Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Are you breathing easier?
The big day is over.
Did you spend Christmas morning in bed with a heating pad for your lower back?
I got up later and did yoga. Then I cooked beef stew. It is a family tradition.
Yet there was something about the day that didn’t feel right.
I know, I know. We did everything. We even went out in the snow and looked at the beautiful blurry moon. What could be better?
It always feels empty to me.
I should have watched Christmas in Connecticut before the holiday. If you haven’t seen this romantic comedy, you need to find a copy and sit down and enjoy. Barbara Stanwyck plays a columnist for a women’s magazine who pretends to her readers she is a farm wife, mother, and excellent cook. In reality, she is an undomestic single New Yorker living in an apartment. When her boss orders her to entertain a war hero (Dennis Morgan) for Christmas, she has to borrow a farm, a baby, and her restaurateur friend, Felix. This brilliant movie is an excellent break from holiday disappointments.
I know some of you enjoy the holidays. For you it is not about materialism. You go to Midnight Mass and watch A Christmas Carol. Your family gathers round the tree for a reading of William Dean Howells’s excellent anti-materialism short story, “Christmas Every Day.”
Holidays are far from unmaterialistic in my household. I want to say Christmas is all about peace, love, and understanding, but it doesn’t always turn out that way. The volume of family misunderstanding can get turned way up when too many presents on the coffee table confront us like an accusation.
As I get older, the present-giving feels sillier and sillier. Shouldn’t Christmas gift-giving cease now that we’re too old to want Barbies and Legos? Aren’t we capable of loving our families without gifts? But perhaps not. We just had Thanksgiving. Too much family in too short a time.
The materialism ruins it.
Last year I spent a lot of money on gifts and was very excited about my choices. Finally I had it down: I had researched the perfect gifts for everyone. I gave an organic watch made from corn to an environmentalist: he explained it wasn’t organic, and the process of manufacturing the material from corn pollutes. I gave an adorable cream-colored pant suit to a relative in a nursing home, and then realized the hue is far from practical: they wear bibs in the dining room.
I planned this year to move the holiday away from materialism. I said I would give one book per person, and would only accept one gift apiece from others, too. I took requests. One person requested a Library of America volume of Melville, and I bought it shortly after Thanksgiving. I bought P. G. Wodehouse’s comedies for the others.
Shopping was all done, but I felt uneasy. The books sat in a drawer like a ticking bomb. I say like a ticking bomb, because on Friday, having noticed many, many packages arriving at our house, I bought more back-up books (National Book Award winners and finalists) in case there were dozens of packages for me on the coffee table on Christmas morning.
And there were.
When I saw the pile, I sauntered into the bedroom and got out Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, and David Ferry’s Bewilderment as though I had meant to give them all along. They weren’t wrapped. I had planned to give them for various birthdays if they weren’t needed for Christmas.
There were no gift faux pas. Everybody was satisfied, and I received some lovely gifts. There was perhaps a little edginess over my books-only policy, but I had mentioned it in advance.
There were some delightful moments before Christmas. We made chocolate chip cookies instead of Christmas cookies because we really prefer them, and they are delicious. We played cards with my relative in the nursing home. And she loved her gift, a stuffed snowman with an adorable sweater and scarf to display with her other winter decorations. She has wonderful manners, and even if she had not liked it, she would have pretended to. I thought idly how my generation does not have wonderful manners.
The most astonishing thing about Christmas was thinking about how connected I am to all these people. The bonds between us are strong and old. The day itself is usually a disappointment, but I learn something from it about family this year. I had an epiphany, which I won’t share with you, but am sure you had your own revelation anyway.