One City

By Stillman Brown
I’m spending Christmas at my mom’s house in Connecticut, taking advantage of good food, laundry machines, and family warmth, all free of charge. Driving through her neighborhood of modest colonial style homes a few nights ago on our way to a movie (The Golden Compass – 3 stars of 5), we noted how few houses had Christmas lights up. We took turns guessing as to why.
“It’s grave times,” I ventured, “Iraq, a cluster of unimpressive Presidential candidates, people just aren’t feeling the spirit.”
“It might be the opposite,” she said, “people tend to get in to the holidays when times are tough.”
“It could be energy costs,” I said, feeling clever. “The uh, cost-benefit ratio of holiday cheer to the electricity that lights suck up isn’t worth it.”
“Hm,” she said, unimpressed. At the end of the block we passed a house encrusted with blue and saffron lights. Two plastic light-up Santas (replete with sled and reindeer) balanced on the apex of the roof, facing each other. Every tree, bush, and flowerbed was innundated with white flashing lights. “There are a always a few,” she said.
What is it? Does the state of our nation (2 stars at best) impact the density of outdoor Christmas decorations? The fact is, I feel fine – neither particularly infected with the Christmas spirit or indifferent. My notion of Christmas has changed, from the frenetic joy of childhood to half-disinterested enjoyment.
As a kid, I was pretty normal, i.e., obsessed with Christmas. Ginger bread, macaroni wreathes in art class, and carols. And presents. I can easily call to mind the the sensation of coming downstairs (or across the house when there was no upstairs) and feeling a rush of excitement and fullness when I saw the mountain of presents for my sister and I. It was, to my kid brain – and there’s no other word for it – magical. In the night, someone had come into my house and left me a physical statement of love. It was also a symbol of prosperity during a time when my mom was still a PhD student and there wasn’t much prosperity during the rest of the year.
Looking back, the ease with which I understood presents, material things, to equal love and goodwill is troubling. The spirit of Christmas was, literally, wrapped up in consumption. I have to hand it to Capitalism there – raising generations of faithful buyers who, when we wanted to express tenderness and family fuzziness, whipped out the credit card (think of those Kay/Zales diamond ads – Does every kiss begin with Kay?) Clever play, Capitalism. You really had me going. David Sedaris said it best in his essay “Six to Eight Black Men,” about Christmas traditions in Europe, where people tend to go give gifts on Christmas Eve and spend Christmas day going to church, eating, etc.

[In Europe] gifts are generally reserved for children, and the parents tend not to go overboard. It’s nothing I’d want for myself, but I suppose it’s fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value.

These days, I’m happy not to be at work, to hang out with my sister and make increasingly sophisticated macaroni plates at home. I took a hike today at a state park near my mom’s house, starting out at noon under an overcast sky, my boots crunching and sliding in the snow. An hour in and I was completely alone with the wind, the sound of my footsteps, and the occasional stream fed by snow melt. Sound carries well through the bare trees and rocks, and I heard a fox bark several times. Otherwise, it was just me; No blinking lights or wrapping paper or eggnog or holiday ads. It was nice to step away for a while.

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