The final words of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol say Scrooge learned, “How to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
Everyone who celebrates the holiday knows how difficult that knowledge is. I sometimes feel I’m practicing, reviewing the disappointments and triumphs of Christmases past and hoping, this year, to come closer to what often seems an impossible ideal. The challenge isn’t finding a gift suited to each person but living through the season without living in its commercialism. The world this time of year can become pure material, a list of activities, a list of purchases, a list of obligations.
Yet the things we’ve kept mean the most to me: the ornament that belonged to my wife’s dad when he was a boy, an advent calendar we’ve hung up since my children were small, the familiar candy dishes, the tiny crèche for the mantle, the stockings my mother made, the sloppy handprints on overlarge daycare ornaments, the Santa toy that, when you press a button on his base, collapses as if he has narcolepsy.
Merchants celebrate novelty each Christmas, but I look for familiarity. I want to touch base and sometimes wonder if we need anything new at all, if the music and food and stories and traditions we’ve always known might be enough. I need to sustain the Christmas spirit year to year, and anything new has to support that goal. If the opening of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is true and, “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” then, at least on one day, I’d like my family to be archetypical and share something with everyone who has discovered how to keep Christmas well.
The presents are incidental, but saying so sometimes seems naïve, idealistic. Of course gifts mean something to The Economy. Of course, during this season, buying assures the welfare of countless people who live by our yearnings, and I don’t mean to belittle the fiscal significance of the holiday. I don’t mean to belittle advertisers, marketers, sales managers, or shop clerks. I wish them Merry Christmas too. I only want their sincerity, their assistance finding a gift or gesture to express affection, not my hip-ness or how much disposable income I can muster. I want to keep Christmas well and need help. Generosity is the spirit of the season, but generosity so easily slips into exploitation, extravagance, acquisitiveness, and waste.
However, though navigating this time grows trickier every year, I’m up for the challenge. I know belief is also part of keeping Christmas well. I celebrate—as an ideal to live all year—this one day of family, companionship, good will, and love. I believe without the three ghosts or the prize turkey. I believe without ribbons. I believe without tags. I believe without packages, boxes, or bags.
So here is wishing everyone the peace, affection, understanding, and hope Christmas is supposed to represent. It is hard not to be used by Christmas and use it instead, but when you get the day and season right, it is truly magical, truly the most wonderful time of the year. That knowledge, as Scrooge discovered, is well worth possessing.