of frozen, barbed-wired air. From inside, staring out my kitchen window, the hum of the furnace’s forced air envelops me. On the other side of the glass, ten weeks of discomfort waits for me to step outside my door.
When I was a boy, Christmas break moved at geological speed. Every minute, that pile of wrapped rectangles enticed me. At 9:01, I was sure the box in the back held my Evel Knievel stunt set. At 9:02, I thought it might have been a Hot Wheels double-loop-de-loop set up instead. No matter how hard I concentrated on my tattered copy of The Spectacular Spider-Man #23, I could never move past four or five words without sneaking glances at those presents. Like every boy of every generation, I was oblivious to the conditioned materialism—the need to hang my happiness on some shining, brand new contraption. The fact that I would be bored with that Tyco train set by 10:00 on the 27th never entered my thought process.
But I don’t think the materialism (as bad as that word always sounds) was ever a problem. Wanting new things is evolutionary. Our predecessors lacked the opportunities, but they enjoyed the experience of holding new things. And even now, as I near age 50, I still enjoy a two or three second burst of excitement when Wendi places one of her patented, neatly assembled gift bags in my lap.
That visceral connection to my childhood is probably the reason I cling to the tree, and the lights, and the tapestry, and the jingles, and the vibe of Christmas so tightly. In soft spasms of fleeting moments—which come and go with the intermittent rhythm of Gulf Coast waves on the beach—my late mother feels alive. I’m in my grandparent’s farm house. I’m sitting in on a gift exchange in elementary school. I’m a teenager, buying my first gift for a girl.
We deny it—because that’s the adult thing to do—but we go through life grasping at every portal to our childhood available. None of us would probably want to go back and relive our it for any prolonged length of time. But I wouldn’t mind stepping through that looking glass for one day every December, so that I could be 10 again. So that I could sit next to my mom and watch Dad stoke the fire in the Timberlyne wood stove, and stare at our hideous ‘70’s-era artificial Christmas tree.
Now it’s a Sunday…again, I think it is at least. The New Year comes in a couple of days, and the steady, elliptical drumbeat of the Earth’s journey into the future moves on—relentless and unforgiving. The tall pine and lights are gone. The music has shifted from Sinatra to Springsteen. In front of me are more than two months of cold (and probably snow at some point). The world now feels very contemporary, and I feel every bit of 49-years-old.
Yesterday, after the last box was sealed and discarded in the garage, I consoled myself by watching Hoosiers—the next best way to time travel to the best parts of the past. But despite the emotional resonance of that last time-out in Hinkle Fieldhouse, nothing takes me back to my youth quite as powerfully as Christmas. Nothing makes me feel more like a boy than sitting by the tree, imagining myself poring over Spider-Man’s smudged image while a hundred Santa faces wrapped around a long, rectangular box consume my thoughts.