By Zinta Aistars
I surrender. Oh no, not to those masses of sales and the long lines for stuff, no, no! I surrender to the spirit, the true spirit, the buried spirit of the holiday—Christmas. It is the day of Christmas Eve, and my extended family is preparing for our annual gathering in Chicago, at the home of my sister’s family. Even my old chow pup, Guinnez, is coming along (and don’t tell him, but he is about to be dragged into the bath for a good suds-ing to make him scentfully presentable and to meet the approval of my sister’s cats, almost).
Several Christmases ago, my sister bought me a black scarf, and embroidered on it, in gold thread, are the words: “Bah Humbug.” Every year I enter the family hubbub muttering under my breath, epithets against this holiday that has somehow become, for me, the symbol of all that is bringing this nation down—a shallow materialism of the worst kind. Not the pursuit of happiness, but some mistaken and crippled offspring, the pursuit of more stuff. How did the birth of a man called the Son of God, born to us to save us from, among other things, becoming obsessed with stuff rather than spirit, come to this?
Mind you, I’m no born again, bible-thumping, salvation-spewing religious fanatic. I do believe in treating others as we wish to be treated ourselves. And I can tell you—I do not want more stuff. Family love and appreciation from friends will do, and that is what I do my best to offer in kind. I’m not even sure that December 25 is really Christ’s birthday. I have heard theories that that particular star alignment, with one shining above all others, more likely happened in summer. Maybe, maybe not. But somehow some Saint Nicholas, who no doubt was also not into stuff, got messed up with this holiday. And he was the “god” that took off and created shopping sprees. Apparently my American countrymen and countrywomen decided they liked a fat flying elf better than a swaddled child in a barn.
A child today is no longer admonished to be good so as to reach a higher level of enlightenment, but must be good in order to earn more stuff out of Santa’s bottomless bag. We no longer teach doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do ... but do it for reward.
Let’s just say that this day is my least favorite of the year. I avoid stores and malls as much as possible. The traffic jams of grumpy and rushed shoppers keep me on side roads during this season. When the day is finally over, I breathe a sigh of relief, and look forward to my true favorite: New Year’s Eve. A time of new beginnings. No different than any other day, really, but why not choose one and call it a clean slate. Most of us don’t need more stuff, but probably all of us can use a clean slate about now.
But today, it is December 24. One more week to go before I can wipe this particular slate clean. I have the day off from work, and when I wake after a rare eight-hour sleep, I feel refreshed and at peace. Peace. Ah, yes. Peace. This kind of feels like … Christmas. Suddenly, I feel something of the spirit enter, and I get out of bed with a smile. My old chow pup groans like the old man he is becoming and heavily slides off the bed to the floor and heads for the back door. Prostrate calling. I pad after him and let him out. Grind some beans and put on a pot of coffee to brew. Feed the cat and let her lick the last bit from my finger. Contemplate the almost empty duffel bag on the floor.
I did buy a few things. A few. My daughter mentioned holes in her socks, and I have half a dozen colorful, warm new socks rolled into balls in my bag. I noticed my son, dropped by for dinner earlier in the week, sporting the Jethro look with a thick rope holding up his old jeans. A belt for him. And, quietly, I picked up a few unpaid bills. Some of hers, some of his. Give them a head start into the new year. Maybe not what they wanted, but surely what they need.
It’s possible that I might paint a few stones this lazy afternoon, too. My family knows about my big basket of smooth stones, collected from beaches along Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and the Baltic Sea. It sits on the floor in my living room, next to the fireplace. Eating breakfast, I glance at it, and a vision of tiny winter scenes float through my mind. Christmas Eve last year at my sister’s house, and after a delicious dinner with the family, I slipped out for a walk in the snow with Guinnez, and for a while, my mother tagged along, then waved and tossed a snowball as I kept going and she turned back to the warmth of the house. It was snowing, and the evening had a surreal blue light before turning dark.
I pick up a stone and hold it in my hand. Blue snow … evergreens heavy with white … a lone lantern shining in the night. Would make a fine gift … and would be one for me, too, to spend the afternoon with tiny paintbrush in hand, rather than leaning over a computer editing work copy.
And I realize that I am feeling like Christmas. There it is, that gentle something, that warmth, that silken contentment entering the heart. The act of creating and giving, it seems to be somewhere in there, and not in the long lines at the store. The act of taking time, a moment to think of that other while working on a little lump of joy. Because as I take the tiny bottles of paint from my cupboard, it is family I am thinking about. I see their faces. My mother, my father, my daughter, my son, my sister and her husband and children, and the new faces, too, the new loving partners our children are bringing along to welcome into the fold. I see them all. Before I am even there, I am embracing each one.
My heart swells with love, almost too much to hold, and just behind it, a warm and deep happiness. I can hardly wait to see everyone. When I do, I will wish each dear one: Merry Christmas.