Preserving the true spirit of Christmas

I remember that Christmas morning three or four years ago when, with the utter abandon of the moment, we sat around the green-boughed tree whose essence permeated the whole room, unwrapping presents with shrieks of excitement as fast as hands could deal with tissue paper and tinsel knots. It should have been a moment of absolute bliss for all of us - for Laddie the dog, because the noise and confusion were deafening; for the fond parents seeing the weeks of toilsome preparation culminating in juvenile rapture; for Alan, Phyllis, and Nancy (Betsy hadn't arrived then), with a never-ending number of gifts to unwrap and new riches in each one.

But really, it wasn't.

It was almost what it should have been, but not quite; it somehow just missed the mark, except maybe for Laddie. It was excitement but oddly strained and hysterical, and the children had too many gifts and were suffering from acquisitive indigestion.

The grown-ups who get their joy vicariously at a moment like this were too busy to relax, and were frantically trying to write down whether it was Aunt Mary or Grandmother Mayne who sent that doll's sewing set with the scissors broken, or the Scout signal flags. The children squatting on the floor were quite beside themselves, wildly heaping up their rival piles and teetering on the verge of unpleasant cupidity. Certainly it was not with this end in view that we, and all the other relatives, had spent agonizing hours in shopping.

I wonder how many other middle-class American homes have known that little disappointed feeling right in the heart of Christmas? The feeling that something , somehow, has gone out of the mighty festival that should be there, and that something has unaccountably come in that was never intended. In a simpler day such things wouldn't occur. In the cabin of the frontiersman the one homemade present whittled or baked for each child would have been ample. But this city home isn't the frontier, and even in a war year the very opulence of gifts is something of an embarrassment. Some of that pre-Christmas toil and discomfort of crowded shops that makes holiday buying for so many of us parents a nightmare has found its way, uninvited, into the sequel of the frenzied rush and excitement right under the Christmas tree so that we may exclaim to other parents at this time of year, ''How glad we are to see Christmas come - but, oh, how glad we shall be to see it go again!''

Obviously something is wrong. Christmas isn't meant to be like this. It reminds me oddly of that lovely mysterious gift that Phyllis one year was sure she had received, the loveliest gift of all, but which she could never find, search where she would in all the debris and litter of tissue paper and gilt wrappings that were left about the tree. So our family was threatened with the loss of something precious at Christmastime right at the moment when the symbols of the ceremony lay thickest about us.

What to do about it? One could be heroic, of course, and simply cut down the number of gifts to one or two, but think of the uproar that would start! Yet it was possible, as my family found, by less drastic means, to spread out and make the approach to Christmas a little different so that the worst pitfalls were avoided. Our family now has a procedure which is fast and ironclad and could not be departed from by one iota without a juvenile uprising, yet it has calmed things down and, I sincerely believe, helped to keep bright and shining that Secret Gift that is the best of all.

What we try to do is simply to spread the excitement over a somewhat longer period so that there will not be that sad mid-morning letdown when the last gift is unwrapped and we know that not till another yuletide will the occasion come again; and second, by taking a pause, now and then, to create circumstances that will invoke the larger meaning of the whole affair.

So far as parents are concerned, Charles Dickens has helped us out mightily in this Christmas dilemma. You will gasp at such heresy, perhaps, and declare that nobody needs to help you out there. Well, maybe the children do not need any lift then, but we grown-ups do. Personally, as a mere man, I have to confess to a rebellious reaction after even the fewest possible days of Christmas shopping. There comes a point, when caught in last-minute crowds, that I could snap off a Christmas tree bulb with my bare teeth, and when passing through overheated department stores the mere sight of a broad-beamed woman standing in indecision in the bottleneck of a narrow aisle puts into my head what the Japanese would call dangerous thoughts. Yes, at this final moment I need a double-Dickens.

And Dickens won't let you down. Try once more the magic of ''A Christmas Carol.'' If you don't have time for the whole thing, you can still get an amazing pickup from two special passages. They are routine with our family, they take only five minutes or so to read aloud, and are superb. Nobody ever wrote English with quite such gusto before or after, and these two passages are, perhaps, the most glorious in the whole set. Maybe you know them by heart already.

