Here’s what’s wrong with Christmas: it comes too soon.
I know, I know, not for children, and not for those earnest holiday celebrators and decorators, those invested in commercial profits, and those for whom the holidays mean being transported to the nostalgic realm of Christmases past, whether those memories are real or not. But for the rest of us, cynics and otherwise, those of us without small children and without any illusions of former firesides and Hallmark family moments, Christmas comes too soon, with way too much stress and way too many expectations.
It starts, of course, with the retail establishment, which has Christmas decorations on display by Halloween and discounted by Thanksgiving. You begin to feel consumer pressure: What is your decorating theme this year? Are all your lights from last year in working order? Will you have enough paper plates, holiday napkins, candles, tinsel, wrapping paper, bows, ribbons, garlands …the worry grows. You have to order your turkey (or prime rib or leg of lamb), or make your holiday reservations in time. Once you’ve gotten your gift shopping done, the USPS urges getting your packages in the mail. Then there are the television and newspaper ads, building momentum for holiday events: Christmas Ranch, Festival of Lights, and other local celebrations. And let’s not forget the internet, with its assaulting sales pitch for holiday specials — and these from retail websites to which you don’t even subscribe! And over it all are the regular reruns of the classic holiday movies: Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, Holiday Inn, and the various incarnations of A Christmas Carol. Whew! How can you possibly avoid the pressure?
It’s too much.
Here in South Texas, where most people don’t get real trees and favor yard decorations by Walmart, if you don’t get out to the nursery early — like right after Thanksgiving — and get your real tree tagged, you lose. And so we did on December 1. We are now in the process of putting it up. It’s early; the tree, a beautiful Nordman fir of 9 feet, will be dead by Christmas, but no matter. We still cling to our “real tree” commitment and we still love the feel and smell of a real tree and the sight of a majestic fir decorated in tiny, hand-painted bronze lights (that’s yet another story, but let’s leave my own compulsions out of this). Our son has to help us get it loaded into his truck and get it inside our house, of course, and the time will come when we can no longer manage this great arbor undertaking, but we’re not quite there yet. (I shudder to imagine the guilt and regret when we have to resort to a fake tree.)
And that is my point: people undertake so many traditions and try to live up to so many expectations during the holidays that when they finally recognize that those standards are untenable, and maybe even unreasonable to begin with, the seeds of depression and loneliness are sown. It is not surprising that more suicides and deaths occur during the holidays than in any other time of year. When your life doesn’t match media images, however unrealistic those images are, you are bound to feel somehow lacking, and sad.
The holidays in San Antonio begin on Thanksgiving night, with the lighting of the tree at the Alamo and the illuminations along the Riverwalk and the River Parade downtown. It is festive, but somehow also non-commercial, inclusive, contemplative, lovely in a distinctively San Antonio way. The “Saga” of Texas history projected on the face of the San Fernando Cathedral (photo above) illuminates the cultural context of our heritage all year round, not just at Christmas. In an odd way — yes, a nostalgic way — it all reminds me of Christmastime in New York, of the lighted angels with trumpets along Rockefeller Center Plaza, the live-animal nativity scene in the Radio City Christmas Show, and the tiny tree lights and holiday menus at Tavern on the Green. Even in a big city, you have to get beyond the noise, beyond the commerce, and beyond the stock images and clichéd greetings to the quiet, the calm, and the beauty of this time of year that we can all share, whether we’re Christian or not.
So I am going to ease into the season this year, and claim my bit of quiet contemplation. We don’t have any big plans, no big company, no big events planned, and I’m glad. I would be foolish to dream of a white Christmas here in this climate, but I can dream of “…a long winter’s nap,” and maybe a bit of enlightened rejuvenation to come for the New Year.