My non-scientific survey suggests that the most common greeting this time of year is not “Merry Christmas,” but “Are you ready for Christmas?”
Is your tree up? Are your garlands and wreaths hung? Are your wireframe reindeer nodding and your blowup Santa bobbing in the wind?
Is your shopping done, the gifts wrapped and shipped (or hidden from curious children and pets)? Are your cards mailed, your invitations delivered, your party eats and drinks laid in the larder? Are the guest beds made, or the travel tickets purchased?
Have you procured the turkey (or ham), the cranberries and yams, the rolls and relish, the beans and beets, the pumpkin pie? Are the table linens ironed, the yule log laid, the scented candles burning? Have you bought your party dress?
It’s a formidable list. And I am sure I remember someone asking me that question the Monday after Thanksgiving. Am I ready? Of course I am n… Well, wait! Maybe I am.
Time was, I spent many hours Christmas shopping for my family—extended lunch hours and afternoons off from work wandering book stores and toy stores and department stores and hardware stores. Happy hours for the most part. I enjoyed the looking, at least until the pressure of unfilled stockings and the approaching big day began to accumulate between my shoulder blades. More than once, I settled for a book that I had enjoyed, in hopes that my teenage son would find a similar pleasure or inspiration in it.
But as our children grew older and moved away, the drive to pile presents under the tree gave way to the convenience and fungibility of a check written out on Christmas Eve. As the number of people around the Christmas table shrunk year by year, so too did the complexity of the meal.
We’d already simplified the decorating. We use an artificial tree. No need to argue the merits—tradition and aesthetics vs. convenience and cost. Allergies to conifers dictate the artificial route. The pre-lit tree is half-way done when unwrapped from its 11-month slumber, and the other major elements are similarly quick to unwrap and hang. We have foregone the Christmas card tradition, abandoned the annual newsletter, and rarely entertain, seasonal or not.
The upshot is that I could almost respond, Yes, to the question of the season, even on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Yes, give or take a few hours.
Why? Why the countercultural approach to Christmas? We are not Scrooges, contemptuous of the season. We are not hair-shirt, it’s-Advent-until-late-on-the-24th types; in fact we bemoan the tiny, less-than-12-days window in which our church lets the carols sparkle between the Advent and Epiphany hymns. Nor are we militant about keeping the secular out of the religious holiday.
Lazy? Maybe. I prefer to believe, however, that we are making conscious decisions to have a merry, not a madding, Christmas. We have watched friends and family driven by the season, and decided early on to enjoy it, not be consumed by it.
This year, however, I find myself wandering book stores and hardware stores and big boxes again. I baked cookies yesterday. Gluten-free cookies. Just for the fun of it. Just for Nancy and me. Maybe it has something to do with having grandkids. Even though we probably will not see them during the holidays, I have an urge to see packages under the tree.
Am I ready? Well, I wouldn’t mind finding another gift for one or two of those on my list. We are expecting some company, and I haven’t decided what to serve. The guest beds are not made, the floors not vacuumed, the de-cluttering not done. But if you jiggered the calendar and it was suddenly Christmas Eve, I’d be OK with that. I am ready.
Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Seasons Greetings.