Tag, You’re It, Part 2: Christmas is Coming

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

Traditional Christmas Carol

We’ve been watching a lot of Christmas specials these days—Frosty, the Snowman; Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; The Year Without a Santa Claus and A Charlie Brown Christmas so far. As you can see, we mainly stick to the classics from our childhood. Beth, Noah and June did watch Frosty Returns, but I opted out to fold laundry during that one. Why should Frosty return? The original is perfect as is.

This is hardly an original observation, but watching these specials so close together always brings back to me how, aside from Frosty, they all have the same plot. Something endangers Christmas—a big snowstorm, a green monster whose heart is two sizes too small, the indifference of the world’s children and Santa’s bad cold, materialism and the ennui of small children who talk like adults. Something saves Christmas—Rudolph’s shiny nose, the green monster’s redemption on hearing Christmas music, the children’s discovery of the power of faith and generosity, Bible verses and a scrawny Christmas tree that magically grows healthy branches once decorated. But all this begs the question, why does Christmas need so much saving in the first place? Why is it so perennially endangered?

The easy answer is that it creates a problem to solve, and that creates a story to tell. But why is it always the same story? Why is it so often Christmas itself that teeters on the brink? I can’t really say, but to me it feels like there’s some emotional truth in it. Expectations are so high for Christmas, that if you don’t feel joyous for whatever reason, it can be easy to end up feeling let down. And even though I love Christmas, it’s often hard for me to get into the spirit.

This year it would be easy to blame the economy, but I don’t think that’s it, even though like most people, we probably should be cutting back. We’ve lost a good bit of the money we’d invested to build an addition to the house so that June can have her own room someday. But other than that, we’re not really feeling the pinch. Others have it much worse. So, as I said, it’s not really money. Partly it’s being so worn down from being sick. Shopping, decorating, and baking all seem like extra work and it’s hard to get interested in extra work right now. I’m even thinking of skipping or scaling back the annual Christmas letter I write. I’ve done a little shopping. I have Beth’s present taken care of and a few days ago I ordered The Complete Adventures of Curious George for June since she has fallen so completely in love with the little monkey over the past few months. I was spurred to do this by my mom calling for gift ideas for June last week. “Christmas is coming,” she reminded me on the answering machine.

It is, I know. We’ve been listening to Christmas music and watching our Christmas specials, as I mentioned. We have a nice wreath on the door that Noah picked out at the farmers’ market yesterday. I’m just not feeling enthusiastic about Christmas. It’s not really a surprise either. It’s been this way a long time.

One possibility is that even though I’m in my fourth year out of academia I still miss the rhythm of the academic calendar that I used to measure time for most of my adult life. It just doesn’t seem like Christmas without the adrenaline rush of papers and exams to write or grade beforehand. I miss being surrounded by eighteen and nineteen year olds proud of their semester’s accomplishments and excited by the upcoming break. (What I don’t miss is the inevitable outbreak of end-of-semester plagiarism cases.) I’ve even wondered if I should re-read The Hobbit this time of year since it was the last book on my fall semester Genre Fiction syllabus for the last few years I was teaching. I don’t think it would help, though, unless I could coax a local teenager to come to the house and discuss it with me several times for fifty minutes and then write me a five to seven page paper on the quest motif in it. This doesn’t seem very likely.

But even while I was teaching, a lot of Christmases got spoiled by the fact that the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (http://www.mla.org/), a huge gathering of academics in English and foreign languages, is held right after Christmas. The convention is where many colleges and universities hold their first-round interviews for jobs. More years than I care to admit during my long, fruitless job search I spent Christmas mourning the fact that I hadn’t gotten any interviews or nervous about interviews I did have.

So, the Christmas spirit is often elusive for me. Yet it almost always comes. It might be while making gingerbread with my sister or the kids, or helping decorate the tree, or watching someone’s face light up as he or she opens the perfect gift.

Last year it was on Christmas Eve. We were at my mother and stepfather’s house. Home renovations had filled their living room with yet-to-be installed kitchen cabinets and there wasn’t much room for Mom’s traditional decorations. We thought we could squeeze a tree into one corner, but in the end we decided against it. Mom was upset about the lack of Christmas feeling in the house. And then we went to Longwood Gardens (http://www.longwoodgardens.org/) on Christmas Eve to see the lights and fountain display and the elaborately decorated greenhouses. It was a lovely, magical evening. We think we might make it a tradition.

I know that feeling will come sooner or later. On Friday I’ll be tutoring at Noah’s school, watching his class’s holiday program and dropping off June’s outgrown buntings at his school’s winter coat drive. When he gets out of school we’re leaving on our annual weekend Christmas shopping trip to Rehoboth. Service, seven and eight year olds singing songs and reciting speeches in Spanish, some family time away from the distractions of home and a chance to take a long walk on the beach sounds like a good way to get in the spirit to me.

Meanwhile, Tyfanny of Come What May (http://www.btmommy.blogspot.com/) tagged me with this Christmas quiz so I have filled it out. Here goes.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags? Usually paper, sometimes bags.
2. Real tree or Artificial? We never have our own tree because we always travel to the grandparents’ houses, but I prefer real trees.
3. When do you put up the tree? See above.
4. When do you take the tree down? See above.
5. Do you like eggnog? Yes, and I love eggnog lattes.
6. Favorite gift received as a child? A bike, when I was nine. I loved it because I could ride all over town by myself, so it represented freedom to me.
7. Hardest person to buy for? My stepfather.
8. Easiest person to buy for? Beth and the kids.
9. Do you have a nativity scene? No.
10. Worst Christmas gift you ever received? Leg warmers from my grandmother when I was a kid. They were in style then, but I was never into them. My sister and I each got a pair and we ended up using them to block the drafts in our bedroom window at my dad’s house, so I guess they did come in handy.
11. Favorite Christmas Movie? I like the Christmas specials I watched as a kid, especially Frosty and The Grinch, but as for real films—It’s Wonderful Life. In my twenties and early thirties I watched it every year on television, but I’ve gotten out of the habit.
12. When do you start shopping for Christmas? Too late usually. I’ve barely started now.
13. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present? I don’t think so.
14. Favorite thing to eat at Christmas? Just one? Hard to narrow it down between gingerbread, fudge, buckeyes and ribbon candy.
15. Lights on the tree? Yes.
16. Favorite Christmas song? “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” which is kind of an odd choice because it’s religious and I’m not and there‘s plenty of secular Christmas music. I just think it’s pretty, though.
17. Travel at Christmas or stay home? Travel to my mother and stepfather’s or Beth’s parents’ houses on alternate years. This is Beth’s folks’ year.
18. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeers? Let’s try: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen. (And Rudolph.) I probably couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been reading “The Night Before Christmas” to June today.
19. Angel on the tree top or a star? Angels at both grandparents’ houses.
20. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning? We usually open presents from the grandparents we aren’t visiting early so we don’t have to pack them. We either do it on the night before we leave or on the Solstice. The rest we open on Christmas morning.
21. Most annoying thing about this time of the year? Decorations up too early in stores. This drives me crazy.
22. Favorite ornament theme or color? I like a mix of things.
23. Favorite for Christmas dinner? Sweet potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie.
24. What do you want for Christmas this year? For my kids to have a magical day. For Beth to have a white Christmas. To have a good book and time to read it. To enjoy the company of loved ones. For none of us to be sick.

I think that would be enough for any year.