When I wrote these words, Wednesday morning, the big full moon was just going down in the west. A silvery dawn moon is so beautiful, especially in the winter. It was precisely a week before Christmas, and all through the house not a creature was stirring, and boy am I a louse, because there is so much to do to get ready for my child, and on the kitchen table tall stacks are piled, of books and files and scattered notes, and tape and wrap and bookstore totes. The laundry heaps are strewn around, while I write words across the town….
My daughter is coming for Christmas. I have seen her less this year than ever before, because she is now a sophisticated college student in a faraway place. On the phone for the past couple of weeks, she has sounded more eager for Christmas than I can ever remember. Out here in the heartland, I am just ready to burst with anticipation. I had a hard time sleeping last night.
My favorite secular Christmas song is "I'll be home for Christmas." When it gets to "if only in my dreams," I invariably choke up, no matter where I am—in the car, in an airport terminal, or in the grocery store soda aisle. In 58 years I have spent fifteen Christmasses with my grandparents (long deceased), and 50, at least, with my parents. On the eight or so occasions when I was elsewhere, I missed my family so fiercely that I could not really enjoy myself. I don't especially care where I am at Easter or the Fourth of July, or even at Thanksgiving (so long as there are cranberries and a big turkey), but Christmas is not Christmas unless I am with my closest kin.
My daughter just texted. She is on the plane at LaGuardia! Godspeed my child. She will text next from Minneapolis International. I'll be the one at the airport this afternoon pretending to read a book in the half hour before she lands, pacing, checking the arrival screen every few minutes, trying to find the perfect spot on which to stand when she comes through that security door—not too close, not too casual, not too embarrassing. Our plan is to go straight from the airport to Mandan to buy a live Christmas tree, and to spend the evening decorating my house, making meatballs and my mother's celebrated (secret recipe) toffee, and of course catching up. She will have mighty tales to tell, of books and performances and tests and good and bad professors, of new friendships across cultural lines, and intellectual discoveries that have made her question all that she has assumed, and the creepy guy across the aisle on the plane. She is enjoying one of the steepest learning and adventure curves of her life, and I will listen to the story of her odyssey with undivided attention.
Finally, a little embarrassed, she will say, "And how are you, dad?"
We will do all of her Christmas shopping, start to finish, in the next 48 hours. My annual trip to the mall.
There is a great deal of silly talk these days in conservative circles about "the war on Christmas." But in my opinion that war is not being waged by the ACLU or the "liberal courts" or "politically correct school boards." The war is being waged by consumer capitalism, which has buried the true meanings of Christmas under mountains of merchandise, under a bombardment of vulgar, often sexualized, advertising, under an appalling economic mania, in which good and decent people feel pressured to buy things they cannot afford for others who feel pressured….
The meaning of Christmas, as I define it, is family sitting around the kitchen table drinking tea, catching up after long continental separations, waiting for the last of the stragglers to find the way home, checking phones incessantly for messages from the icy highways a state or two away. Making homemade eggnog not because it is better but because it's a family tradition, and then licking the beaters not because that is quite so enjoyable anymore, but in memory of the days when that was a rare treat. Going to the candlelight service, where even the righteous "church ladies" suspend their "we haven't seen you here for a while, we have begun to wonder if everything was ok?" shtick, and just smile to see families and friends reunited.
Christmas is making a new star for the tree under the creative direction of a determined youngster, out of cardboard and glitter paint and discarded bling, trying to remember where you left the glue gun last, and then everyone praising the finished star far beyond its merit. Christmas is playing the same lame board games because it gives you an excuse to sit together and chat about the little things of little consequence that keep us intimate. Christmas is waiting for your child to open that really special gift that you scrimped for, the gift you hope will please beyond all others, the gift that will mark this as "the Christmas I got my first 35mm camera," or "the Christmas I got the puppy." Christmas is a solemn 12-year-old reading the first chapters of the book of Luke to the family, stumbling over "Zacharias" and "covenant."
The best gifts I have ever received—or given--have not been expensive. It's not the thought that counts, but the thoughtfulness that counts. It's Matthew 6:21—"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal… For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Most of my "treasures" are now buried in the garage.
Call me a nostalgist, but I believe strongly that Christmas meant a great deal more when we were all less prosperous. Every year at this time I read aloud the great Christmas chapter in Little House on the Prairie, where Mr. Edwards swims the swollen creek to bring Laura and Mary Santa's gifts—new tin cups, a bright new penny each, a candy cane, and a small square of cake made from white flour (a frontier luxury). Laura and Mary are purely overwhelmed with the extravagance of the gifts, abashed, astonished, a little embarrassed, and they savor the candy canes (well, Mary does) because they don't know when they will ever lick another. A tin cup means more than a laptop.
My grandmother Rhoda made most of her gifts--for many years because she was poor, and later because she was frugal. She made my sister and me new pajamas every year out of flannel—girly stuff for my sister, trucks and boats and drum fabrics for me. I can see her at her console sewing machine fussing with the bobbin, her glasses glinting in the sewing machine lamp or her gold tipped tooth, the almost unbelievable competence in her fingers. Give me the most exquisite and expensive pair of pajamas that Macy's or Nordstrom can scrounge up, made from handfed silk worms, and I'd trade it in an instant for just one more pair of Rhoda Straus homemade PJs.
Catherine just texted: she is on the next plane in Minneapolis. The other day she asked me what I want for Christmas. I could hear her rolling her eyes on the other end of America when I gave my answer. It will take her twenty years or more to understand that the gift we most want in the world is currently settling into seat 28b.