Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Thought of the Day: obligatory Christmas cheer
My Metra train slowed to a halt not 50 yards from the Ravenswood Station right about this time last year. Eventually, a conductor appeared in the front of our car. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have had a suicide. The train will be delayed." Everyone gasped, but, detestably, it was half-saddened, half-annoyed reaction. We pitied the poor soul, but we were also late (amazing how stubbornly petty people can be). Later, I asked the conductor how rare these incidents were. I think he said they happened a few times a year. "But," he said, "they're more common this time of year."

This is the first Christmas in several years that hasn't snuck up on me. Usually December ambushes me; this year I wanted to put the tree up on November 1 and start singing carols. The sole reason, of course, was that this was the year I spent mostly at home, writing, lonely as anything, and I longed for the sense of hearth and togetherness that is embedded in the holidays. But I've been wondering about how we experience these feelings and about the holidays. We use--as I have--this aura of goodwill and cheer as a stimulant, an opiate to stave off the rest of the year, when we carry on our "lives of quiet desperation," as Thoreau said. But we also dread that aura, or at least the sense of obligation that comes with it--an unwanted mandate to be happy. I was talking with a friend a week or two ago who was on the verge of tears as she talked about how the holidays make her depressed after getting married a couple years ago and adjusting to different family dynamics. For her, the incessant chipper Christmas soundtracks oozing through department store speakers must be especially grating (most of all, the constant "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"). And I remembered one of my favorite episodes of West Wing, Excelsis Deo, in which Charlie asks Mrs. Landingham why she has been feeling down. Turns out her sons were killed in Vietnam on Christmas Day. This time of year, more than any other, she says, "I miss my boys." The man who stepped in front of my Metra train might have been feeling much the same way.

This obligatory giddyness and persistent glumness--what to make of it? For these people, would it not do more for cheeriness on earth to forego the whole season, to just call it off? And yet, for others, like me this year, don't we need the rhythms of tradition and warmth of reunion with loved ones to anchor the end of our year? The least we can do, I guess, is keep our sugary salutations and holiday platitudes in check, mindful of those for whom the holidays and their "cheer" have the opposite effect.

Footnote: It's worth noting that "Christmas cheer" has little to do with the first Christmas, and is largely a contrivance of our nostalgia and our department stores. Christ's arrival, as profound an invasion of hope as it was in a world of despair, was not the kind of material of which carols are easily made. His unmarried parents had hassled with traveling to register for a census by an oppressive Roman regime, no doubt unnerved by the whispers surrounding their pregnancy. Their baby was born in a nondescript house (most likely--the Bible says nothing about a stable) and cradled in a trough, bound for a lifetime of misunderstandings, especially in a Jewish society starved for a heroic political revolutionary after a series of thwarted wannabes. It was a day of victory, but of delayed victory--almost as much of a reminder of the misery that lay ahead as the eventual end of that misery. Walking through a mall today, Mary and Joseph would wonder how the heck we turned the birthday of their firstborn into this extravaganza.

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