Finding Christmas

December 24, 2012

My father would always finish his Christmas shopping early, probably around mid-October. But on Christmas Eve, he’d always go out to the stores, to the bustle in the mall, or (as I always imagine it) “downtown” to get some spirit. He said he liked to be amid the briskness, to feel the press and surge of purposeful people.

That’s where I see him, in a place I only sometimes believe I know from my earliest memories—some snowy, urban square surrounded by brick and brownstone, flooded with dark wool and silk-draped, rosecheeked humanity beneath a black velvet sky pinpricked here and there by silver light. I see him smiling in his gray herringbone overcoat, hatless and choirboy blond against a sea of hatted men, a red scarf knotted at his throat. He is 24 or 25 years old, a kid himself, exulting in the cold and the energy of the crowd.

This is the Christmas that comes to me unbidden, a lie my mind has constructed from scraps of myth and misinformation and stories I’ve been told. The town, if it it exists, is smaller than the one in my head—it’s not Manhattan, more likely Buffalo or Syracuse, someplace in upstate New York, where we lived for a couple of years as the 1950s rolled into the 1960s. It could have been dark, for the days are brutally short at that latitude and at that time of year, but I could never have witnessed such a scene. For that I would have needed a crane, and a director of photography.

But the mind cannot distinguish the actual from the vividly imagined, and so this Christmas scene is as valid as any memory I have, and so I cherish it.

I have tried to recreate what I imagine my father’s experience to have been. I have driven through West Little Rock on Christmas Eve, I have stood inside the box stores, but all I felt was nervous aggravation, and the desire to bolt. I lack the equanimity and calmness of heart required to keep my head when those around me are losing theirs—some traditions are not passed on in the blood.

Some are. I do what little shopping I do early, too. And we are not materially extravagant.

I remember hearing, when I was quite young, a story about a boy who allowed his disappointment to show on Christmas morning. He was churlish about how some gift he’d received wasn’t the right brand or model, and his disappointment stung his parents. That story made me very sad, and so I resolved from a young age to be happy no matter what I received at Christmas, to never let my anticipation outpace my youthful sense of propriety. At least that is the way that I remember it.

My parents always did a good job of managing our Christmas expectations. As a family, we never really went in for extravagant gifts. Nobody ever gave me a car for Christmas, and I think the most expensive gift I ever received was a set of Wilson Staff irons when I was a high school golfer. (I forgot about these when I wrote about Christmas a few years ago—they may have cost $165 in 1973.)

We were never deprived, but we were never encouraged to believe that resources weren’t limited—and perhaps I am misremembering but I cannot remember ever being disappointed by whatever gifts I did receive. I can remember quite a few of them—a big metal Texacobranded firetruck, a Daisy BB rifle, an authentic NFL-branded football. Lots of genuine cowhide wallets.

Most of us understand that anticipation is often more pleasurable than actually having—how enthralling was it to browse the Sears catalog (the “wish book”) as a child? We are
programmed to take pleasure in “seeking;” we have a drive to explore and to do—seeking rewards us with dopamine. We enjoy seeking more than almost anything else. We like it so much that the well-wired brain is set up so that fear should interrupt the feedback from the nucleus accumbens—which scientists used to think of as the brain’s “pleasure center” but which actually produces a “wanting” emotion when stimulated. Otherwise we might seek ourselves to death—or develop debilitating addictions to gambling or sex.

Karen remembers how her parents gave her the same doll for Christmas three years in a row. She thinks it started when she was three years old. She’d run downstairs on Christmas morning, tear open her presents and play with her new doll for maybe half an hour before wandering off to pursue other interests.

And then her alert parents would snatch up the doll, return it to the original packaging and stash it away for re-wrapping. It took a couple of Christmases, she says, before the doll started to look familiar and the jig was up.

You might think that was a mean trick to play on a little girl, but Karen remembers it fondly. Her delight in the doll was renewable—what mattered to her little girl self was not the toy, but the having of a present. Someone loved her enough to prepare a little boomlet of transitory joy. Would that we were all so easily, so sweetly deceived. Would that we all had people conspiring to delight us, to make us giggle and coo.

I expect today amd tomorrow will be good days. We have our plans and customs; we will have company and comfort, and I wish the same for you. I hope you find yourselves charged with the spirit my father sought, and seemed to find, on all those Christmas Eves so long ago.

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