December is the month of holidays. Whether it’s Hanukkah or
Christmas, whatever: You are out there shopping. It’s the true
red-white-and-blue thing to do at this time of year. I will not be a holdout. I
will aid this economy in its annual bubble and boil, toil and trouble.
Each family has its own form of holiday joy. But is that joy you see on the faces
of the shoppers in Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s? Is that joy you feel as you walk
through the doors of F.A.O. Schwarz and the tiny, tinkling, scratching sound of
artificial cheer guides your every step?
I have wrapped for years and years. My paper is blue and
white, or plain silver for those of other persuasions. I have tried for decades
to get just the right thing, fulfill this child’s desire for the latest fad,
the coolest item. I have gone to Christmas pageants with “Hark! The Herald
Angels Sing” and “Silent Night,” and I have seen angels at the edge of the
proscenium promise (falsely) peace on earth year after year. I have so often
sung the nursery ditty, “I have a little dreidel / I made it out of clay” that
the words, like those to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” are etched onto my
larynx, which can (and will) perform on automatic pilot when the occasion
arises-and arise again it will.
I have planned special
meals, stood in line under the harsh supermarket lights, peeled and scraped,
stirred and scrubbed, producing latkes and applesauce-traditionally correct but
bad for the heart, and beloved more in principle than in fact. I have given and
gone to parties ’til the cows come home. I have taken excursions to see the
tree at Rockefeller Center and the windows at Lord & Taylor. I have admired
the huge snowflakes hanging above Fifth Avenue, signs of man’s thumb in the eye
of God (they’re bigger, flashier, less wet than His frozen water). For mailmen and doormen, I have filled
envelopes decorated with Santa’s elves and snow-topped candy canes. Little
windows in the inner envelope allow my greenbacks to be instantly viewed. I
have taken children bored and less bored to The
Nutcracker enough times to have given up all hope that the bad mice might
win this time.
Now I am not the
Hanukkah Grinch (who is pale blue instead of green), but I do have to say that
the pleasure of opening any present, the wonder of receiving, is
temporary-heart-stopping, but not lingering. The litter of wrapping paper gives
a hint of the terrible futility of trying to heal the human bruises with a bit
of glitter, a scarf of cashmere, a pocketbook with a gold clasp, a widget or
gadget that pipes your music faster or records your TV programs with more
accuracy. There is anxiety: Was this the right gift? Should I have spent more
or less? What have I done to my dearest credit cards? Will the poor things ever
The pleasure of giving is real but short-lived. What you
really wanted to give was not a material item at all, and most often the
receiver does not need whatever you have chosen, no matter how carefully or
lovingly or extravagantly you chose it. The receiver starves for the other, the
thing that can’t be wrapped-a sickness undone, an act of betrayal repealed, a
love that hasn’t come or that’s gone sour and should depart. In the end, a
funny staleness hovers in the air. “Thank you, thank you,” everyone says, but
then it’s still there: the old stories and the turning away of heads and the icy
kisses. The desperate second helping of pancake or goose does not entirely lift
us out of the rut. Here again are the old complaints, the spin of the repeated
regrets, the loss of those who might have once sat at the family table but have
since died or drifted off. The fabric on the living-room couch may be brand
new, but the wear and tear on the well-worn carpet of family life is usually
severe enough to be apparent under our feet.
I know this need not be said. I should focus rather on the
brightness of the children who have made me a pencil holder or a drawing. I
should think of the firmness of our meeting this way year after year, holiday
after holiday. I should think of the winter solstice and miracles of survival,
of new beginnings and the love that lies open before us, glowing in the
candlelight, floating around the table’s feast. That is real, too. And glorious
is the growing of the children, the stories we tell, the lights that flicker
bravely against the dark sky outside our windows. The problem is not just the
often-commented-upon one of high expectations that are bound to be disappointed
in the realities of holiday celebration. It is also that part of us
yearns-yearns so hard that it hurts in the gut-for a purity of home, a holiday
that unites the soul to the universe as well as to the others near. A holiday
that burns hot like a candle flame, that soothes and rocks and holds in an
embrace, an out-of-time-and-body experience that exists primarily in the last
five minutes of schmaltzy TV shows but remains a secret hope for most of us,
who do know better but can’t help ourselves.
Capitalism-commercialism-is an easy target. If only we
didn’t corrupt our holidays with so much stuff, we would all be happier. But
that’s ridiculous. In the little log cabins of our country’s past or the poor shtetls of the Pale, the people were
harsh, worn, crushed, separated, lonely just as we are. They may have had
simple holidays-a treat of candy, a homemade dress, a hand-whittled wooden
doll. We think of those things now as if they must have brought a different
level of joy. But why? The simple things are only that. They are not endowed
with magic power to soothe the human ache, to make parent love child, to make
health come when it has fled, to warm the cold heart or calm the angry mind.
When it comes to human affairs, alcohol may be a better solution than
simplicity, and we know that alcohol brings its own headache.
It’s not that they have high-tech gifts to buy that makes
the faces on the downtown bus look so grim. It’s not that there are so many
choices to make, so many pretty items decked out in gold ribbons. The fruits of
capitalism do not cause us to get stomachaches and insomnia. It’s the fact that
holidays spark our most profound wishes and then inevitably disappoint-because
we are human, fractured, imperfect ourselves, anxious, restless and incurable.
Take this column as my holiday greeting, and I promise no
more grinching, no more quibbling. For the rest of the month, this writer will
be all sweetness and bare-bulb-bright light.
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