200 Catalogues? It Must Be December

Either because we’re cranks and spoilsports by nature, or because we’ve never had children to give Christmas its raison d’être , my husband and I have always considered the Yuletide something to get through rather than enjoy. While friends and neighbors yearn for sleigh bells in the snow, I’m dreaming of a brown-paper Christmas–a sprig of pine here, a candle there, an unadorned ficus and, under it, practical gifts wrapped in the store bags they came in.

Eschewing false gaiety, I want a minimalist décor to match the melancholy within. Christmas always seems essentially sad, a letdown from the part-recollected, part-imagined bliss of childhood and its enchanted moment of family togetherness–that brief interlude on the stairway, blindfolded by a parent’s hands, leading up to the epiphany of the Christmas tree. That’s as good as it gets, or so we keep telling ourselves in our wised-up, post-Santa tristesse .

While being childless (or, if you prefer, “child free”) is a condition we share with so many New York friends that we rarely feel anomalous, at Christmas that state is accentuated, all the ups and downs in glaring relief. We’ve avoided many of the cycles of mass market hysteria that have seized our contemporaries over the years, having bypassed must-have items and must-see spectacles–from beanie babies to Pokémon. The Nutcracker Suite , with or without live music (which our friends are now attending with their grandchildren) we’ve avoided altogether, and animation films, however tarted up for adults, remain low on our moviegoing wish list.

On the other hand, we’ve never tested our mettle as parental tigers, exploited our warrior genes combating other mall-rat parents for the last Cabbage Patch doll or Nintendo game. Still, I haven’t had to choke on my feminist principles in buying a daughter a Barbie doll or bow to the inevitability of testosterone aggression when a son demanded war toys.

We arise when we want to on Christmas Day, lazily have coffee and open our stocking presents–our one concession to Santa Claus. No patter of little feet, no nudging of soft hands and sweet slobbery kisses waking us up at 6 A.M. No reliving Christmas past through a child’s excitement-gorged eyes. No crèche or school pageant, no midnight service for the whole family. We vow we’ll attend Handel’s Messiah at the church on the corner, the very church where we were married many moons ago, but we get lazy and just put on a CD. Meanwhile, high in the hall closet there’s a box of ornaments taking up expensive domestic real estate. We had a tree once, maybe twice, maybe we will again.

Refuge with Jewish friends used to be an option, but Hanukkah has become almost as prolonged and gift-driven as Christmas. Our lobby is a Scylla and Charybdis of competing symbols; the Hanukkah menorah on one side conducts its night-by-night vigil while the overdressed cedar winks back.

This year, some fortuitous interventions enabled me to slide through several weeks in sweet oblivion, and I pass them on in the hope that, reworked and adapted to others’ specific holiday needs, they might serve as defenses for other artful dodgers.

I caught a cold, which, instead of shrugging off, I treated as heavy weather: canceling appointments, postponing shopping, avoiding midtown (an absolute necessity), nestling into pillows and listening to books on tape. Being one of those bibliophiles who likes the feel of a book in my hands and prefers to read at my own pace, I never thought I’d go for audiocassettes. But ever since a friend gave me Maximum Bob , Elmore Leonard’s hilarious tale of a deep-South scalawag judge, when I was sick, I’ve been hooked. I’ve always been a Trollope fan (preferable to Dickens in the holiday season), but the Barsetshire chronicles read by David Case are a revelation. Reading The Small House at Allington and Framley Parsonage , Mr. Case’s versatile voice slides up and down the social and musical scale, from the basso profundo of Mrs. Proudie, the bishop’s mighty wife and scourge of the diocese, through various virile lords and lordly ladies, to the breathless soprano of Lily Dale, that marvel of wit and womanliness.

If this weren’t diversion enough, I’ve been preparing for the arrival of some old school chums from Richmond, Va., for a reunion weekend, two to stay with me, five with my friend J. on East End Avenue. Having had four children, J. and her apartment are no strangers to sleepovers, but my office-cum-storage room hasn’t been open for visitors in decades. After finally clearing a path to the double bed my guests will share, I warned B. on the phone to think Girl Scout camp. She said, “Just tell me how many sleeping pills to bring.”

Then there was the question of what to do with my husband when the giggling gang of seven takes over. J.’s husband will be conveniently off on a hunting weekend with the boys, but such an option is hardly available to my sedentary spouse. The very thought of this landlubberly, sofa-hugging pantouflard in plaid shirt and hip boots in a duck blind, waving a 10-gauge shotgun, is frightening to contemplate.

Once we get past these distractions, it will take a more vigorous effort to ignore Christmas. One strategy is throwing out, without even a glance, anything that looks like a catalogue, even if it means forsaking the mouthwatering images in the Williams-Sonoma booklet. If, like me, you’ve already rebelled against the rampant proliferation of New York Times sections and gotten your newspaper reading down to a speedy skim, you can now race past the advertising and faux sales, which will reduce mandatory reading to a mere column or two.

To “just say No” to the siren song of commerce isn’t easy, but you can develop a reflex for the task at hand. It’s like those ads on the Internet with their screaming color headlines and then, down in a corner, the all-but-invisible little gray-on-gray “No thanks.” Click the button. Zap the enemy before the enemy zaps you.

And there’s always the consternation over Y2K. As pesky as the computer problem is, at least it takes the mind off Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, and such media profundities as the meaning of the 90’s, or whether Jesus or Hitler will be the most important man of the millennium.