Sometimes in the magical month of December, you walk outside and discover that your truck has been stolen out of your driveway. This may even happen on a morning when you actually remembered to put the surprise in the kids’ advent-calendar pocket the night before. Because of this, you are feeling very on top of things—until, of course, you realize the truck is gone. And because it is the holiday season, you may experience a priority shift in which the biggest deal is not so much that your truck is gone, but that the scheduling fallout from the theft and its reporting means that you won’t be able to put up the Christmas tree that night.
I love Christmas. I love it so much that it nearly puts me
over the edge every year.
’Tis the season for tree felling—nothing starts December like an expedition tradition; decorating—tree, mantle, nativity, door, flat surfaces throughout the house and outdoor lights for which I climb on the roof during naptime, tip-toeing quietly over Theo and Sylvia’s rooms; gifting—thinking, making, buying, wrapping; holiday cards—creating, printing, writing. There are traditions to keep up, special picture books to bring out, family and friends to visit, and, oh yes, cookies to bake. And crafts! Also, I should look rested, fit, clear-complexioned and split-end-free at holiday parties. Also I should probably have a holiday party of my own. How all of this is possible in 25 days utterly escapes me.
The to-do list pressures of December are over the top. The
thing is, I really want to do all of
these things, even though I realize as
I’m doing them that I am perpetuating the month’s crazy over-the-top-ness.
Having my own family has underscored how much of a traditionalist I am—and how
being a traditionalist requires a certain measure of insanity, or at least an
extended period of suspended rationality. As November closes, I
enthusiastically throw out what little rationality I possess on a good day. I
prepare to unearth the boxes of ornaments and sugar-laced nostalgia and set
them all loose.
And so begins the battle between my longing to just zone out in front of the Christmas tree every day and my Type-A holiday tendencies. I physically fight the urge to make sure the lights are evenly wrapped around every single tree branch. I sometimes reposition ornaments my husband and kids have already hung. I feel obligated to design a quasi-clever card each year and send them all out on time. I take Santa Claus very seriously—not as in making sure my kids get a photo with him (I’m not even tempted), but in my fervent desire to create a sense of magic.
Maybe it’s something about the winter solstice, or the
overlapping holidays of several religious and cultural traditions; perhaps it’s
the new-child narrative behind our family’s tradition, or the disparate stories
that have adhered to it over the centuries. It could be generational
repetition; it could be community spirit. For whatever reason, the membrane
between the mundane and the magical seems especially thin this time of year,
and I want my children to fully experience its porous boundary. At the same
time, I am coming to recognize that the delicacy of that membrane may owe much
to the hundreds of things we do that secretly stress us out.
A friend recently shared with me the anxiety of The Elf on the Shelf. I have not read this story, but I gather it has something to do with one of Santa’s helpers who lives with a family and keeps an eye on the kids. The conceit is that the elf changes position each night, and the kids discover it in a new place each morning. An actual toy elf is included in the family-activity pack. My friend and I were discussing the holiday version of our usual diurnal mania—how the morning’s anything-is-possible energy for a day’s worth of accomplishments descends to self-excoriating exhaustion by dinnertime. She admitted that the final, reduction-to-tears straw the other evening had been The Elf on the Shelf—the fact that she had to move it before she went to bed that night and that she would have to creatively reposition it 25 days every year for the rest of her life. Sometimes, creating holiday cheer can be soul crushing. It can flip in an instant.
I acknowledge my allegiance to Christmas traditions. It has
established the holiday equation of our household: P1 + P2 + K1 + K2 = HC,
where P1 and P2 are the parent variables, K1 and K2 are the kid variables, and HC
= Holiday Cheer. If HC is required to be a constant value—and it is,
dammit—then the other side of the equation must
Sometimes, P2 = 0. When the kids are babies, K1 and K2 can also = 0 (sometimes they’re abstract positives, and other times they’re negative integers). If P1 + 0 + 0 + 0 = HC, then P1 is solely responsible for creating 100 percent of HC. Lunacy! Resentment! Yet this has been the equation before, and I didn’t do the equation where the madness of P1 is inversely proportionate to the escapism of P2.
When kids get a little older, the positive values of K1 and
K2 go through the roof. And this is what it is all about, right? This is what
gives sense to the madness of P1. If (K1 + K2)HC = M, as in Magic, then HC is
worth whatever input is required. And because M is really unquantifiable and
composed of infinitesimal limits, I voluntarily sign up for holiday calculus.
For the Ks, the M is all around them. For the Ps, the M comes directly from
creating M for the Ks.
Theo was four last year, and creating Christmas for him was completely enchanting for me. Getting to make something magic for my children feels like one of the best gifts I can enjoy. It doesn’t have to live up to any model of perfection, and it shouldn’t have to threaten my sanity. Just changing the phrase “make magic” to “facilitate magic” would let up the pressure considerably.
The thing is, you can’t disregard the experience of P1 and
P2, on both the positive and negative sides. In reality, HC is a variable, too,
and any sort of happiness, much less merriment, depends on the relative balance
of the values of Ps and Ks. Also, sometimes there are unforeseen inputs: A
stolen truck, for example.
When we went to see The Nutcracker last weekend, my parents bought my niece a porcelain ballerina ornament. She held tightly to this during the ballet, enthralled by the performance. Pure magic. As the curtain closed, she dropped the ornament, and it broke into three pieces: a leg, a body and a head hanging by a ribbon. She was heartbroken. My sister and brother-in-law glued it back together and it’s now hanging on their Christmas tree, imperfect but intact.Ultimately, there is no living up to the perfect version of anything. The magic of most things lies not in perfection, but in intactness—the way we, individually and collectively—hold together the things we value, that we call beautiful, that make us experience wonder. A few days ago, Theo was being a superhero. “You know what I am?” he asked us. “I am the force of gravity holding us all together.” That’s some serious magic. I’m glad he’s here for Christmas.