Trying to Find the Spirit

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Well, it used to be. As a mom with a full-time job, it’s the living on no sleep, drinking too much coffee, downing Emergen-C shots to fight germs I can’t afford, stumbling through the mall at 10 PM like a zombie time of the year. I’d like to see someone turn that into a catchy tune.

I really used to love Christmas, I really did. And even up to the last few years I still loved it, having surprises in store for the kids and reveling in their excitement. But now it feels like a grind that starts at Thanksgiving. I don’t know if it was this hard for my parents when they were putting on Christmas for us, but they never showed they were cranky about it.

I’ve had the privilege of reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” with Younger Son lately – as a real and true geek, this is a moment I’ve looked forward to for a long time. Now with just four days ’til Christmas, I can identify with Bilbo when he handed the ring to Gandalf: “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

Oh, Bilbo. I do know what you mean. I am the butter. But Younger has finally agreed to reading all four books together, so even if that’s not Christmas spirit at least it makes me ridiculously happy.

I was excited for a white Christmas after so many years of way-too-mild Christmases. Not one but two little snowstorms gave us over a foot of snow blanketing the yard. And now in these last few days before the holiday it’s supposed to jump to 50+ degrees. So the low hum of global warming dread that had been quieted is back.

My Kindle offered me a free version of “A Christmas Carol” so I decided to jump into that, thinking maybe the classic tale would snap me out of the doldrums. As with every book I’ve read as a child and come back to in adulthood, the experience of reading it is so much richer.

However, I also came to find out that it’s because of Dickens and this very story that we’re historically supposed to have a wonderful Christmas. In fact Christmas was a dying religious celebration until Charles came along and decided it should be a life-changing event. Oh, the irony.

My favorite song has become the Vince Guaraldi/Peanuts version of “Christmastime is Here” because everyone knows it’s depressing while trying to be cheerful. Thank you for your insight to human nature, Charles Schulz. Your gift to the world may be truer than Mr. Dickens’.

My family has several holiday traditions, activities that we’ve done with the boys year after year, and I wouldn’t miss them even if I was feeling Grinchy. I’ve enjoyed doing those because it’s precious, stolen time with my boys away from the madness. And we have fun no matter what we’re doing. Those times make me exceedingly happy, but it’s not technically Christmas spirit.

So what am I to do? Besides a delicious meal, perfect gifts, my contribution to our economic stability, joy, peace, love, and happiness, I’m supposed to have Christmas spirit. Just the requirement makes it feel less possible (and all the more depressing).

In the end, spirit came to me in flashes this year. In explaining to Younger what Habitat for Humanity is, that there are people who are willing to give up their time and money to build homes for others in need. In a neighbor whose picture order got mixed into mine, and instead of tossing them in the trash, she delivered them right to my door. At the school band concert when the kids played Good King Wenceslas all on the same notes. Singing “Dahoo dores” at our Whoville flash mob. Younger picking a fancy red “Christmas” shirt to wear on Christmas day, and being the general curator of Christmas spirit all month.

It came in a long and detailed email from my aunt, telling stories of Christmas in her house as a child and everything her mother did to make it special despite not having any money to spend. How family and friends were welcome all week and the time was spent visiting and eating bad sugar cookies with the silver balls that break your teeth.

That is what I have to settle on, finally, as the meaning of Christmas for me this year. After all the long hours, hard work, stress over finding the right gift, forgetting to bring out the silver and praying it wouldn’t be tarnished just hours before the meal was to be served, it comes down to family. It’s simply a tradition for family. I am blessed with a large, happy, and healthy one, and while it’s exhausting to fit them all into the schedule, it’s worth it. And we’ll continue to do it every year, while searching for the meaning behind the insanity. Isn’t that what family’s all about?

Christmas is Hard and Kids Know It

There are plenty of mournful versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” many of which are on my iPod and I’ve been hearing in Christmas rotation this month. There’s the Jerry Vale department store version, a heartbreaking Rosemary Clooney, the great and tragic Judy Garland’s, even James Taylor got in on the act a few years ago. And Lou Rawls’ sexy and fun version always makes me smile.

But far and away this one is my favorite:

Simple, straightforward, true. I’ve written before about how this Christmas album gets to me more than any other.

But I think the magic of Jim Henson, and why I loved the Muppets so much and why that has stayed with me all this time, was that he never talked down to kids. He just said it like it is, and Rolf always felt to me like that little bit of reality. Somewhere there’s a guy who’s been run down by life. He’s OK, and he plays the blues in bars for a living, and he’s not happy, and he’s not destroyed either. He’s just out there. And he tells it like it is too.

