Sunday, December 26, 2004

And to all a good night.

Here it is, the day after Christmas...I have almost survived another year. If nothing else, I have accomplished that.

Most informed thought I have encountered or read agrees that the Holidays are the most stressful time of the year. More suicides, divorces, et cetera. Yeah, well I can dig it. Fortunately most of my extended family has the Christmas routine down to the point where most holiday angst is minimal at best. Seeing each other throughout the year, we express our weirdness gradually over the course of the 12 months, rather than all at once.

My 18 year old has been struggling with Christmas this year. He's incredibly perceptive and cyncial: a dangerous combination. He sees the bullshit surrounding Christmas, but has not learned to filter it out.
Here's the deal: Christmas has been morphed into the cult of the Baby Jesus's Birthday Party.

It's all well intentioned, and often produces much social good. But the Christmas story is (at least to me) in the same category as Romulous and Remus suckling on the Mama Wolf. Illustrative of some important ideas, full of symbolism, but not to be taken at face-value.

I saw a full page newspaper ad yesterday by some well-meaning local businessman prompting...well, I'm not even sure what. It featured an illustration of the Holy Family doing the manager scene. The Holy Family was this White, Suburban Family (the Virgin Mary looked like she had lipstick and eyeshadow on) lounging in the hay. I was appalled and amused. The thing is, it's all noise.

Combine all this with the cult of Jolly-ness that seems go with Christmas these days. Say "Bah Humbug" and Homeland Security is liable to be knocking on your door.

I heard an interesting commentary on the radio the other day. The speaker said that many people said the problem was we needed to get more Christ in Christmas. He had the radical notion of going ahead and eliminating Christ altogether -- let Easter be the holiday that celebrates the sacrifice and meaning of the Christ, and Christmas go back to being the quasi-pagan end of the year Solstice celebration from which it sprang.

What has happend is that we've shrink-wrapped Christmas to contain a few bullet-pointed cultural and religious values, and expect that an off-the-shelf Christmas is all you need. Retailers (whether selling Barbie dolls or salvation) like shrink-wrapped stuff; it's easier to market.

If you want to make the Holiday season meaningful, you have to fill it with your own meaning, not someone elses. Otherwise it's like buying a picture frame from the store and displaying it with the model shot it came with rather than your pictures.

Example -- this was my most meaningful Christmas:

The fall of 1979 was arguably one of my worst. I was living in Santa Barbara at the time. My grandfather died back in Texas and I couldn't get to the funeral. Right after my birthday, my girlfriend of three years moved out. A month later, the ad agency I worked for got word that their biggest client (2/3rds of their billing) was bought out. New owner already had an agency in New York City.

Oh my.

The economy was in the toilet, and despite all the upbeat talk, the agency was in a death march. By Halloween the account was gone, and we were scrabbling to find a replacement or replacements for that income.

No replacements.

We were all out interviewing (I applied for a job with Saul Bass in Los Angeles, applied for a job with my old employer in St. Louis, applied for jobs EVERYWHERE) but jobs were tight. The second week of December about 40 of us got laid off (pre-disaster we were about 60 -- 2/3rds of the billings gone, 2/3rds of us gone: it was very mathematical).

So in this happy world the Christmas Season comes. No job, no money, no tree, no HoHoHo.

That fall I had made a new friend named Kevin. His family lived in the Greater Santa Barbara area. Christmas Eve I had nothing else to do, so I tagged along with Kevin to his family's Christmas celebration. We sat down to a great meal, drank wine and relaxed. We left, headed back to Kevin's apartment where we sat, drank beer, then coffee, shot the breeze and discussed life until the sun came up. About 7:30 we headed out and grabbed a dozen donuts and more coffee.

Meaningful to me. Primarily because it was not a Santa Claus/Presents/Baby Jesus/Holy Family Christmas. But it was one of the Christmases I remember best of my adult life. Whenever I get tired or frustrated by Christmas, that's the one I turn to in my memory. Bittersweet is often preferable to sickly-sweet.

I hope you have a meaningful Christmas, whatever the meaning is.

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