Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell


 [p.112]The real meaning of Christmas. I predict we will hear that phrase almost as many times this year as the other standard: “Don’t tell me the batteries are dead ALREADY?”

People talk a great deal each season about finding the real meaning of Christmas, but I think the phrase is a misnomer. Everybody who celebrates the holiday knows the meaning of Christmas, both theologically and culturally. What catches us up in a swirl of ambivalence and disappointment is something else. I suggest what we are looking for is the true feeling of Christmas.

There are a small handful of occasions for which our emotional responses are supposedly programmed in advance-like putting a ham in the microwave to turn on at a given hour, given temperature, for a given baking time. The arrival of a new baby, the Fourth of July, the wedding night-and especially Christmas; if we bring an unpredicted set of emotions to these occasions, we may do so at our peril.

No, I’m not going to talk about “holiday depression.” Heaven knows it’s real enough, but it’s gotten so fashionable lately that [p.113]talking about it is strictly deja vu. What I would like to look at are some myths that often get in the way of the true feeling of Christmas many of us hope to find.

You know how, when you’re trimming the tree, you put your hand down into the ornament box and come up with a whole clutch of entangled, entwined metal ornament hangers, several of them jabbing you in the thumb as you grab? Christmas myths are the same sort of thing. Having become a slambang, do-or-die event, Christmas now has clustered and clumped around it a great many expectations, tail ends of hopes, cultural patterns, and for all we know, some Jungian dreams from our collective unconscious. Maybe by naming these myths, we can untangle the ornament box and get on with trimming our own particular tree.

The Myth of the Twelve Months of Christmas

Of course, it only seems twelve months long. But as far as our stress levels are concerned, Christmas begins the day after Halloween and ends the week-end after New Year’s Day, by the time you calculate lead-in time and afterburn, or what writer Marie Shear aptly calls, “ancillary crap.” That comes to more than a sixth of the year. Anything you invest that much time in should have a permanent end product, like a baby or 1000 bottles of canned tomatoes.

Listen: let’s learn something from the athletes. Any good runner can tell you about peaking—working oneself up to the proper pitch of readiness, without cresting and crashing before the big event itself. How can you expect to experience real feelings of Christmas when you’re sick of the season by Veteran’s Day?

You don’t have to do it that way, you know. You can wrench the fat catalogues (“wish books”) out of the kids’ hands and put them on the shelf until you’re ready to take down specifics about sizes, colors, number of remote control units, and prescribed bodily functions of the doll-of-the-year. You can switch from commercial TV or radio stations (with their dogged “Dad Will Delight in His Own Caulking Gun This Year!”) to PBS and classical music stations, or put on records of your choice. In short—you can keep Christmas out of your home until you’re ready to give it the welcome you choose and it deserves. What-[p.114]ever it is that seeps in under the door before the Halloween candy hardens is certainly not the real thing anyway; it’s the crassest disguise.

The Myth of Good Will to All

Only Mother’s Day carries with it more guilt than Christmas. Now don’t get me wrong. The brightened faces that usually appear at holiday time, the little extra modicum of warmth and fellow-feeling shared between neighbors or co-workers or supermarket shoppers is one of the greatest benefits of the season. The problem comes with that word “all” in “good will to all.”

Good will, we assume, begins with the family—parents and siblings and children and aunts and cousins and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. But we’re demanding an awful lot of ourselves if we expect to generate Christmas-tree warmth for all these folks on cue, especially when we may still be dealing with leftover ambivalences going back years or decades. But good will is expected to stretch further—to the neighbors and the co-workers and the people jamming the aisles with us in the supermarket. Then there are the Absent-But-Not-Forgotten. Depending on the kind of life you’ve lived and how much you get around, that could mean quite a passel of former roommates (not to mention former spouses), old service buddies, old missionary companions, departed neighbors now living in Boston and old friends now teaching in Beijing. But wait—what about those whose faces we don’t actually know, but whose presence we sense? You know who I mean. The old folks at the nursing home who need visits, especially this time of year. The kids who need our quarters for shoes. The transients and other wanderers whom the Salvation Army’s valiant soldiers feed and shelter. The struggling single mother with three little boys who needs a Sub for Santa.

