The Ghosts of Christmas Present

Of all the presents I've ever given, the best reaction, ever, was to a battery-operated toy puppy I gave my three-and-a-half-year-old niece one Christmas. She wasn't quite sure about it until we put it on the floor and sent it off, where it squeaked its way down the hall, stopping every few steps to sit up and bark. Eyes wide as searchlights, she squealed, jumped up and down, and raced down the hall so she could see the puppy coming toward her. She quite literally couldn't contain her excitement. She jumped up and down, squealing, then dropped down on the floor to look eye-to-eye with the puppy, then jumped up again, laughing, squealing and bouncing, more wound up than the toy itself.

I wish I'd had a video camera to record that moment, because one of these years all too soon, moments of such perfect, complete and unadulterated joy will be far harder for her to find. Especially around the holidays.

I'm not sure when, exactly, the shift happens. When we lose that three-year-old ability to just love the moment and not worry about what it isn't, or what it should be. Three year olds don't sing songs of longing at the holidays, about white Christmases or being home, or the kind of Christmas they wish they'd had. So why do the rest of us?

In a New York Times op ed piece about Chrismas songs, musician Michael Feinstein noted how many popular Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers (something he got in trouble for joking about during a performance, wondering aloud whether that meant all the Christian composers were busy writing Hanukah songs). His explanation was "it doesn't take Freud to figure out that the sugarplums, holly and mistletoe all tap into a sense of comfort, longing, security and peace that so many fervently desire; that we all wish the cliches were true."

Perhaps it's an inevitable consequence of developing as a human being--the only member of the animal kingdom with the unique gift and burden of being able to imagine the future and regret the past. That sense of timeline, past and future--including the ability to imagine what doesn't yet exist--is what's given us virtually every new invention since the wheel, of course. But it does have its downsides. When we're small, we are more like a puppy--happy or sad in the moment, oblivious to the past and future. But as we develop and grow, we get a better sense of timeline. And with it, our ability to let go of all that isn't, wasn't or might be, and just be in the moment, diminishes.

Added to that, of course, are the fantasy images of a picture-perfect holiday (as in, only in pictures) that come at us in ads, television shows and movies. A happy Christmas holiday must involve big fireplaces, perfectly trimmed Christmas trees, formal dress parties, eggnog, romance, perfectly behaved and loving families, and Christmas card moments all day long. I'm not referring to the oft-criticized "overcommercialization" of the holidays--just the image we succumb to of what "happy" or "perfect" means.

The ironic piece of that perfection is that if we actually found ourselves in the middle of one of those scenes, where every decoration and package and piece of clothing was just like the movies, we'd probably be in the midst of an extraordinarily rigid and dysfunctional family, where image was far more important than substance, and a hair out of line was cause for critique. A friend of mine talks about the "rules" his family had for wrapping Christmas presents, which included having to use double-sided tape so no tape showed to mess the perfection of the wrapping. Somehow "joy" doesn't seem likely to erupt in such a scripted and scheduled environment.

So do Jews or other non-Christians get a pass on all this baggage? If so, it might be reason enough to convert. "Nah," a Jewish friend of mine told me. "I think all that expectation stuff bubbles to the surface any time families get together, no matter what the holiday is. I also think it's a matter of exclusion and inclusion. I used to get the Christmas blues about not having that kind of perfect Christmas family gathering, because we didn't celebrate Christmas." I told him not to worry--we Christians weren't having that perfect Christmas family gathering, either.

So what's to be done about all that expectation and baggage? How do we let go of all the  regrets, longings and hopes of perfection, and regain that Christmas Present happiness kids do so well? One way, of course, is deprivation. Nothing like having everything taken away to clarify the things that really matter. When I was 20 years old, I was in a near-fatal car accident in New Zealand at the beginning of December. I'd already been away for six months, and I was determined to recover enough to be allowed to travel home in time for Christmas. When I arrived at immigration control in the U.S., December 23rd, I presented my passport to the official. He looked at my bandaged head and asked what had happened. I told him, and he winced. Handing my passport back to me, he held my eyes for a moment. "Welcome Home," he said quietly. Home. I'd actually made it home. After holding tough for weeks, I burst into tears.

That same understanding of what perfection really is would be well understood by every American service person serving right now in Iraq or Afghanistan, far away from comfort, family, or safety. Give them a simple hug from their loved ones, in person, on Christmas morning, and they, too, would be filled with perfect, unadulterated joy.

So perhaps it's just a matter of perspective. Kids have the advantage of a perspective uncluttered by time, loss, or experience. All they have is short-term memory. The rest of us have to contend with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Future, Imagined and Regretted. But it's possible to beat all that back, as anyone who's been in combat or on the edge of life and death can tell you. It just takes a little more work. But that's where nieces, nephews, kids and grandkids come into play. Like a million Ghosts of Christmas Present, they remind us that life is in the moment and that perfection doesn't require snowfall, decorations, or a Hollywood ending. It can be found anywhere, anytime, and in something as small and simple as a battery-powered puppy that elicits squeals of joy.

Note: I'll be offline for the next two weeks. See you in the new year.