That Useful Other Holiday

THE little tasks of closing out a holiday season have a ritual of their own. Taking down the tree and the wreath, going through the cards to glean the new addresses of friends who have moved - these little ceremonies are a kind of counterpoint to the themes of Christmas itself. As you tie up the loose ends of this Christmas just past, and the new year just launched, you may look ahead for a moment to the holiday season of 1990, and think about how to make it just a bit more serene.

If so, consider this: Next time, just put most of it off to New Year's Day.

No, this is not to suggest canceling Christmas. Rather, it is to sort out what is truly Christmas from what is merely sociability, commercialism, and useful ceremony.

Specifically, I'm suggesting that we shift the giving of gifts, the sending of greeting cards, the annual parties, maybe even the red and green decorations, to New Year's.

We could leave Christmas for considering the story of the babe in Bethlehem, and more important, for reflecting on what that babe did for the world when he grew up.

We could join a sing-along ``Messiah'' group; tell the people in our lives how much we love them. We could take the time for whatever noblesse gets squeezed out of our days by the sheer press of Things to Do.

All this would be more possible if we felt freer to let that useful other holiday do the work for which Christmas has been conscripted over the years.

This is not to say one word against having a tree to decorate or striving with all one's shopping energies to find just the right gift for a dear one. But these activities might fit better into a frankly secular holiday.

Does anyone remember a time when the commercialism of the Christmas season was not abundantly lamented? Nowadays the complaint is likely to be voiced by a shopper who would have preferred to hear Bing Crosby's ``White Christmas'' instead of ``Jingle Bell Rock'' piped into the mall. Presumably the makers of those early Victorian Christmas cards that have become so collectible were, in their day, criticized for commercializing Christmas.

But shoppers, otherwise known as consumers, the foot soldiers of the economy, go forth each year to do battle in the marketplace, under orders to spend enough to keep the economy expanding, but not so much as to incur dangerous levels of debt. These orders are followed fairly closely, especially the first part.

And so who am I to argue against holiday spending? But again I would say, why not New Year's? New Year's has a further advantage of being nonsectarian, an advantage in a pluralistic society - even though we're pluralistic enough to realize that Jan. 1 is not the only time to start a year. Still, the annual flaps in the United States over cr`eche scenes on public property, Christmas carols in public schools, and so on suggest that some church/state issues remain unresolved.

It doesn't serve Christianity as a religion to cast Christmas as a secular festival of conspicuous consumption, with Santa Claus and Rudolph sharing top billing with the infant Jesus. Nor, one imagines, does it serve Judaism to turn Hanukkah into a kosher version of Christmas.

Of course holidays are most meaningful, most emotionally resonant when the story behind them is real to us. Thanksgiving, with its Pilgrims and Indians, is a real holiday; Presidents' Day, with all due respect to the memories of Washington and Lincoln, is just a day off. And New Year's would take some work before it became a real holiday; it would have to dry out, for one thing.

But there is something in the sense of renewal that the blank pages of a new calendar inspires that can appeal to even the nonreligious. The stock-taking, by way of holiday greeting cards, of a year just ending; the annual gatherings with friends and family; even the special goodies from the kitchen, are the kinds of traditions that anchor our human lives. But they could be accommodated on Jan. 1 just as well as Dec. 25.

Happy New Year.

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