Well, I’ve painted myself into a corner here, haven’t I? Obviously I don’t have a solution to the problem, but I’d like to offer a suggestion for each end of the dilemma.

First of all, at the narrow end of the spectrum—what we can do—remember it is the humanizing effect of charity that especially recommends it. If we consider charity, not mainly as a way of meeting the momentary needs of those who receive, [p.115]but as a means of enlarging the souls of those who give (which surely must be its long-term objective), then a five-dollar gift thoughtfully selected and personally delivered to the widow, the orphan, the needy, accomplishes more in the end than a fifty-dollar check hastily mailed to some organized charity. The hectic pace of the season may allow us to take the latter course, but as food for the soul of either giver or receiver, it’s pretty thin fare. Giving is one of the wonderful things about Christmas. The widow needs to give her mite; all of us do, however small it may be. We need to take it in our own sweaty little hand, and awkwardly, fumblingly, preserve that act in its essential humanity—the fewer frills or institutional interventions, the better.

Then, at the wide end of the spectrum—what we would like to do—we should be comforted to remember that what we are striving for is good will—not unqualified love or unflappable patience. Good will is a very human, very possible emotion. It does not require that we give without the means, or pretend an emotion we do not feel. Love cannot be manufactured, nor affection, nor warmth, nor intimacy where they are not felt, even within families. But good will simply requires that we wish our fellow beings well. In some complex situations, it may mean an earnest wish or prayer that a family tangle didn’t exist, even though we know it does. It means offering up, on behalf of those whose material needs we can’t meet, a prayer or hope or cosmic positive thought or however you do it, that those needs get taken care of. That may sound like a simplistic cop-out to you, but I have to go on record as believing that good will is ultimately tangible, and that those prayers or hopes or positive thoughts work their own miracles.

The Myth of the Enormous Potential

Charles Shultz has his Linus say at one point, “There is no heavier burden than a great potential.” If true for Linus, how much truer for Christmas. Despite ourselves, we expect Christmas to be the highlight of the year. Our common sense tells us that it is unrealistic to expect our lives to peak each year on the 25th of December, regardless of what else has been happening to us, regardless of where our biorhythms are. It’s asking a lot to funnel a year’s worth of expectations into a cold, dark season that is sprinkled with flu virus and fuel bills, ice storms and [p.116]overworked credit cards. We expect of ourselves, and maybe of others, all the achievements we haven’t quite managed the rest of the year; cozy times with the immediate family, warm contact with the extended family, imaginative baking of fancy breads and the production of marvelous candies, attendance at a host of cultural events, from our 19th straight viewing of the grade school pageant of the Wise Men (which the child in my life insists on calling “Three’s Company”), to the “Messiah” sing-along. Christmas is to be all things to all people. It’s a little like the experience two friends of mine had. Just married, they were told by the bride’s mother to be sure and call her when they opened their wedding presents, so she could come over, “and watch the expressions on their faces.” Can you imagine a quicker kill-joy? Yet I fear we watch the expression on our own faces at Christmas, as well as on the faces of loved ones, to see if Christmas has lived up to its advance billing.

Certainly one of the marvels of Christmas is just that richness it offers. Assuming that each person responds to the religious implications of Christmas in her own way, let’s look at the rest—familial, social, cultural, recreational, culinary—just for starters.

We somehow think we must have a four-star holiday in every respect, every year. I wonder if it would work if we chose more carefully the aspects we wanted to emphasize in a particular year. What if you decided that this was to be, for example, the culinary Christmas? You could go all out for the fancy breads and the peanut-butter fudge, for the brunch for a few friends you rarely see through the year and for a New Year’s Eve supper that was really different. Other parts of the holiday could be scaled down: a smaller tree, a simplified card and gift list, a firm understanding with yourself that the world won’t stop spinning if you don’t go to every choral performance in the valley.

