e-mail us


Unwrap your hidden inner Christmas


Once again, Christmas -- or, to be politically correct, The Holiday Formerly Known as Christmas (THFKAC for short) -- is upon us. Makes it sound like a stealth bomber or an avalanche or at least a runner from behind. Something to be wary of.

That’s how many women feel as December rolls around. There’s sort of a pleasant lull between Halloween and Thanksgiving, not too much pressure. Lots of people get away with eating their mother’s or mother-in-law’s turkey dinner, so no sweat there. Maybe bring a side dish, a pie. But watch out, because once December hits, moms all across the nation move into high gear. We write cards; take, copy and insert photos into said cards; plan meals; coordinate outfits for each family member; purchase, wrap and Fed Ex gifts; haul boxes from basements and attics; clean in the corners (or figure out how to strategically place the Christmas tree to hide them); accommodate guests; bake cookies; attend concerts; sew Christmas pageant costumes; remember to tip the newspaper deliverers. The average Jane (and it’s almost always a Jane, not a Joe) is expected to become a holiday manager extraordinaire, and to keep smiling while she does it all. I am out of breath and can feel my blood pressure rise just typing these words.

I remember a conversation I had one year with a Jewish friend who lamented the omnipresence of Christmas trappings in our culture. Her position is understandable: It’s easy to feel like a disenfranchised outsider when her holiday traditions are all but ignored, and, moreover, she is forced every way she turns to digest some manifestation of THFKAC -- carols blaring in stores, candy canes and reindeer decorating office lobbies and window displays, advertisements featuring children in red and green plaid pajamas opening gifts under indoor trees. I tried to convince her that my real holy day is buried beneath this sybaritic free-for-all, too, and that what I celebrate this season isn’t all this stuff about stuff. She wasn’t buying it. I guess she’s right. I can play both sides on this one -- I don’t feel funny putting a Christmas tree in my living room, but I don’t have to feel that I stick out like Rudolph with his red nose for not having one.

What I hoped to convince my friend was that my holiday isn’t about succumbing to the oft-reviled temptations of the season any more than hers is. These include the temptation to buy stuff (need I say more?), as well as to entertain and be entertained (usually involving lots of butter-laden food and strong alcoholic beverages meant for medieval people who lived in cold castles, not moms who have to drive to swim meets and band practice early in the morning). The worst siren song of all pulls us toward perfection -- the temptation to produce a perfect party; a flawlessly dressed, shod and coiffed family ready to go to church on time; a house decorated with seasonal emphasis yet appropriate restraint -- in other words, we are tempted to exhibit good taste at all times. Kind of makes you want to lock yourself in the bathroom with a carton of full-strength eggnog.

But wait. I know, and I guess you do, too, that all this fuss isn’t about the real Christmas, the inner Christmas hidden within the layers of the outer Christmas like those Russian wooden dolls-within-dolls. It’s about the kind of Christmas I felt as a child, when the mystery of Santa surely had its place, but in which the wonder of why Jesus would bother with us at all underscored all the other symbols of the season, welcome light illuminating darkness, rituals of gift-giving, embracing the earthly elements of stars, fire, trees.

So I’ve decided to avoid THFKAC for as long as possible, and instead to live in the joyous waiting of Advent while I may. I will avoid malls (OK, I’ll shop online some, but I’ll also go to craft sales, museum shops and give of myself when I can). I will breathe deeply and walk the dog every day. I will turn down an invitation or two if my calendar feels uncomfortably full. And speaking of full, I will continue my thrice-weekly three-mile run, no matter how cold, because it keeps me sane and counters that eggnog nicely. I will renew my resolve to honor the children in my life and the ones suffering from war and hunger and spiritual starvation around the world. Jesus came to us as a child -- that tells me all I need to know. I will hope for snow to sparkle in the moonlight and wash away the sins of the world. I figure if I stay in Advent as long as I can, the better to see Christmas when it finally comes. Then I will approach it with open arms instead of trying to keep it from catching up with me.

Come to think of it, I don’t even like eggnog. Time to take the dog for a walk. This year, I hope you, too, unwrap your inner Christmas.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001