It’s Christmastime, with all that means in America. If you’re rich you feel selfish, unless you’re so clueless and self-absorbed that you have no idea how many people are suffering; if you’re a member of the so-called middle class, you are desperate; and if you’re poor, you’re miserable. People are cutting in front of you in the stores, on the roads, and even in the bathrooms. The use of mood-altering substances will reach an all-time high, especially in Santa’s workshop, which was recently moved offshore.
I was raised a true believer in Christmas, which in my family meant a trip to Manhattan to see the glittering windows at Macy’s, Santa, and the tree at Rockefeller Center, the Elsons’ holiday party, and the midnight Christmas Eve service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Armonk, New York. I remember one Christmas Eve when that midnight service was like a scene out of Norman Rockwell. A steady snow was falling, and we youngsters were called upon to shovel the snow off the steps and sidewalk. Inside I could hear the congregation singing "The First Noel." At home, our Christmas tree had a special allure for me—I would stare at the glowing lights nestled among the branches and highlighting the ornaments and imagine a magical city. On Christmas Eve my dad watched A Christmas Carol on our little coal-powered black and white television as he assembled the non-digital toys and drank the milk and ate the cookies we had put out for Santa.
All this, of course, is now the property of the ghost of Christmas past. As Christmas present approaches I find myself cowering in the bathroom in my underwear, not to put too fine a point on it. When I am forced out of the house, wearing clothing, of course, the holidays creep up behind and hit me with a sledgehammer, leaving me dazed and confused, while tiny little reindeer, led by Rudolph, circle my head.
This sense of the holidays thrashing me can be particularly true in large malls. Christmas appears to make sense to some mall dwellers. I, on the other hand, feel like someone who has been released from a locked ward after fifty years in solitary confinement, or perhaps a long stint as a lighthouse keeper, and am left with many questions. Like, what the hell is going on? What is all this stuff? Where did all these stores come from? Why do those attractive Israeli immigrants keep offering me free samples of unidentifiable substances in tiny quantities? Where can I sit down?
Of course I could retreat to the quiet of my home computer and shop there. Nothing says Yuletide like ordering gifts online, then settling back for a few homespun hours of deleting spam from the online retailers.
The great mercantile machine has turned Christmas into the ultimate Official Special Occasion and drive train of the economy, and instead of the joy of giving I feel like I am taking the final exam of gift giving. Give, or fail. It brings out my rebellious side, as well as a bit of the misanthrope.
The funny thing is I am still a true believer. I’d rather buy some gifts for some kids who really need some good cheer. Then we can have a potluck and sing some songs with a group of people we love, go to midnight mass and do some more singing, and then wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. It could all happen in a few lovely days.