As Christmas draws near the holiday cheer seeps into our daily dialogue, good will commonly expressed with “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays!” as casually as “Hello” or “Thank You.”
The hustle and the pressure accumulates, to-do lists dancing in our heads to complete cleaning, invitations, party planning, shopping to fill each present on the list of musts, prepare for visiting family, get the outdoor decorations up, erect the tree and lights, write family letters and send cards, find time for the holiday projects you volunteered for or were appointed, and … and … and … thoughts of time limits adding stern lines of worry, raised blood pressure, nights a bit sleepless. And maybe – just a little – frustration and arguments.
I gave it up a long time ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I have priceless memories of Christmas growing up, usually centered at our church where kids like me, with fear thumping in our hearts, practiced for the play we would perform for an audience of our parents, a play of the manger scene or the three wise men seeking the birth of someone they knew would be extraordinarily important.
I will never forget as a high school junior my desperate hope of being rescued from singing the solo I had been assigned in our church Christmas Eve Cantata. Breaking voice and all, I survived. Some even said I did well but I never did believe them.
Those were the days when, at least it seemed, whether you were in church or not, Christmas was more about the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Maybe I just didn’t notice yet, but I think the commercial feeding frenzy would take over in later years.
The unnecessary excess that would come took the shine off Christmas for me. Lists of presents too long, even with groups drawing names. Spending beyond our means to satisfy perceived obligations for people we care for, people who usually didn’t want or need the contents of the pretty package that was part of draining our meager bank account. Piles of gifts for children that teach them an unhealthy expectation instead of the modesty they need.
I’ll tell you what pushed me pell-mell over the edge.
In the early 1980s in Dallas, Texas, a client invited me to a Christmas cocktail party at his home in the high rent part of town. These were wonderful and successful people, the conversation uplifting, but with cocktail in hand and enjoying new company, I was bothered.
The house was fit for decorator magazine photos, and the Christmas tree was over 10 feet tall, proudly noted to have been purchased from Niemen Marcus since part of the proceeds go to charity, and I guessed the tree cost well over $10,000, thick with magnificent and delicate decorations that appeared to a cynic like me might have been hand-painted by direct descendants of Rembrandt.
Surrounding this world-class Christmas tree was a small mountain – maybe a 12-foot circle piled four feet high – of professionally wrapped gifts, each with exotic papers, ribbons and doodads worthy to be called art, surely destined for the rubbish bin after the packages were opened.
While the pleasant conversation continued, I had surreal thoughts, like wondering if the sweetness in my cocktail had possibly been hand-squeezed from the still-living tongues of hummingbirds by servants singing happy songs, and whether the family members who would open those predictably pricey gifts had the need of anything at all.
I couldn’t help thinking a wealthy family spending so much on Christmas could do so much good for families with urgent needs by merely moderating their self-indulgence and re-directing some of their largess to lift up someone needing a helping hand. I was afraid I might puke on the very expensive carpet.
That turning point for me was not about wealthy families; these were very decent people you would be proud to know. But that evening made me think about what is important.
After watching a younger couple in our extended family struggle with thin budgets and Christmas lists too long, I approached my mother and asked how she would feel if I arranged for our family to not exchange gifts that year, but instead focus our Christmas celebration by enjoying each other’s company around the large dinner table.
Mom was concerned what the others would think, and part of my problem with the Christmas fever is too much worry about just that. But I talked everyone into the change, we had a wonderful dinner, including some prayers about peace and love and the message of Christ. The very next year my family went back to the gift race and I told them to leave me out. I have been out for about 30 years since.
I am not a religious person, my church years are far behind me, but even though I can be counted among the half or more who ignore the religious center of the holiday, even I am bothered how far holiday practices have drifted away from what many of us thought to be its purpose. I wonder what Jesus would think of the orgy Christmas has become?
When I hear modern day objections to the word “Christmas” or to the erection of a manger scene on public property, I often feel the knee-jerk solution of tearing those things down is rather dimwitted.
I know that our government cannot “establish” a religion, but it can allow independent religions to display their holiday symbols.
For example, why can’t we also erect a Menorah and take the trouble to learn the varying date of Hanukkah to be respectful of our fellow citizen Jews, to wish them happy holidays and let displays of our differing beliefs co-exist just as our daily lives co-exist?
For others who believe Christmas symbols should be obliterated, we should welcome them to ignore whatever they dislike but refuse to let them impose their views on the rest of us.
Yes, I am troubled by the runaway train called Christmas. But I have a Christmas dream, made mostly of questions that might make you uncomfortable.
Why have we let the appetite of commerce turn us into fanatical spenders in the last two months of the year? Why can’t we change the pandemonium of financial gorging to something more modest and fitting to the season, like taking upon ourselves an annual task to find someone in real need and doing something anonymous for them, however small, that lets them know someone cares?
Why can’t we keep the entire Christmas process to a week instead of the sickening mayhem over two months as prompted by merchants?
Why don’t we as parents retrain self-indulgent kids making long gimme lists and instruct the entire family each child may receive only two modest gifts total, and that the very best thing family and friends can give the children are lessons in the restraint and controlled expectations they need in real life?
Why can’t we make a better effort to teach all kids that Christmas is not all magic and presents, that they should know the story of what took place in Bethlehem? (2006 movie – “The Nativity Story,” well done.)
Why can’t we make it a practice to terminate even the modest Christmas gifts when a child passes their 16th birthday, teaching them all along it is one of their rights of passage to adulthood, that it is now their lot to give, not to receive, and it is time they join the sometimes hard task of finding a needy person from anonymity and to find a way to do something for them?
Why can’t a dinner gathering for family celebrations take the place of gifts, with a limited exception of allowing special expressions of affection with cookies or other personally prepared food with modesty in volume and style being the measure of the gift’s virtue?
But, as I said, this is not the world we live in, it is just my dream of replacing nauseating excess with refocused good will, wishes of peace and love, and reaching out an anonymous helping hand.
Whether you celebrate the birth of Christ or not, whether you have completely different beliefs, you might be one of the few who agree these changes would improve our holiday season and maybe the character of our children.
Even in the real world there are some who don’t lose their mind during the holidays. A lot of better people than me apply themselves to good works at this time of year. By re-purposing our holiday spending and effort, all of us could make our own small impact.
One good example is Peachtree City’s own Cathy McMullen, who for the past 15 years has spent her holiday energy raising funds for Embracing Military Families, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit, dedicated to brightening the holidays of children of deployed American troops.
These families struggle while Dad – or even Mom – is gone, and they often struggle after those returning from combat have been changed by the experience they undertook for you and me. If you want to help with toys or a contribution, call Cathy at 770-487-0672.
So, while the rest of you are humming Christmas carols, please understand I may struggle to control my gag reflex as the Christmas frenzy gets under way well before Thanksgiving, with every communication medium urging on the bedlam of hedonistic spending and I am forcibly subjected to agonizing repetition of Christmas songs too many times even at the grocery store. Sometimes my head tries to explode.
I know the rest of you love the whole long season, the decorations, the piles of presents and never tire of the Fa-La-La.
Meanwhile, I can dream.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City, Ga., occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is email@example.com.]