Thursday, December 27, 2012

Grown-up Christmas

Christmas can be a little tricky when you're an adult, especially if you're single. This is true even if you know the mythology behind it and understand it as a holiday celebrating light in the darkness, even if you can expound on the marriage of Christian and older traditions, on Mithras, Saturnalia, the solstice, and Sol Invictus, until you're blue in the face. No matter. If you grew up celebrating Christmas, it's bound to be fraught throughout life with emotions tied up with family, home, traditions, memories, and what you think you ought to feel and do.

I'll be honest: grown-up Christmas rarely matches up with memories of Christmas past. The last Christmas that really seemed full-on to me occurred when I was nine, so I've had many more holidays that didn't measure up than I've had of those that did. What was it about those vanished Christmases that made them beautiful? Quite simply, it was the belief in magic. I remember a special sheen glinting from the surfaces of holiday decorations, Christmas carols that resonated with mystery and joy and still seemed new, and the ease with which I could believe in multiple department store Santas at once (ha! most of them were Santa's elves).

Furthermore, Christmas was a shared experience. Everything you did was with other people, whether you were singing in your nightgown as part of the angels' chorus in the play, shopping with your siblings at the mall, going to midnight Mass, or opening presents under the tree (oh, the enchantment of a pile of wrapped gifts).

As more of the Christmas glitter wore away year by year, I gradually adopted a less-is-more attitude. This basically means resisting any pressure, real or imagined, to throw myself full-throttle into things like decorating, socializing, shopping, listening to Christmas music, or watching holiday specials, unless I really want to. Pursuing the spirit of Christmas too assiduously is the surest way to lose it; it's a delicate, elusive thing, prone to disappearing completely if you put too much effort in. In my experience, it finds you, often when you're not looking.

Last year I decorated, shopped, baked, entertained, and enjoyed it all. This year, I did most of those things on a smaller scale. I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, baked gingerbread in the shape of stars and stockings and trees, and spun the Christmas CDs a few times. I bought presents for my nephews and wandered around the toy department. True to form, I made plans to go to midnight Mass and changed them when push came to shove. It was just too cold out, and I was sitting in the living room late in the evening entranced by my Christmas lights; my tree brightens a normally dark corner.

A holiday surfeit often sets in for me on Christmas Day; last year, I played bossa nova on the stereo while washing dishes in an effort to conjure up summer. Today, it was good to get out, see other people on the streets, and do a little non-holiday reading by the picture window in the library. Coming home, I noticed how cheerful people's holiday yard displays looked in the gathering dusk but still had the feeling of wanting to move forward, to carry on with things and get ready for a new year.

Actually, a few memories of grown-up Christmas do come to mind, nearly ready to be boxed away with the ornaments but suitable for one more airing before then: the first Christmas in a new apartment, made special by a chocolate box; driving around, singing carols, and looking at yard displays with college friends; making gift bags with offbeat stocking stuffers for a party; a weekend in L.A. to see a band; a climbing cat, a teetering Christmas tree, and a furry face peering out between branches; a Christmas parade with dancing elves in a coastal town; a black velvet shirt with pink satin trim; a red rose purchased in an airport; watching The Lake House multiple times, tucked up on the couch, while Christmas lights shed a soft glow; finding the perfect Christmas nightlight in a bookstore; standing up for the opening bars of the Hallelujah chorus.

They may not duplicate the privileged enchantment of childhood Christmas, but here and there, now and then, a little bit of magic stills shines through.