When I was a child I discovered that the saddest time of the year was late afternoon on Christmas day. I remember exhausted parents, children (me included) already tired of the new toys lying on the living room floor, holiday trees suddenly looking weirdly out of place, and perhaps the most demoralizing thing of all, grownups heard to mutter, "Well, that's another Christmas," in the tone of the young woman in "The Waste Land" who cynically observes, "Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over."
In the years since, my feelings about the effects of Christmas have grown even more intense. We all know what a modern Christmas entails: holiday marketing that starts at Hallowe'en; a list of joyless social obligations, accepted as inevitable; children who, in many families, produce their own gift lists, specifying the make, model, style, and color of every gadget they expect, and demand, to get; a search for happiness almost universally admitted to be hopeless from the start. No wonder, at the end, almost everyone feels glad it's over.
Christmas takes forever, yet it all goes by too fast, rushing down the unavoidable road to the unavoidable disappointment. Even the Christmas carols get faster and less meaningful every year. Who bothers to sing all the verses of "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"? They're not in most of the hymnbooks anymore--and if they were, who would understand their strange mixture of evangelical expectation and Social Gospel concern for the poor? Who, without pausing to think, would appreciate the slow, old-fashioned language that Edmund Sears wrote in anticipation of Christmas, 1849?
And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
What music director wants to take the congregation through those complications?
But when I looked at that old song the other day, it came to me: That's it! That's what's missing--the sense of surprise. "Look now!"
Look now--something unexpected is coming. Even if you feel you're struggling up a road that just keeps climbing higher, you can actually hear something new, actually find something so satisfying that what happens afterward will be better than anything that happened before.
In our relentless, joyless routines, we ourselves are the sad men and women toiling along that weary road, burdened by loads that, for the most part, we ourselves have made. If we are ever going to experience joy, we need to be surprised by it. But we have to look up, anticipating the surprise. Which probably means looking in some other direction than the one we're used to looking in.
This year, watch some other movie besides A Christmas Story. Watch something you never saw before. And don't go to visit the usual people--invite a new friend into your home. Do you have to worry about a tree? Don't get one this year; spend the time just hanging out with the family.
Keep the season going--don't put it in the past at 3 p.m. on Christmas day. Take the family out to a special new place the day after Christmas, and save some of your gifts for Epiphany. Go online and look up all the verses of those old Christmas songs, and sing them on New Year's Eve.
Above all, save some time just to be alone. Actually by yourself. Actually doing nothing but the most important thing, reflecting on your life. Late at night, open the door, go out in the cold, look up--and be surprised at what you find coming to you upon the midnight clear.