This Christmas, put first things first

The holiday should be a time of joy, not stress.

My best Christmas as an adult was one I spent in the hospital. That was where our first child was born, on Dec. 21.

As his mother recuperated, our new little family observed the holidays in her room, cut off from the frenzied world outside, enjoying one another's company, and only occasionally being reminded of what we were missing by muted sounds of revelry down at the nurses' station.

Being in the hospital gave us an impeccable excuse not to "celebrate." We had no parties to attend, no cards to mail, no last-minute gifts to buy, no crowds to brave. It was wonderful.

That experience left me wondering about the current state of year-end holidays. Whose needs are they meeting? A majority of us? Anything like a majority?

If Christmas were put to a vote this year, would it pass?

That vote would have to be secret, of course. No one wants to seem Scroogish right out loud. What would Tiny Tim think? But I keep wondering: If given the opportunity to vote Christmas up or down, anonymously, in a private booth – would a majority check the Yes box?

Stress is as common as chimney stockings during the modern Yuletide. "How to Survive the Holidays" workshops are more common than roving carolers. Magazine articles on "Coping With Holiday Anxiety" and "How to Conquer Holiday Blues" are a year-end staple. As Dec. 25 approaches, the police warn us to be on the lookout for drivers drunk from reveling, firefighters issue cautions about miswired lights, and hospitals plead for blood because their usual donors are distracted by the duties of the season.

You'd think we'd learn. You'd think I would. I'd love to reclaim the many hours my wife and I have spent making up gift lists, then scurrying about frantically after work and on weekends hoping against hope to find the "right" present for people we love, or at least get them something.

On two different occasions I've had to sort through the effects of my late grandmother and my aunt. Both had drawers filled with Christmas presents in original boxes, many still half-wrapped, all with labels intact. These gifts had been opened, examined, and set aside. Some of them were from me.

The ways we celebrate Christ's birth are an anachronism. They began in a time when families were more likely to stay together, communities were smaller, we had less money for presents, and fewer far-flung friends to send them to. There also were fewer blended families back then. We're trying to sustain a Norman Rockwell vision in a Salvador Dali world. Even as our social fabric frays, we fantasize Yuletide (what exactly does that mean, anyway?) as a time when families huddled beneath hand-sewn quilts in horse-drawn sleighs sliding along country lanes.

This concept of Christmas owes far more to Rockwell's paintbrush than current realities. What did he know about divided households, single-parent families and two-career couples who are too exhausted to go through the motions of sending cards, buying gifts, and preparing Christmas dinner?

As if it weren't bad enough that our Christmas rituals are obsolete, they're also obligatory. You simply cannot avoid the occasion. Oh, you can. You could join a year's end tour of Papua New Guinea. Or take to your bed for a week. One woman I know tries to schedule medical procedures for late December so she has a good excuse for avoiding Christmas festivities.

Most of us aren't that resourceful, however. We just muddle through. And keep smiling. And pray that it will soon be over.

So why don't we just call it off? For a year, anyway. Impose a moratorium on Christmas. Just for a breather, a trial period. Ban all nonreligious observance of Christ's birth during that period.

In the following year we'd see if enough people missed the occasion to revive it. If they did, then perhaps we could reinvent Christmas in a form more suited to the way we live today and stop trying to act out fables from the past.

Ralph Keyes's book "Retrotalk" will be published next year.

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