On the Season’s Splendid Melancholy

My favorite aspect of Christmas that receives little attention is the sadness.

The popular images of Christmas are pure sugary fun: presents, excited children, cartoon specials, lights, etc. But I’d submit the real power of Christmas comes in the hushed melancholy. The cold ferocity of December’s weather. The quiet of Christmas day around town. The post-madness letdown. The absent loved ones. The forever absent loved ones. The haunting songs that take our hearts into different, difficult places and times. Memories of holidays that were, holidays that never were, and holidays that can never be.

Even for those surrounded by love, laughter, and life, the holiday carries with it a lugubrious, forlorn spirit that wrests about among the stockings, chocolate boxes, and mistletoe. Aside from the humble beginnings in a manger, as the story goes, our times with friends and family and our preparations for the coming new year inevitably lead to introspection and an accounting of ourselves. Despite the hustle and bustle of the season, many moments of the holiday slow us down, take us out of our busy routines, and invite this examination of more meaningful things, be they religious, philosophical, familial, or simply personal. The quite contemplation stands in stark contrast to the unbridled glee promoted as the standard-bearing emotion of the season.

It’s these moments that are the true gifts of Christmas. They dive deeper than superficial gifts, and exist in our hearts beyond temporal spaces illuminated by holiday lighting. It is intensely personal and private. Our time with friends, our time with family, our time outside our work and outside all else, orbiting around this time of year, tugging at us in new and different ways, harkening to those rarely visited parts of ourselves, full of hope and joy and sadness and comfort and pain and acceptance and otherwise.

No other holiday enjoys such an emotional range, and it’s this beautiful complexity that I love. And, thus, while many tear open their gifts with a rapacious desire, I’ll be savoring the moment. Surrounded by my family, seeing my friends, and being open to where the moments take me, in all their splendid melancholy.


On Santa Subterfuge

My youngest nephew is asking some hard-hitting questions about Santa. At 9 years old, he’s grappling with Santa’s admittedly difficult nighttime journey on Christmas Eve, geographically-speaking. And, magic aside, he’s probably also wondering how Santa’s ample frame shimmies down chimneys so easily. He’s on the precipice of closing one of the doors of childhood.

I can’t remember how old I was when Dad took me aside, clued me in, and made sure I understood how important it was to keep the magic alive for my younger sister, but I was around my nephew’s age. From that point forward, I can recall surreptitiously watching my parents set up my sister’s Cabbage Patch Dolls late one Christmas Eve; waiting to hear the tell-tale whoomp of a car trunk closing, announcing in a muted night air that Santa’s gifts were being retrieved; and slyly searching throughout my parents and grandmother’s homes to discover the cache of gifts slated for Santa.

I knew the secret, but, rather than destroying some holiday enchantment, for me the big reveal opened up a whole other world of mystery and intrigue, far more real and entertaining than the jolly old elf. The cloak and dagger of hidden gifts, subterfuge, and late night shenanigans combined for an intoxicating brew. Waiting for a magical being to fly down from the North Pole to (maybe) deliver your heart’s desire is excruciating in its randomness. Realizing you are part of an elaborate game, passed down for decades, touching on our moral, emotional, economic, and familial bonds, well, that’s thrilling.

Santa is magical and wonderful, but what is far more magical and wonderful is a family wedded to the pageantry of it all. The Christmas tree(s), the decorations, the lights, the holiday dishes, the family meals, the cards, and the carols. None of it is complicated, but it can only be pulled off by those that care enough to make it happen (and are lucky enough to be able to make it happen). I was lucky enough to have two parents that made it happen, whether I was waiting up for Santa or just the gifts to be there.

I know full well that this will be the last Christmas I have a nephew believing in the physical Santa, but that reality does not bother me. This time next year, he will be a full-fledged participant in the holiday ruse. And my Christmas wish for him will be that he and his brother revel in it as much as I did. That’s the sort of holiday magic that never fades away, locked behind the closed doors of childhood.

On Punch Bowls and Other Totems

My parents inform me that my grandmother has agreed to give away her punch bowl, but only on the condition she does so after the holidays. Her reason is simple: she wants to make me happy.

Growing up, my Christmas days began with reveling in Santa’s generous bounty, followed by breakfast at my grandmother’s house, followed by an afternoon nap, followed by dinner at my grandmother’s house. Essentially, my job was to receive gifts and eat. Luckily, I am very, very talented at both tasks. A staple of Christmas dinner for many years has been a (non-alcholic) punch served on a structurally questionable card table used as the official “kids’ table.” My grandmother sets out an assortment of crackers, cheeses, and chocolates, as well as the punch. I love the punch; no Christmas would be complete without it. I’m pretty sure I’ve made myself ill on the punch a time or two. Again, I’m good at gluttony.

