This year's Christmas went much like the previous 30-odd years I can remember: a tree with colored lights, topped by an angel made of cardboard and plastic; decorations more sentimental than aesthetically correct; an eyebrow-raising sea of presents emanating from the tree's trunk; an orgy of wrapping paper, bows, toys, ham and my aunts' shrill laughter at the dinner table.
We have some new players -- kids and spouses -- but things in my family remain mostly the same. The unadulterated consumerist approach to the holiday, for us, remains untainted by religion, earnestness or aging. The only spiritual element involves watching A Christmas Story, which we started doing every Christmas Eve, way before TBS started running marathons. In adulthood, I added the tradition of watching It's a Wonderful Life at some point, usually alone and always crying.
We all wake up to stockings filled with magazines and drugstore merch including, thanks to an in-joke with my Dad, Ban Roll-On for me. A horse-trading approach is taken with gift lists; e-mail and Amazon have become indispensable.
Put simply, our Christmas has always been more about the wonder of Santa Claus than of Jesus Christ. Historically, I have not had a problem with this. As kids, we made our lists and left out cookies and sat on laps at the shopping mall and even, for a time, made phone calls to the big man (or, if you prefer, my Dad's office). I always felt fortunate, not only for my family and the gifts, but also for the freedom from religious ritual.
I did not abandon the notion of Santa until I was nine years old. Of course, I knew -- but I didn't want to know. By that age, I had developed enough reasoning power to know that Santa didn't exist, but I did not like the idea of finding out. Finally, I willed myself to ask my mom. She was standing in the bathroom, getting ready to go out. "Mom?" I said, approaching her. "Santa doesn't exist, does he." My mom was applying makeup and looking in the mirror, with me reflected behind her. "Well, the spirit of Santa always exists," she said, or something like that. "What matters is if you believe." I knew enough about my Mom to parse the truth of her diplomatic response. A phase of my life quietly ended there.
This year, I felt like a new unpleasant realization struck, and it happened while I was contemplating the recycling bins sitting out on the driveways of my parents' suburban Washington neighborhood on the day after Christmas. I knew, but I didn't want to know. I knew that the holiday always meant several toys and electronics cut out of their impossibly hermetic plastic casings, untold amounts of paper, not a few batteries, a good amount of cardboard and plenty of media that could have been bought used.
I knew that we were just like millions of Americans on Christmas, using the holiday as a time to express our gratitude via credit card. I knew that it was environmentally and financially excessive -- it was harder still to admit that it was not even particularly satisfying. I don't know if the change was an abrupt one in me, or a slow one in our house, but it felt as if the focus on distributing gifts actually took away from my experience of my family. I would have been happy with half the presents and twice the connection.
I like to think that I still believe in the spirit of Santa, as my Mom encouraged -- but I both want and fear a different incarnation.