''Then up rose Mrs. Cratchit, Cratchit's wife, dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned gown . . . .'' That is how it starts. It is in the next-to-the-last chapter, and it goes on, of course, about the Cratchit family's gorgeous celebration, and about that goose, the ''feathered phenomenon,'' and the joy of Tiny Tim, who cried, ''God bless us every one!'' the last of all.

That passage for a page or so has to be read aloud every Christmas Eve in our family, and the children listen starry-eyed and the grown folks simply sigh and sop it up. Yes, we realize, that was what we were striving for all the time in those crowded, awful shops, that is what made it all worthwhile, and why we will do it again next Christmas. And the second passage is just as good, or better - the final pages about old Scrooge's redemption at his nephew's feast and how he bought the mighty turkey, and got dressed that morning in such a state of titillating joy that, says the author, ''if he had cut the end of his nose off, he would have put a piece of sticking plaster over it and been quite satisfied.''

Modern shoppers need Dickens to keep their sanity; nothing else justifies so completely the discomfort they suffer, and you will find that the Old Master gets you every time, I don't care how misanthropic you are.

We have another final bit of reading, too; it is the last thing after the children have come down in their nightgowns and pajamas for a concluding look and good-night. I have to confess that this has a slightly ulterior purpose, too , otherwise we should never get them off to sleep. This is the brief passage (Matt. 1:18; 2:15), covering the simple story of the birth of Jesus. I do not need to quote it here. After it is read, and after good-nights, the children troop upstairs, quiet, subdued, and happy for what is to come. They know it is the final event before Christmas itself. The excitement and tension have subtly altered. It is not merely a holiday lark anymore after this reading, with a great acquisition of good things. It is something besides that. It is the mood of comfort and hope, the appeal of the spirit that makes us all happier, and draws us closer together, and makes us more of one family. In fact, Dickens before bedtime helps to make the affair part of family love and affection everywhere, and this Bible story afterward links it with the spirit of God. As one very inconspicuous American parent, I recommend some such procedure as this as an antidote to the rather indefinite but very real problem of the modern Christmas.

The real test, however, comes next day. How many families succeed in achieving a reasonably orderly procedure on the great occasion? When this is won by the children's own willingness and consent, it is a victory indeed! Every family, of course, has its own special way of celebrating, and every one of them , of course, is right, but again I am only speaking of a particular way we have worked out in our family which I think has made our ceremony pleasanter. At any rate, no child of ours would think of disturbing the pattern. Children are the real traditionalists and arch-conservatives, and they argue with each other whether protocol is being preserved.

The skill consists in keeping something in reserve, something always still to come, up Santa's sleeve. Obviously no breakfast will be eaten till a few gifts have been unwrapped, but this need is met by small and minor gifts, waiting in nubbly packages in the row of stockings hung before the fireplace, from Alan's immense one to Betsy's pink sock. We eye the untouched glory of the Tree itself but leave it till later.

Breakfast itself could be a tumult, and formerly was, yet it is surprising how easily it can be calmed and the whole mood changed by a little pause at table and another reading. It is the first 20 verses of Chapter 2 of St. Luke, giving the poet's lovely version of the birth of Jesus. The whole story is here, of course, in its supreme expression: the shepherds keeping their watch by night , the good tidings of great joy, the heavenly host raising its song: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

It is all there in 20 sentences. It is such a task of compression as never was before or since. It will work for calmness, beauty, and happiness at your table on this festival as it has for going-on-2,000 years for others. I say this naively, perhaps, without the emphasis on religious aspects that I might place, but I know I can leave that to others. What I am trying to say here is that a reverent word or two at this time, and comfortable pauses now and then through the day, will aid mightily in preserving what we really mean by Christmas in the Department-store Age. And something else will be retained. Modern parents going to such weary effort to give their children a good time find at the last minute sometimes that the luster of the gift has faded, and where there should be a sudden peal of great bells there is only a flat and noisy tinkle.

As for my family, we open the main gifts right after breakfast; but not till after lunch - or even supper - do we unwrap the gifts that come by mail, from friends and loved ones far away.

Thus there is something still to come all day long, along with possible Christmas calls. Joy consists, curiously enough, not half so much in obvious possessions as in the sense that mysterious wrapped wealth lies close at hand. Some of the wisest philosophers have spent a lifetime finding this out.

Amid the tinsel and decorative effects in which we moderns wrap up Christmas, two of the greatest gifts of all may be lost, like that of Phyllis, unless we take special care to preserve them: Proportion and Contentment.

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