In her column for this morning, Maureen Dowd, the brilliant and often bitingly funny op-ed contributor to the New York Times, wrote about Charles Dickens’ thoughts on Christmas. She concludes,
In his 1851 short story “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older,” Dickens makes the case that the holiday is the time to “bear witness” to our parallel lives, our “old aspirations,” “old projects” and “old loves.”
“Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly,” he wrote.
Maybe, he suggests, you end up better off without that “priceless pearl” who does not return your love. Maybe you don’t have to suppress the memory of deceased loved ones.
“Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you!” he wrote. “You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!”
As I read this, I was reminded of the number of times I heard people say, over the last month or two, “The holidays can be terribly stressful.” Both our regular dog training instructor and our substitute cautioned the class to be careful when we trained over the holidays because the elevated stress levels can make us impatient with our dogs. At the supermarket, I watched as the checker greeted one shopper after another with the phrase, “You all set for the holidays? Finished with your Christmas shopping?” Each customer would groan with a shake of the head and reel off a litany of all the chores yet to be accomplished. Others in line chuckled with recognition and sympathy. At a department store with my husband the other evening, the young woman in line ahead of us thrust a truly hideous nightgown at the cashier, then turned to her companion saying, “Okay, that’ll do for her. Now I just have mom to get done.”
What is wrong with this picture?
Why does Christmas make so many of us deeply anxious? Believe me, I get that it can be crazy-making, having hordes of family around, all of whom know each other way too well, some of whom are trying to get revenge for that unanswered dig from Christmas 1972. And in a tough economy, with unemployment high and salaries not buying what they used to, making sure that everyone on one’s list feels they’ve had enough spent on them can mean dedicating the next four months to paying off credit card debt. Obviously, this is gonna create some stress.
But isn’t all of this a choice? When we’re little children, or the parents of little children, the magic creates itself. Sure, I suppose some of the sparkle in a toddler’s eyes comes from the idea that a magical being is going to bring her presents. But I’ve seen every bit as much sparkle, and remember feeling it myself—that ineffable frisson of excitement, in the presence of a glittering tree, or at the sound of bells jingling in the distance, or the opening notes of the Frank Sinatra Christmas Album, always the first record played in my childhood home and still the first on the iPod holiday playlists of my sisters and me. As we grow older, the magic isn’t quite so automatic. It’s here where we go astray. We replace excitement with anxiety in some attempt to preserve the feeling of specialness.
Yet, it is a choice to feel defensive when Mom mentions that she never used store-bought crusts for her pumpkin pies, or hurt when Brother comments that he knew that joker you brought home last year wouldn’t last, or annoyed when Grandma reminds the entire table (including the new beau) about the time you piddled on Santa’s lap. And is it really our job to keep Uncle Dave and Uncle Marvin from their annual argument over politics? If it comes to blows, call the police. In the meantime, the aerobic exercise is probably good for them.
It’s equally a choice whether gift giving becomes a form of fiscal competition and excess or whether it is an expression of love and appreciation. We each have to decide where the line is for ourselves. I know mine is drawn way before pepper spraying my fellow shoppers so I can get my hands on an Xbox. These days, we sisters and our husbands make donations to various charities in each others’ honor. There were many years, though, when I was a struggling actress, that I wouldn’t have had new clothes were it not for my sisters’ Christmas gifts. The depth of my gratitude to them makes my heart ache to this day. But things have changed as we’ve aged.
And that’s where Dickens is on to something (let me be the first to suggest!). I suspect that the real reason so many of us become anxious as Christmas approaches isn’t because of family or finances, but because of expectations. We remember what it used to feel like when that magic was palpable, and we’re always trying to get back there, all the while knowing that we can’t. The first rule of acting is “You cannot recreate.” There’s always that rehearsal when you feel as though every word that comes out of your mouth, every nuance, every movement is just perfect. You try to do the same thing the next time around and it’s a total flop. You’re so busy trying to remember what you did the time before when it felt so right that you are completely out of the moment, out of the here and now. Maybe sometimes we try so hard to feel the spirit of Christmas, whatever that means to each of us, that we close ourselves off to anything but stress and anxiety.
So today, I have reminded myself to welcome Christmas past, never-was and might-be into the present shelter of my holly. I have opened my memories to the Christmases my dad set up the Lionel train set and to the Christmas two weeks after he died when my mother gave me the college-girl luggage she and Dad had picked out for me together. I have warmed to the memories of dinners in my childhood when dozens of adults and scores of children swarmed through my aunt’s house every bit as much as to the quiet ones when John and I cooked far too much food for two. I am finding that when I’m brave enough to shut out Nothing, I remember that, even after half a century, I still cry when Linus says, “on Earth, Peace, goodwill toward men” or when Clarence reminds George, “No man is a failure who has friends.” I crave the season of immortal mercy. I rejoice in the season of immortal hope.