Next week, Christmas. Then New Year's Eve. Once again, by that annual quirk of the calendar, our two major holidays fall within a week's time. For some, it's a period of quiet religious reflection followed by a celebration of renewal. For others, it's a season of supercharged materialism ending in a long night of partying and a day of football. Some find it a time of uplift. Others find it a season of pressure, agitation, or depression. Few sail through untouched - least of all the retail merchants, many of whom plan to earn some 50 percent of their entire year's profits in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Looking at this pattern of the Christmas week, as it moves from generous gift-giving into abstemious New Year's resolutions, I'm struck by what would happen if the order of these holidays were reversed. What if our resolutions preceded all the stir and bustle of the presents? What if we forced ourselves to think the large, year-shaping thoughts before we sallied forth into the holiday season?
It's not an altogether far-fetched idea. In fact, even the choice of days that puts New Year's after Christmas has little but custom to support it. The ancient Egyptians celebrated the new year on the autumnal equinox (Sept. 21). The Greeks settled on the winter solstice (Dec. 21), while the Romans, until the 2nd century BC, used March 1 as the day. Christian Europe, during the early medieval period, put it on March 25; Anglo-Saxon England, blending it with Christmas, set it on Dec. 25 - even though Christmas, in much of the world, was then celebrated on Jan. 6. Only after 1582 did New Year's Day come firmly to roost on Jan. 1.
But what if it had been otherwise? What if we all took a moment to make our New Year's resolutions now? What might we resolve to do, or think, or be, that would carry us through the season with a glad heart and an even keel?
Were I making my resolutions now, I'd resolve, first, to think through what happiness really is. I'd want to do that before I went out to buy presents. I'd want to be sure that I was helping to give genuine happiness - and not its counterfeits, like pride of personal appearance or indulgence in tasteless luxury. All of us, I suspect, can remember wonderful gifts, from very special people, that cost less than a dollar.
And all of us have heard of the opposites: the lavish surprises, of puppies or houses or vacations, that commit the recipients to disruptions in life style not altogether pleasant.
My next resolution would pick up from the first one. I would resolve to preserve the spirit of generosity without being indulgent. That's a hard one, particularly at this time of year. On the one hand, this is a season when the impulse toward giving wells up within us all. On the other hand, it's the season when the latent financial challenges facing individuals and families tend to rise up and roar. The difficulty is not made easier in a nation where some of our gravest problems center not on lack but on excessiveness. To strike an early balance between generosity and excess - especially in the face of some aggressive advertising apparently meant to convince us that a modest gift is the sign of a niggardly mind - seems far better than to be forced to resolve, in the new year, never to spend that much for Christmas again.
Finally, I would resolve to clarify my motives for giving. I'd want to focus on the spirit behind the thing given, and not just on the thing - or the cost of the thing. I'd want to be sure the gift was intended to please the recipient - not just to reflect glory on the giver. I'd want to be sure it was given not out of a desire to reform (''Now you can throw out your favorite scarf, dear, which I hate!''), but out of an appreciation for what's there already. And I'd want to be sure it did not stir up a sense of rivalry - among children watching other children open presents, and even among adults tempted to envy the gifts of others.
Simple things, really, as resolutions often are. But worth doing, especially for those concerned that our Christmas celebrations seem to be slipping steadily into hedonism - or backward to the ancient Roman Saturnalia, which was celebrated each year on Dec. 17 with gift-giving and wild merrymaking.
Be it resolved, then, on this Dec. 17, to think through the deeper significance of Christmas before, not after, it arrives.