Gentle ghosts of Christmas past
Each year brings layered memories and changed priorities
People always say they visit the zoo to take children, but reliable surveys find it's the adults who really want to go. They take the children along as a kind of protective shield.
Not that children don't enjoy zoos, but their enjoyment is less meaningful than that of the adults. They understand less, find fewer parallels between animal and human, draw fewer philosophical conclusions, and are less moved by the beauty and innocence of animals.
Something of the sort can also be said about Christmas. We say that Christmas is for children — and of course it is. Who, having experienced it, can forget the heart-pounding moments on Christmas morning between waking up and venturing, half-fearful, into the room with the Christmas tree? And then the blinding dazzle of he tree itself, and the painful ecstasy of beholding all the wrapped packages underneath?
Those are moments we can't recapture once we reach the age where we are the ones who arrange the presents under the tree, rather than the ones who gleefully grab them back out again.
But we remember those moments, and in remembering give them a new dimension and meaning.
Even on those who don't observe Christmas in their homes, the season makes its mark. The good will of Christmas sweeps up all in its path. Its music becomes part of the lives of people of all faiths and none. We all acquire Christmas memories one way or another.
And as the years pass, the layers of meaning build.
We begin, of course, with simple childlike delight at being given wonderful things for no special reason. That pleasure never ends.
A friend now places in our hands a prettily wrapped gift. We know it will be modest; so is ours to the friend. But we savor it in anticipation, perhaps set it aside where we can look at it for few days and wonder what it contains, and then open it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, in a ceremony as exciting as any we knew in our childhoods.
Now, however, we claim a pleasure even greater than that of receiving: the pleasure of giving. There is the joy of spotting the item that's "just right," and then the contentment of picturing its recipient unwrapping it. How clever we were to think of that; how surprised our friend will be!
But our gifts are not only for those we love. The years have made us painfully aware of how many people go unloved in a fast-paced, impersonal world. Christmas is a time for trying to bring them into the fold as best we can. We think to smile more, hesitating less to smile even at strangers, forgetting for a brief magical time our acquired skepticism and mistrust.
We reach out to old friends, too, our lives again touching for this moment. We catch up, at least in a superficial way, and sometimes the reconnection "takes," and the friendship again grows and strengthens as the months and years march past.
There is a lot of talk every year about how nice it would be if people could behave the year 'round as they do on Christmas. There's little argument with that. On the other hand, it's a little like saying how nice it would be if we never had storms. Human nature seems to thrive best on contrast. It's one of the ways we learn to understand ourselves and, with a little luck, improve ourselves along the way.
So, each year, Christmas brings its amazing shift in perspectives and sensibilities. It always takes us just a little by surprise.
Sometimes we feign indifference, and sometimes we vow not to get caught up in the "holiday madness" whirling around us. But it's a rare individual who can remain detached from Christmas, or who really wants to. Some of its cheer rubs off on all of us — even the cynical Scrooges.
There have doubtless been few real people as mean-spirited as the unreconstructed Scrooge — and few as sweetly noble as the Cratchit family, both described in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
Most of us fall close to a middle line between those two. There is a bit of Scrooge in us, inevitable, fostered by the simple practicalities of living from day to day. And there is a bit of the Cratchits, too, reflecting the families and friends we hold dear and the many good things that have happened to us over the years.
All of this goes into our approach to Christmas. There is nothing simple about it by the time we have reached our mature years. And yet the simplest things — a partly broken tree ornament from our childhood, the fragrant scent of a Christmas wreath, the church bell calling worshipers to service — can trigger the richest memories, and the happiest.
May your Christmases grow merrier and merrier.
J. Arthur Rath is the author of "Lost Generations: a Boy, a School, a Princess" (2006, University of Hawaii Press) and "Thy Boys" (2007, iUniverse).