I remember one year when we decided to let ’er rip—we were going to decorate the house to a fare-thee-well. We had pine boughs on the staircase bannister and an Advent calendar in the dining room, fancy candlesticks and imported tree decorations and frosted windows, Christmas tablecloths in the kitchen, Yule guest towels in the bathroom—and that was just as we were getting warmed up. It was wonderful. I loved every minute of it; I’ve never forgotten it; and I probably won’t feel the need to do it again for ten years.

 [p.117]Some newspapers run a column during the holiday season for which the local citizenry provide articles titled “My Favorite Christmas.” Now that’s a nice idea; if nothing else, it gives us a chance to know the mayor or the governor or the mail carrier a little better. But quick now; can you name your favorite Christmas? A tiny poll I just conducted showed that eight out of eight people couldn’t and probably felt bad that they couldn’t. That’s another part of the “potential” myth—we’re supposed to have any number of Christmases vying with each other for Most-Popular-Yule laurels. Recently at a small party, someone asked people to tell what year of their lives they would relive if they had a choice. That led to a discussion of “favorite days.” A lot of different occasions were summoned up from memory to show off their splendors—but none was a Christmas day. That doesn’t say anything negative about Christmas, except that for most of us, the “great” days happen almost when we’re not looking. Days preceded by a lot of heralding and horn-tooting and excess anticipation frequently stumble under the overload.

The Myth of Christmas Past

If someone from another planet just walked into the Christmas festivities cold, without any prior experience or expectations of the season, what would it seem like to her? Personally, I think someone with no experience would find Christmas absolutely enchanting. The problem with most of us is that, like old Jacob Marley in Dickens’s “Christmas Carol,” we drag around a chain, in this case forged from accumulated emotions of twenty or thirty or forty past Christmases. If our memories are good, the present Christmas can’t possibly measure up. If our memories are less than good, then any present Christmas carries the onus of past failures, disappointments, loneliness, let-downs, guilt.

Most of us know enough to let kids be themselves. We know it’s pretty stupid to say to a kid, “Your sister was always great in math,” or “1 hope you’re not a troublemaker like your brother.” Maybe we could transfer that wisdom and learn to take each Christmas as it comes and let it be itself, with its own delights and gifts and possibilities. This Christmas doesn’t have to make up to us for any or all the shortcomings of previous holidays. It doesn’t have to compete with some all-time championship season. This will be this Christmas—one of a kind, [p.118]unique, with its very own shape and configuration, taking its substance from the shape of our lives at this particular point.

If we engage the holiday season openly, we stand a very good chance of experiencing that elusive “real feeling of Christmas.” What is the feeling? I imagine it is different for all of us. Sometimes it is a large, splendid feeling; sometimes a small, quaint, inner feeling. Sometimes it comes in the midst of excited city crowds; other times in the hush of a snowfall reflecting the glitter of the stars. It comes now in communion with others, now in solitude. It can be pure joy, or delight, nostalgia or merriment, calm contentment, or glowing love. I would say we recognize the “true feeling” of a given Christmas by its genuineness and its mint condition. Gerard Manley Hopkins affirmed, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” I think we feel that we have had a “real” experience of Christmas when we sense, sometime, some place during the season, that blessed freshness, that newness or “renewedness” and vibrancy. It may only come for the space of a few chords of music, or as long as it takes a log to burn, for the duration of a hug or the span of a bob-sled’s swoop. Its length may be a part of its preciousness. Somehow, a pearl the size of a grapefruit would lose something in the translation.

The Zen archery student is advised that she will hit the mark better if she aims less precisely. Joy can never spring to our loved ones’ faces on demand; and true, fresh feelings of Christmas cannot be pursued like the absolutely perfect blue spruce tree. But in the richness and the sweetness (even the bittersweetness) that is Christmas, there do lie tiny, wondrous pearls.