Now, relatives have, for unknown reasons, requested the punch bowl, and my grandmother — no longer at the height of her hosting powers — has agreed to gift the punch bowl, but only on the condition that she has it for the holidays this year. I’ll be home for Christmas, and my grandmother wants me to enjoy the punch out of the punch bowl one last time. Cue sweet memories, touching music, and warm hugs.

Sure, you can make the punch in any bowl, but as my grandmother and everyone else knows, over time, objects can become totems, taking out-sized importance in the course of our lives, infused with meaning beyond the superficial.  It’s not clear why the human animal engages in this behavior, but we do. It’s not just a punch bowl, it’s a representation of happy Christmas memories and family traditions.

Once we grant these special powers to objects, it can be difficult to part with them. As I spent my day off today cleaning out our garage, I was confronted, time and time again, with objects long-buried in plastic storage containers but still alive with connections to the past. My pre-teen comic books, the wooden Indian souvenir from my role in the Agatha Christie play ‘Ten Little Indians,” the t-shirt my junior high classmates signed for me at the mock United Nations when I was Secretary of the Security Council, the rubber bouncy ball I hid in my palm and passed to the college president as I received my diploma as part of an annual class prank. Paper, wood, cotton, and rubber, but then again so much more. If lost to me today, life would go on without issue, but, every now and again, it’s nice to take them out of the crates and take a spin down memory lane. For a few moments, these totems render the ephemeral present again.

My Christmas punch will almost certainly be accompanied by rolled bananas, baked beans, iced tea, and a long stretch on old green shag carpet. These are the things that are the chorus to the holiday song of my life. I don’t need the punch bowl to enjoy the holidays, but, knowing that my grandmother cares enough to hold in place that small detail for me for another holiday season, well, that’s what you call love.

On Expensive Hover Boards

My nephew got on the phone to talk to me several weeks ago. He had a very special message he needed to deliver. You see, he had decided what he wanted for Christmas, and he knew I would be just the person to get it for him. He wants a hover board.  Maybe you’ve seen these hot new toys/gadgets. Part electric scooter, part skateboard, all the cool kids zoom around on them now. Inside, outside, it doesn’t matter. They are the “in” thing this year.

I admit they look pretty fun. Practical? Of course not, but practicality does not enter into a nine-year-old’s wish list calculations. I like to make my nephews happy, and so I listened to his wish attentively. At the time, I had no idea he’d call me the following week to remind me how much he wants one. Or the week after that.

With my holiday mission so clearly set forth before me, I launched out to find one of these hover boards. Turns out, they’re not hard to find, they’re just hard to purchase. As in, they are very expensive. Most are way too expensive for a 4th grader Christmas gift, and, as much as I want to see a smile as the family gathers on Christmas Eve, I can’t justify spending that much money. I’ll find something that’s great (and affordable), but it will sting a little not to get him what his heart desires.

Part of my angst is, no doubt, coming from a place of wanting to make my nephew happy, but I also think there’s part of me longing for the days when a gift under the tree can elicit yelps of joy, claps of happiness, and excited jumps, twists, and turns. I can still recall, vividly, my 4th grade excitement when Santa delivered all of the Transformer Dinobots. Not one Dinobot. Not two, three, or four, but all five. I had them all! I’m fairly certain that, should my life ever flash before my eyes, one of the images will be those Dinobots. Three decades later, I still have them all, minus a few well-earned scrapes and scratches.

We grow up, mature (a little), accept some responsibility, pass the torch of holiday excitement to a younger generation, and learn to appreciate gifts not made of plastic. But, if we’re honest, we never recapture the pure magic of it all. The unbounded joy, the possibility, the mystery, the anticipation. Sure, we gain a deeper appreciation of the traditions and the togetherness, we reflect on our blessings, and we contemplate joy, but it lacks the lightning bolt intensity of seeing two rows of Star Wars action figures surrounding the Millennium Falcon. And I’ll fight any man that argues otherwise.

I know the upcoming holidays will be meaningful for me. I’ll return home for the first time in a year, see old friends, and spend time with my family. It will be fantastic and full of warmth, peace, and meaning. It will be a deeper experience. And I’m great with that. But I hope, in some way, I get to witness my nephews revel in those moments of pure excitement. They’re getting older, and I know it won’t be long before those days are over. They’ll end, but, if they’re lucky like I was, the memories will last a lifetime.