A Fleeting Taste of Comfort and Joy

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

recover?

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.