“What’s the best gift you’ve received?” is a get-to-know-you question I’ve encountered a couple of times. I have no answer. It may say everything about me that the opposite question—my worst gift—would be easier. At my age, Christmas doesn’t bring the sort of material anticipation it once did. I’m curious to see how my family likes what I’ve chosen for them. I hope I’ve done a good job shopping.
All my shopping is over now, which may be my answer to the question that starts this post. I’m grateful. Today Chicago is sunny but especially cold. The thermometer reads 7° F (-14° C) with a wind-chill of -7° (or -22° C). Past a certain point, all temperatures are abstract, but few people seem to be braving the air. Retailers would like it warmer, I’m sure, but I’m appreciative. Perhaps my family will stay in. Both children are home from college, but their schedules and our schedules mean we haven’t spent much time together yet.
I’m a homebody, and, even if we’re all lounging about reading or roaming online, I love company. And calm. Life travels at such a pace it’s hard to focus on any face for long and landscapes blur. The people who make money on this season prefer us frenetic. They like us to feel discontent standing still.
This time of year I watch sappy Christmas movies that follow a familiar pattern: a man or woman made incomplete by a recent tragedy or loss comes in contact with someone new (supernatural or natural) and becomes complete again just in time for December 25th. They find love or family or family and love. The plots reveal a deficit in our lives. We’re damaged, and nothing will mend us but addition. At least these movie remedies aren’t material. No character is made whole by an iPad or Mercedes under a giant red bow or jewelry from Jared.
As predictable as these stories are, they’re comforting. Normally I can’t abide cliché and formula, but they’re a balm to my fretting. With no great loss to overcome, no big blank where someone should be, no desire to meet an angel or Santa or any of his relatives, you’d think me immune, but I’m not sure any of us are. We’d like to believe things could be more right, all of us. Which is another way of saying nothing is quite enough.
“It’s the thought that counts,” I’ve heard over and over, and maybe we need some emblem to take the place of warm thoughts about loved ones. Yet Christmas, as practiced by most of us, is just as much an expression of discontent, a desire that, for one day at least, we might possess all we want, including items we haven’t thought to want yet. Of course, it’s absurd. Even if we could be sated—humans seldom are—no thing will make us so or make us so for long.
Yet, though I’ve celebrated many Christmases, I don’t lose hope that tranquility might come. The paradox runs deep—I never stop yearning for that momentary release from yearning—but, in the end, it’s the possibility of comfort that possesses me this season.
Sneer at my idealism if you like. Make fun of my affection for “All I Want for Christmas,” “Snowglobe,” and “A Holiday Engagement”—I don’t feel so good about my need for sentimentality myself—but all I really want for Christmas is to stay out of the cold, to revel in my family, to stand still, to find peace.
I’m wishing you the same.