Monday, December 2, 2013

On Christmas

An employee at the natural food store was telling another employee about having had a birthday. I eavesdropped.
“Yeah, I just feel like I’m really thirty-four now.”
“What does that mean?” asked the other, presumably younger, woman.
“I can’t explain it,” said the first. And so she asked another, presumably older woman.
“Oh,” said the third, “it’s great! Thirty-four was when I stopped putting up with nine-tenths of the bullshit. I suddenly realized I was juggling, like, sixteen lumpy bags. And, now, I’m only carrying two, one in each hand and evenly balanced.”

Eavesdropping is one of my nasty little habits, and probably the one I’m most unlikely to give up. The words of strangers, flung out into the world, can be as reassuring as a graffiti-poem on a subway wall. Out of the muddy murk of unknown souls, something universal and beautiful rises up.

I don’t think that we need to, any of us, wait for the magic age of—apparently—thirty-four to put a stop to the bullshit, to pare down our baggage. Or, if you're past thirty-four, to think that you can't be freer than you are.

It’s the Christmas season, which I have never looked at the same way since I did relief work in Biloxi, Mississippi, following Hurricane Katrina. The piles of debris, of former possessions, that we removed from houses, that sat black-moldering in the streets of Biloxi were like the desiccated corpses of the bright and shiny bags and boxes that pile up the carts and arms of holiday shoppers. The further knowledge that this rampant over-consumption by a few fuels the horrific loss of many makes my stomach shaky. Perhaps Nero can play some carols as we go up in flames and down in floods and famine. There is a half-price holiday sale on Titanic deck chairs, if you’d like to rearrange them.

I do not mean to sound Grinch-like. I try to love the good parts of the season—the candlelight and the hope that there could be peace on Earth, goodwill to all, that some miracle could make us kinder people. The trouble is that those sentiments have become so fully monetized. It is hard to reconcile the phrase “Peace on Earth” with plastic baubles made in foreign factories staffed by indentured migrants. The more Christmas is a product, rather than the child-like feeling that something great is both expected and possible, the less I like it.

I read a headline this morning that said that the busiest shopping weekend of the year had been slower than expected. This is great news. “It’s the economy, stupid,” but I also believe that more people are setting down their sixteen lumpy bags and rebalancing them, that we’re leaving the unholy economic model we’ve been indoctrinated with (ps—this Pope is great!) I hope and almost trust that the slowing sales are evidence that we’re living out the certain knowledge that no object you can wrap up and give to another will ever, ever, fully convey your love for them. It is absurd to expect that.

I was raised in a loosely Christian environment from which I’ve decidedly wandered, so this isn’t a plea to return to some Biblically accurate holiday. Mangers are no place for newborns, and embalming agents are creepy gifts. But, what I do love about this is a time of the year is that we reach out and hold our loved ones a little more. I fear that we too often lose sight of that being the most, the only, important thing—not the quest for the perfect stocking stuffer or the hipster-est ugly sweater or a soy peppermint mocha latte.

It’s hard to trust yourself on this. Everywhere seems swaddled in red and green bunting and tinsel, everything shiny and new. Tinny and soft rock Christmas carols are almost piped into the air for the month of December. I worry that I’ll vomit up glitter and fake snow and sickly-sweet gingerbread scents. It’s as if the world is actively trying to undermine the truth you know. It’s not the world—it’s the Corporation of Christmas. And they are, like the bad villain in every Christmas movie, trying to steal Christmas, to co-opt that sense you have that there is something fuller of love and better and more magical. That’s what the season suggests, and then there is such disappointment when on December 26, nothing has changed.

So, be the change. Be fuller of love, stretch what seems possible. That would be magical, will be magical. How does this get done? Put a stop to ninety-nine hundredths of the bullshit. Find your priorities among the bags and parcels. If the thought of heading out to Christmas shop stresses you out, don’t go. Call a friend and have them over for dinner instead of wrapping up a trinket. Stay home and play with your children instead of waiting in line for hours for Turbo Elmo. Make cookies and bake bread, knit mittens and scarves, play music and sing songs, go skiing, go to the movies, write long letters, do whatever you do to share your actual joy with your beloved people, rather than feed the beasts that only see our quickening demise as a loss of their consumer base.

For Christ’s sake, we’ve gone along as though we believe in Immaculate Conception and a fat man from the North Pole for quite some time—let’s believe in ourselves for a change.

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