We celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas traditionally. We cook together, eat together, fill the table with friends, tell stories, and indulge in rituals peculiar to our tribe. Out come the Uno cards, the recipe box, the pinecone turkeys, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Down from the attic come boxes of ornaments and a wind-up Santa whose pasted-on facial features have mainly fallen off but whose music box still works.
The battle against commercialism begins early with lectures and vows, and is inevitably lost come mid-December. We become starry-eyed consumers, wishing for lavish trinkets touted in newspaper and television ads. I have learned to resist quietly, offering a few token gifts but insisting on keeping traditions in place that will be passed to the next generation, long after the latest gadget has lost its gleam. My kids have learned from yearly repetition how to make a pumpkin pie, how to roast a turkey, how to make broth and dumplings from the ravaged carcass. They know how to build a fire on a cold, dark night.
The hype makes me crazy -- the national obsession with shopping and the glossy subterfuge of talk about brotherly love. I go back, again and again, to the image of Mary, walking so many miles, pregnant, hungry and tired, only to be told there's no room at the inn, her little baby born in a stable. I can never extract from this story the nature of the celebration that has arisen over the centuries -- the orgy that Christmas has become. I watch miserable husbands and wives keeping watch over the checkbook while spending more and more. Children in the grocery store cling to their parents' knees, begging for all the things in red and green boxes while their moms and dads look anxiously toward the door.
I draw comfort from memories of gray winter days and the golden glow inside my grandparents' house during the holidays. I love thinking about the women in my family, talking together in the kitchen, rosy-cheeked from the heat of the stove, putting all they know about cooking into the meal. I remember a Thanksgiving dinner around my mother's table when I was a teenager, strangers filling many of the seats, all invited because they were away from home and had nowhere else to go. I love the memory of entering her empty house in mid-December a few years later, putting up and decorating a Christmas tree while she was at work, then slipping out the back door, imagining her coming home tired and weary, then seeing her tree and resting in front of it.
I loved as a child -- and still love -- to walk out of the cocoon of the holiday house into the cold winter world of the back yard. I remember walking out of my grandfather's house and stepping off the front porch onto an ice-encrusted cushion of fallen leaves. Beyond the house, the barn in winter was a quiet cave. I remember walking back toward the house, my grandfather's outlined form waiting on the porch for my safe return.
The battle against the television, the public-relations prattle about peace and goodwill in the face of poverty, war and environmental degradation, the insane amount of debt incurred, the shameless lust for new, expensive toys all make me want to hide for a month. Still, I want to open my doors and fill the kitchen. I want the weather to be bleak and the house to be warm. I want to slip out the back door into the frigid night while my kids clutter the kitchen counter. I want to walk until I'm frozen, then return to the heated chaos, the loud music and laughter within.
The Christmas holidays fascinate and frustrate me. My mind is crowded with December memories and the infernal march through the season of consumption. But a quick turn in the cold, twigs snapping beneath my feet, brings me back to what counts -- to my family inside, to the image of tired Mary, to the skeletal remains of the year in the midst of opulence, the bare bones of winter.
This article first appeared in the Dec. 5, 2002 Independent.