On the day before Christmas, a sense of excitement and urgency fills the air.
In homes across the country, eager children are trying to divine the mysteries of packages under the tree. If only Christmas would hurry up and get here, they sigh as their parents encourage patience.
In crowded supermarkets, hurried customers with long lists are piling carts high with holiday feasts. So many recipes, so little time left to cook.
And at malls, last-minute shoppers are hoping to find, if not the ultimate gift at this late hour, at least something presentable to put under the tree. Their ranks include desperate husbands and boyfriends flocking to jewelry and perfume counters. Cost is suddenly irrelevant. The mantra of the day becomes: "Charge it and wrap it - and hurry, please."
"Hurry." Is there a better one-word summary of the national tempo this week? For many celebrants, the sounds of the season have less to do with Christmas carols than with the rustle of lists and invitations, the frantic flipping of calendar pages, and the rapid ticking of clocks.
In a time-short, time-conscious age, the clock, perhaps even more than the computer, stands as the defining symbol of a society on the go.
Have watches ever been more heavily promoted as the gift of choice than they are this holiday season? From a no-frills $20 Timex to a $25,750 diamond- encrusted Rolex, ads for watches fill the pages of newspapers and glossy magazines. They even appear on the sides of Boston buses.
"Give the gift of time," one advertiser urges potential customers. If only it were possible to do that literally - to fill a beribboned box with extra minutes and hours, with an accompanying note that reads, "Use this time in any way you wish. Merry Christmas!"
Yet there's a certain poetic justice in the fact that even those who can afford to splurge on a Rolex can't buy one more minute of actual time than those on a Timex budget. Equality reigns when the subject is the 24-hour day.
In a culture stuck on permanent fast-forward, that's probably a good thing. How would we spend additional hours, anyway? Working? Shopping? Sleeping? Working out? More time might simply give us more chances to become modern-day parodies of the Mad Hatter, perpetually sputtering that we're late for a very important date.
It might also reinforce the truth of the old Pennsylvania Dutch saying: "The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get."
By 5 o'clock today, most of the frenzy will be over. Last-minute shoppers will retreat to their homes, and weary store clerks will sigh in relief. Darkness will descend, holiday lights will cast a warming glow, and Christmas Eve will officially begin.
When it does, all those once-important lists will become irrelevant. Whatever presents haven't been bought, whatever cookies haven't been baked, whatever cards haven't been sent will just have to wait. It's time to settle back, ignore the clock, and unwind. Time to reflect on the meaning of the holiday. Time to cherish family and friends.
Yet even now, the preholiday rush lingers on. Before gifts are ever opened on Christmas Day, the morning paper will thud on the doorstep, filled with ads for after-Christmas sales on the 26th. Hurry in, advertisers will say.
Benjamin Franklin had his priorities straight when he declared, "Joy is not in things! It is in us!"
It's a good reminder any day. It's especially appropriate in a season when the best gift may be anything that symbolically slows the ticking of all those shiny new watches under the tree and whispers, "Relax. Enjoy."