I am known to be an advocate of the winter holidays. Come Thanksgiving, when I cook and serve turkey to my friends who, for whatever reason, opt not to spend the holiday with family, my Christmas cheer kicks in. While everyone laments the impending Birthday of JC and all the shopping, crass commercialism and family obligations that go with it, I chirp reassurances and gently implore them to see the upside—wrapping presents, top shelf liquor, Christmas cookies, deviled eggs, cold shrimp, earning more frequent flyer miles, and new sweaters. Sometimes it works, but mostly I know it’s merely pissing in the wind.
To hear me talk, you’d think I grew up in some pre-indictment Martha Stewart fantasy holiday land, somewhere between Connecticut and Cape Cod. You’d imagine presents stacked to the exposed beams of a six bedroom house zoned for horses, sleigh rides, Carolers in period costumes stopping by (likely to raise money for some pet-related charity), and my family dragging out the special holiday ruby port that cost a car payment but oh, so worth it for the occasion. You’d be wrong of course. I spent my holidays in a working class neighborhood in the Midwest, with more Budweiser than Bailey’s, and though my family did drink special holiday wine, it was Lancer’s, which has a screw top. No exposed beams, but we did have some lovely faux wood paneling in the basement.
Add the lack of opulence to the fact that my birthday falls exactly fourteen days after Christmas, seven after New Year’s when everyone is too tired and too broke to celebrate and it sounds like I’d be the least likely person to be singing along with Johnny Mathis to ‘Most! Wonderful! Time!’
You probably have a mother, or an Aunt, or maybe it’s your grandpa who just loves Christmas. They can claim it’s because of the children, but you know that even if they were alone they’d be trying to think up ways to get merry. They’re the ones who get their shopping done by September and relish their cookie cutter selections for the year. You always recognize their presents under the tree by the carefully chosen color scheme and inventive package decor. They insist on a specific kind of fairy lights and will drive to seventeen stores until they find two more strings of tiny, white, non blinking lights on dark green cord. The behavior of the Christmas enthusiast is simultaneously charming and annoying. They may even wear Christmas sweaters, or worse, sweatshirts with appliqués of teddy bears in Santa hats.
Despite my cheerleading for Santa, I’ve mercifully avoided letting my Holiday spirit affect my fashion sense. I don’t have any red clothing, a Santa cap, or even those felt reindeer antlers, no blinking pins, and no mini-ornament earrings. When I want to sparkle during the holidays, I lean toward black cashmere sweaters and diamond studs, but chalk that up to my painful self-consciousness—I always pause by the red caps with the white fun fur trim at Walgreens before my common sense prevails.
So is my cheerfulness and enthusiasm nature or nurture? I’d say some of each. My mother is ebullient at the holidays, her favorite thing in the world is giving presents. When I was small and the relatives were stowed strategically around our tiny house, she’d tiptoe over sleeping bags and around the Grandma on the sofa bed to reach me, waking me at 4:30 in the morning, and insisting I get up immediately and go wake everyone else up. Who can turn down a four-year-old blonde moppet in flannel footie pajamas who wants to see what Santa’s brought? Only those who are dead inside. Somewhere shortly after the Santa myth was dispelled, I hit the Freudian stage of rebelling against the mother, and when shaken from sleep simply put my hand up in the international sign for stop and curtly said ‘No!’
As research for this article I called the most festive maker of merry I know—my mom, asking her if she secretly loathed Christmas. She paused, then in the low tone she generally reserves for correcting poor behavior in public she snapped ‘Of course, it’s awful.’ She then immediately changed the subject to lighter matters, acting as if nothing had just happened. I alluded my spirit wasn’t completely organic and here’s where the deeper confession comes out. I hate it, too. Or at least, part of me hates it. The tempatation ominously looms each time someone begins a disparaging tirade about the annoyances and obligations, I feel the torpor and temptation to just slump my shoulders and agree, slipping into a surly misanthropic attitude I’d wear until December 26th. But I don’t. I smile and gently begin to tout the upside of the high-pressure holiday. Ideally, I’d like everyone to feel magnanimous and be generous year round. I want people to think about those less fortunate every day, especially when they’re shopping for SUVs and gold plated import compact discs. I’d like birthday presents to be wrapped as if they were the most important gift, ever. Frankly, I’d also like more fun-shaped frosted cookies, deviled eggs, and cold shrimp, but that’s the only part I’m glad isn’t year-round.
I’ve had some very black Christmases, and I don’t mean that in the fashion sense. Very Bad Things have happened. I’m over 30, still single and I have no kids, my nieces and nephews are all past the tiny angel stage, and I’m generally alone on December 25th, celebrating with my family in early January, when the airfares are more reasonable and the chaos factor is gone, allowing us to actually enjoy one another’s company. Frankly if you look at the checklists, I’m a prime candidate for Holiday Depression. So why am I singing ‘Let it snow’ when I live in a town where a rainfall is the most I can hope for on the precipitation front?
Because I’d rather be happy. If it takes every ounce of energy I have, if I have to collapse in a pile with a faint smile on my face at noon on Christmas, I’d prefer that to three days of crying and acting like I’m the most pitiful soul in America. Is the happiness fake if I have to try so hard? No. It’s merely hard-won. I light my inner Yule log by making Advent calendars, baking cookies, singing Christmas songs, sending cards, making gifts, wrapping presents, and reading The Polar Express over the phone to anyone who’ll listen, doing whatever it takes till I get the holiday glow on. I listen to John Berry sing ‘O Holy Night’ and cry when he gets to the part when he says ‘Fall on your knees’ because I’d love to believe anything so strongly it makes me want to fall on my knees. Eventually with enough effort, I’m walking in a winter wonderland in my mind.
Some of it can also be attributed to B.F. Skinner-style conditioning, where intermittent rewards are more motivating than consistent stimulus response. Every once in a while, when I try to talk someone into having themselves a Merry Little Christmas, it actually works. Occasionally my enthusiasm is contagious or at least slightly rejuvenating to those who are wavering between grumpy and excited. I’m convinced it’s the love/hate relationship that drives the other Christmas boosters like myself to continually deck their halls and dash through the snow. Like me, I’m almost sure they make a conscious decision to carry the torch for everyone they come in contact with, and not let some Scrooge come in and wreck it for everyone else. Every family and social circle has an avowed loather, one who sits, opening presents as if removing the ribbon will send them to the infirmary, and punctuates every expression of cheer with an ironic ‘Ho freaking ho, right?’ It’s people like me and the other Christmas enthusiasts who don’t want it spoiled for everyone, and overcorrect by quickly changing the subject, or turning up the Nat King Cole.
This Christmas, when the enthusiast in your life insists you try to sing along when she or he tries to get their Silent Night on, at least hum a few bars. It’s more difficult than it looks to keep the smiles flowing as freely as the liquor, and I promise you, they mean well.