Ironically I’ve been teaching and writing lately about just that. Many people tend to discount kid’s opinions, fears, even their ability to understand what’s going on around them. Jim Henson never did that. He knew that kids know what’s up. They understand so much more than we give them credit for.

When you watched the Muppets there were monsters, divas, cranky old men, stoners, nerds, weirdos, and a neurotic but capable frog trying to hold them all together. It was a true vision of life, not polished to hide away anything that might be unpleasant.

So much of what we offer kids today is just that. Turn on any kid’s show and everyone is happy and excited and speaking in a very high and fast voice! Life is good! You are a genius indigo child! You will someday rule the world if you just follow along with our hyperactive movements because someone told us that you learn more if you move at the same time and we’re also trying to make sure you don’t get fat watching our tv show and sue us to pay the medical bills for your early onset diabetes!

Oh my Lord, it’s constant screeching. When I dig out old videos to show the kids it’s all the cartoons that offended people somewhere along the line (i.e. Bugs Bunny and the Simpsons), with crankiness and conflict and real life.

My sister mentioned there was a group of parents in NYC trying to ban the Peanuts Christmas special because it depicted too much bullying. My first response (besides mocking them) was that bullying is a part of life, and that’s just the dumbest thing I’ve heard anyway. But today’s parents are trying to deny bullying or anything less than pleasant so their kids will have the most enchanted life possible.

When in fact, their child would probably identify with Charlie Brown, as we all did at some point. We feel depressed when we’re supposed to be happy and left out and rejected when others are having fun, and sometimes feel like the holidays aren’t really living up to what they’re supposed to be. And our friends pull us through, just like Charlie Brown’s.

Plus no one should ever be denied the coolest Christmas soundtrack ever and Linus’s awe-inspiring speech.

Someone asked me, why do these Christmas shows endure? That’s easy – we identify with the protagonist – it’s the basis for every story ever told. “Rudolph” is appalling in how horrifically every adult in the story treats him (and Kermie). But when you’re Rudolph, or a kid who has felt like Rudolph, what else can you do but go on? And isn’t it nice to know you’re not the only one who feels this way?

Kids who are watching learn that life is sometimes hard (Egad! No! Don’t tell them that!). People can be jerks and you will feel beat down. But you do your own thing, there’s always tomorrow, you’ll find your way. Even if it’s with a pack of misfits (which is exactly how I would describe most of my life).

And Rolf is there too, with his piano, howlin the blues, letting us know we’re not alone.

Freakin John Denver

It’s two days before Christmas. People are playing ice hockey with their kids on the pond downtown. My friend who lives next door to the school is blaring Christmas carols out of her window to cheer us as the kids head in for their last day before Christmas break. People are wearing Santa hats everywhere. The Who song from the Grinch is playing in the grocery store, and living in the town that is allegedly the basis for Who-ville, you would think that my heart would be growing three sizes this day.

But I still don’t have Christmas cheer.

In fact I’ve been decidedly, almost willfully, un-merry this year, even though I’ve tried really hard to kindle that spark. No matter what I do I just see the whole thing as a chore, and too much to do on top of my life that already has too much to do, and I don’t have enough money or time, and something to stress me out about whether or not my kids believe in Santa and how can I prove to them that he’s real? And should I even bother because then they’ll be the nerds at school?

Then it was John Denver who got me. I realized I hadn’t put on the all-time best Christmas album ever yet this year.

I danced to the “Christmas is Coming” round and “Little St. Nick.” The kids asked “What is this song?” because it’s so damn good and they knew it as soon as they heard it. I feel really bad for our kids that they don’t have the Muppets, by the way (maybe they will after Jason Segel’s new movie comes out – and oh yeah, I’m looking forward to it!).

Then he came to the part about Alfie the Christmas tree: “So in your Christmas prayers this year, Alfie asked me to ask you, say a prayer for the wind, and the water, and the wood, and those who live there too.”

Sobbing. Then he goes into “It’s In Every One of Us,” which happens to be from a folk album that my mother loved in the ’70s by David Pomeranz.

I know the words by heart. “It’s in every one of us to be wise. Find your heart open up both your eyes. We can all know everything without ever knowing why.”

Sobbing some more. These guys who I thought were such geeks as a child, and thought if I had to listen to those songs one more time I would lose it, and there I am just totally losing it after all (but in a good way). I guess I’m officially OLD.

Did I hit the rock bottom of Christmas depression? Or did John Denver give me some holiday spirit? Honestly it felt cathartic. So I’m on my way up, and that’s a good thing. Thanks John Denver. Happy Holidays everyone.