“Do you remember two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence.”(John Steinbeck, from a 1959 letter to Adlai Stevenson)
Christmas is to most a time for celebrating good fortune, spending money, feasting, and giving gifts. I don’t think the message of Christmas is really lost in this; in my observation most seem to remember and appreciate Christmas as a time of genuine goodwill even in spite of rampant consumerism. I don’t see any problem in consumerism if it’s done for unselfish reasons. If there were ever a time to be a rampant consumer, Christmas is it.
This year, my parents began their transition to the “big” city of Lansing. No, they don’t have empty-nest-syndrome or postpartum-depression from losing their precious baby son. They didn’t move to follow me, they moved to be closer to their wild-and-crazy interracial church, and probably in an attempt to cure that special strain of cabin fever that can only be brought on by 15 years in Coldwater, MI.
Nevertheless we kept Christmas in Coldwater this year. The floors were stripped, the cupboards were bare, the fridge was empty, and the air was cold and dry. A tiny Christmas tree was perched atop an old end-table. The heirloom mahogany dining table was replaced by a rickety fold-up card table covered with a poinsettia table cloth and surrounded by lawn chairs and old office swivel-chairs. There remained only the sofa in the living room, and a single small ottoman on which to rest our feet. The family dog was absent, having died months ago (remnants of her hair and dandruff still to be kicked up and inhaled, inciting sneezes of remembrance).
Our traditions remained the same, but tapered down to fit a more meager situation. Christmas eve dinner was at a local restaurant, and was mediocre at best (what all-star chefs work on Christmas eve?). Without a piano or hymnal, we sang Christmas carols a cappella and from memory. We passed around my mother’s Bible and read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke. We opened our gifts. The DVD player was broken, so we piled on the couch drinking wine and gorging ourselves on Christmas cookies, and watched a strange movie on TV about nuns. On Christmas day, we had leftover turkey from Thanksgiving, went to the movie theater, and watched Jeopardy.
This all could have been really depressing, but instead there was a special joy in the whole thing. I’ve never seen my father laugh until he cried. We decorated cookies and didn’t care if sprinkles got on the floor. We made hot water for hot cocoa and coffee in old pots that had been packed away. We laughed a lot. We reminisced every unique ornament on that tiny tree. We hobbled around boxes piled high, and we laughed some more. We drank more wine, piled on that single couch, falling half asleep watching old episodes of Star Trek, and laughed. All the while, snowflakes were gently falling outside, illuminated by a single strand of Christmas lights on that tiny tree purchased from Goodwill. And what a source of goodwill it was! It was probably the best Christmas ever.