The official start of the “Holiday Season,” which in reality means the season of shopping for Christmas gifts, is Thanksgiving Day. That was not decreed by the President of the United States, written in the Bible, or passed as an Act of Congress. It was decreed, naturally, by the greatest of all American retailers, R.H. Macy, whose New York department store has sponsored the Thanksgiving Day parade since 1924 and continues to do so to this day. At the end of the parade is, of course, the man himself: Santa Claus, St. Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, whatever your tradition calls him, riding in a float designed to look like a reindeer-drawn sleigh, waving to the crowd. His message is “spend your dollars,” or today, more like, “run up charges on your plastic card,” preferably at Macy’s, but as Kris Kringle, played by Edmund Gwenn in the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street,” explained to us, it really didn’t matter where you spent it, as long as it made the gift’s recipient happy.
Of course, for as long as I can remember, there have been complaints about the “commercialization” of Christmas. Actually, I think the complaint goes back probably as long as the holiday has been Christmas. It’s supposed to be about Jesus Christ’s birthday, we are told, not about buying and receiving gifts. Well, actually… It’s not really about Jesus Christ’s birthday: I have read the Gospel accounts and in fact nearly all of the New Testament, and there is no reference anywhere to the twenty-fifth day of December. Historical records tell us that celebrating that holiday to commemorate the birth of Jesus began during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity not only legal but the state religion of his empire. At that time, the religion of Mithra, an offshoot of the Persian religion Zoroastrianism, had a wide following among the Roman middle classes. It had appeared about a hundred years before Christianity and according to its beliefs, its God, Mithra, sacrificed himself to atone for humanity’s misdeeds. Part of Mithrandic mythology was the story that Mithra had been born in a cave on the 25th of December. Constantine simply replaced “Mithra” with “Jesus” in the story and thus incorporated a holiday that thousands were celebrating already into the new state religion. It also coincided with the old Roman holiday of Saturnalia, at which time Romans exchanged gifts.
One can make a valid argument that there is something wrong with taking an important holiday and giving it to the retail merchants to exploit for their own profits. But the truth is, the retailers have never been able to exploit the true meaning of Christmas, which is neither about shopping and gift giving, nor is it about the birth of the Son of God in a stable in Bethlehem.
The true meaning of Christmas has to do with families and friends getting together to celebrate…family and friendship. Think about it: the real importance of gift giving, especially when one’s age has reached double digits, is not about the object that is given or received. It is about the message to the recipient: you are important to me. I am happy that you are part of my life. I care about you, and I hope that you care about me. It has often been said that Thanksgiving Day is a day to celebrate family dysfunction. That joke may have originated with Woody Allen, but I suspect that it’s older. But what isn’t a joke is that Christmas is a day for family reconciliation. No parent really puts coal in a child’s stocking. The parent’s message is you are my child; I love you unconditionally, and I always will. At least, that was my parents’ message to me, and that has been my message to my daughter.
During my first year in the printing trade, I was working in New York City, and I was estranged from my family, though I was in communication with my sister, who was in college in Massachusetts at the time. But as Christmas approached, I realized that I could not face the holiday separated from my parents and my sibs, and I had to make the first move. So I made an adventure of it, and went somewhere I had never been before: Macy’s! I had seen department stores before, but never like this. Herald Square was magical during the Christmas season. Was it crass commercialism? Well, maybe it was. But I don’t think I had ever tasted anything quite as good as the roasted chestnuts I bought from a street vendor. The crowds didn’t bother me at all—this is New York; it’s what it’s all about. So I took my meager Christmas savings and went up and down the elevators choosing a gift for each member of my family, enjoying every minute of it. That Christmas was a joyous holiday, and I was never estranged from my family again. Christmas is the happy time of year. It doesn’t matter whether one can afford expensive gifts, and it doesn’t matter what holy book one follows, if any. After all, where in the Bible is it mandated that one decorate an evergreen?
So the Christmas holidays of 2010 began with the loss of my livelihood on the day that my daughter was to return home from her first quarter in graduate school. Mercifully, she was (and is) no longer a little child and has never in her life been infected with consumerism. I’m not entirely sure why, but thank God! Our concern was not how will we afford to buy gifts but how can we make this season the happy time of year that it is supposed to be? How can we look forward with hope when faced with loss of income, loss of health insurance, and loss of who knows what in the not-too-distant future?
My approach to challenges is this: if one puts one foot in front of the other a sufficient number of times, one will travel a thousand miles. So my answer was, we’re not going to think about Christmas. We’re going to concentrate on Thanksgiving, and we’re going to make it festive and nice. We’ll do our feast for the three of us and be together as a family. That’s how we start.
And that’s what we did. Linda had ordered a fresh turkey from a local farmer, just the size for the three of us and then several days of those glorious turkey leftovers that everyone loves. We made plans for Christmas: each of us would buy one gift for each of the other two, and this year, nothing expensive. We had always bought a large natural Christmas tree; this year we agreed not to do that but to make do with our table-top artificial tree. The full-sized tree was always difficult to fit into our small house anyway…
We made another decision: since the business days and hours were no longer tied to working for an employer, we decided that our daughter Fiona would not fly back to Ohio but that we would drive her back. The amount of time and money it would take to get her to the airport in Newark and then from the airport in Columbus down to the campus in Athens would not be that much less than driving the whole way—and then we could take her to the supermarket and stock up her refrigerator and then ring in the new year with her before we traveled back to New Jersey.
The Frank Capra scenario would be that Christmas was joyous, even in hard times. Yeah, well… I wish I could give you the story with the happy ending, but I can’t. There’s a reason they call times like these “hard times”—because they’re hard. Economic dislocation hurts. Christmas, more than any holiday, is about family traditions. We like the familiar. Changing the familiar habits during this Christmas holiday only focused attention on the hard times. The holiday was not as happy as it should have been, in spite of our best efforts. I would rather not admit that it got to us, but it did. Not having a full-sized natural Christmas tree and putting worry ahead of festivity took its toll. Each expression of sadness at what this Christmas had lost was like a cold reproach to me: you cannot provide for your family. You cannot give your family a merry Christmas. You are not an adequate father; you are not an adequate husband; you are less than a man. It was not intended that way, I am sure, but that is how I received it. I will never forgive my former employer for wrecking my family’s Christmas. I hope he is haunted each year by the Christmas ghosts who visit unfair businessmen and disloyal employers.
The New Year’s holiday made up for Christmas. On the 30th of December we hit the road for Ohio, and on the 31st we stocked Fiona’s kitchen with enough food to last several weeks. I made our traditional New Year’s Eve dinner—crab imperial, a dish I learned to love during my years in Maryland, whose recipe came from that Baltimore institution, McCormick Spices. We began 2011 as a family facing adversity together. We made it through December.
As 2011 began we turned our attention to taking practical steps towards survival. That will be the subject of the next post.