Autumn is officially over in the Northern hemisphere. Even the unseasonably balmy days are gone. Today was the shortest and darkest day of the year, but we hardly noticed because we were all “having a good holiday,” just like our friends told us to. Tuesday was the first of the eight days of Hanukkah, but we know that “the holidays” refers to the two months between Halloween and New Year’s Day, with maximum intensity in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Christmas, though, is the engine that pulls the holiday train, so here are ten things we can appreciate the most about the 25th of December.
1. Food Again – Thanksgiving is all about food, lots and lots of food all at one time. Christmas, although it often includes a Thanksgiving-like turkey dinner on Christmas Day, is all about lots and lots of food all the time. Cookies, candy canes, ham, the many fruitcakes, chocolate in many forms, eggnog … I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Oh, and pigs-in-blankets at parties …
2. Presents – It’s actually kind of fun to stop and think what people would like – if you have the time. It’s also kind of fun to find out what people think you would like – especially if they are anywhere close to being right. Mainly though, it’s about giving toys to children. They appreciate everything, although perhaps not for very long. Plus we can take a turn playing with them, too.
3. Christmas Lights – I am firmly convinced that it’s no accident that these winter holidays are all about light – Christmas, Hanukkah, even Diwali, although it doesn’t get that dark and cold in India during the winter. Otherwise, we would all fall victim to severe seasonal affective disorder (SAD). For thousands of years, we have all celebrated the winter solstice with lights and warmth. I don’t feel the longing to escape to a tropical paradise until January.
4. Christmas Music – There’s Christmas music, and there’s Christmas music. There are carols you don’t need to hear for the millionth time, and then there’s that moment that you hear, oh, “The Christmas Song,” sung by Nat “King” Cole, that reminds you of how beautiful Christmas music can be. What’s really worth the effort is a quick scan of your local newspaper or a visit to a nearby church, where you might find a carol service with traditional carols sung by a choir with a pipe organ, that will remind you of the haunting beauty of Christmas music that evokes the season’s true meaning. But you don’t even have to delve that deeply. Just enjoy the gorgeous harmonies and soaring high notes of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” . . .
5. This Year, A Long Weekend — When I was younger I was disappointed when Christmas fell on a Sunday. Blue laws once kept stores closed on Sundays, anyway, so Christmas on Sunday didn’t feel any different than an ordinary Sunday, but now, when everything is always open, I can appreciate the extra holiday on Monday. Lots of people will have the opportunity to celebrate an extra-long, almost Thanksgiving-length weekend: a short day on Friday, Christmas Eve on Saturday, Christmas on Sunday that you can enjoy well into the night, and the holiday on Monday that will allow you to recover — at least long enough to start returning the gifts from the people who clearly weren’t paying close enough attention to the person you really are.
6. Also This Year, Football — And this time it’s pro football. Last weekend was an “any given Sunday” dream. Previously undefeated teams lost. Formerly winless teams won. Teams with good defenses lost to teams with no defenses. It was a football fanatic’s dream. Moreover, it set up a next-to-last football weekend where all sorts of unlikely victories could send thoroughly undeserving teams to the playoffs (where they will live down to their lowest expectations, but that’s for another weekend), and as noted above, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy those match-ups.
7. Holiday Parties — They’re endless. You’ve spent all year trying to drop the pounds you gained at last year’s holiday parties, and here it is again, the merry-go-round of cocktail parties with your friends or colleagues who’ve finally found the time to congregate, drinks in hand. It’s exhausting, but at least you’re loved. The next time you roll your eyes as you try to figure out where you’ll find the time to go to all these parties and finish your Christmas shopping and glaze that ham and set the table, remember all the people you know — or know of, or read about — who have lost loved ones or feel utterly hopeless at this most celebratory time of year, and be grateful that you have the wherewithal to enjoy all that collective benevolence and holiday spirit.
8. Animated Movies and Specials — Who doesn’t want to see “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the 896th time? Or that Claymation special with the Heat- and Snow-Miser (for the record, “The Year Without A Santa Claus”)? They started at Thanksgiving, but by now they’re in full swing, those gaudy, goofy, corny, somewhat outdated Christmas specials (whatever happened to “The Little Drummer Boy,” anyway?) that, despite decades of viewings, first as a child and now as a parent with your own children, somehow seem timeless despite their obvious age. Animation and special effects have become much more sophisticated in the intervening years, but from my quick comparison of more recent Christmas specials to the ones from when I grew up, the storytelling has declined significantly. No matter, though; watch them all. They’re only on for four weeks or so, they’ll give you one more chance to sing those goofy songs, and they’ll give you and your kids a glimpse into your gone-but-not-forgotten childhood.
9. Trains — Max made me include this, but I’m up for it. As he has said, we have a model train that rides a figure-8 track in front of our Christmas tree. We didn’t have it before he got here, but I like it. Somehow, trains feel very Christmas-y. I’m not sure why, but ours has pine-scented steam that enhances its Christmas feel, and nearby there’s a full-size train pulled by a steam engine that takes a brief Christmas ride from its point of origin to the next town over. Christmas-themed movies have been made about trains (see: “The Polar Express”), and the chugging of a train evokes a romantic holiday journey to see one’s loved ones for the Christmas season.
10. Holiday Spirit — It’s not easily defined, but it’s the general sense of festivity and cheer that brightens most of your encounters at this time of year. Whether people celebrate Christmas or some other holiday, whether they’re friend or adversary, people just seem to be in a better mood. They greet each other more warmly, they treat each other more kindly, they respond more patiently. Perhaps it’s because they’ve had to spend all that time thinking about others instead of themselves. Perhaps it’s that the end of each year reminds all of us how quickly time passes and how precious it is. Whatever the reason, we should just revel in it. In January everyone will be their grumpy, impatient selves again despite those New Year’s resolutions vowing to be different.