December 21, the longest night of the year, sacred to Druids and others. A time to take stock of the eerie darkness, the state of the world, the perfidy of many human souls.
And a time to contemplate my smallness, seated as I am on this whirling blue dot orbiting a flaming ball of fire.
It’s also a time to examine something else.
In the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama, the expectations, the sheer insistence on decorating, gift-giving, and good cheer.
That old familiar feeling of being a hamster on a constantly moving Ferris wheel comes roaring back.
The other day, I watched what seemed at first to be a rather dumb film, heavily panned by the critics – “Christmas with the Kranks” – starring Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Dan Ackroyd, based on a John Grisham story (!). The Kranks (Allen and Curtis) decide to go on a cruise to the tropics instead of staying in their snow-bound town and decorating their house for Christmas. They catch flak from their neighbors and others. The predictable finale shows them changing their minds about everything, staying, decorating, and carrying out the whole traditional American Christmas thing.
But two things occurred to me as I watched the film: 1) the expectations of conformity surrounding Christmas and 2) the camaraderie that ensues with compliance to those norms. Women tended to be the ones who keep rituals and traditions going – and they still do, by cooking the foods associated with season or making decorations redolent with Earth’s dormancy; think evergreen trees or boughs of holly. Candles and fire provide light in the darkness, great boosts to the sensitive souls for whom the winter darkness became unbearable as the months passed.
Rituals and traditions maintain a sense of connectedness, to the passage of time, to the people no longer sitting at the table, drawing in the young, who will someday be sitting at the table alone.
Christmas, as it’s celebrated in the United States, tends to take most of its cues from northern Europe and England, where darkness prevailed for months, and humans pined for the light and greenery of spring, cellular memories of their tropical origins perhaps creating those longings.
What I miss now, on this longest night of the year, is a strong sense of linking to a simpler past, when my parents bought me one or two gifts and decorated the house and the tree the day before Christmas. and we ate ourselves silly on the big day itself with a 25-pound turkey as the pièce de résistance
Standing in line at a big-box store, watching people lining up to check out, their carts filled to the top and higher with things no one needs, or perhaps even wants, seeing the total charges, I left with an empty feeling. And I think of the charity in my town that issues vouchers to poor families, who then shop for Christmas gifts for their children provided by another charity, so as not to leave the children feeling left out, forgotten by the man in the red fur-trimmed suit.
On the other hand, a sense of euphoria abounded in that line at the big-box store.
Smiling children – for the most part – and parents scooping up cases of much-needed wine, along with scores of people in the candy section. And one older gentleman hugged two enormous bags of Old El Paso tortilla chips under both arms, while his wife pointed at the fresh salsa, asking him, “How many?” as I walked by.
The anticipation of feasting, of transcending time, even if just for a day, or a few hours, means something, does it not? Some writers focus on that aspect, while others point at the holiday’s over-commercialization, forgetting that until the nineteenth century, it wasn’t so commercialized; in fact it was nearly nothing special.
In a way, Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” and Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” imbued a different sense of magic about the day, not religious in nature at all. (Do click on the link to Moore’s poem, because it will lead you to an essay about the poem that might not be what you expect!)
This year, alas, I am not so much a participant in the usual Christmas festivities as an observer sidelined by a bit of misfortune. So I’m counting on others to make my Christmas bright, thanks more to rituals and traditions than mountains of gifts.
Those – rituals and traditions – are the best gifts of all.