When I was a kid, my brothers and I woke up on Christmas Day in darkness, usually around 4:30. We'd huddle together, experiencing one of the least-explored aspects of relativity, which is that the speed of the passage of time is inversely proportional to how quickly you would like it to pass. We were forbidden to go downstairs until our parents were up, so we simply seethed in the dark. An hour or two later it would be 4:45 and we'd be on the verge of insanity. At five, we'd be jumping up and down on their beds.
Now that I'm no longer a child, I'm amazed that more parents don't simply throttle their children. Unbeknownst to us, my mother and father had been up all night, putting up the Christmas tree and decorating it, wrapping presents, and nipping from time to time on the bottle of brandy they put out for Santa -- just so they could show it to us to prove that he'd dropped by and had five or eight for the road. They sometimes got so enthusiastic about proving Santa's existence that they emptied the bottle and had to mix a small amount of instant coffee with water so we wouldn't think Santa had drunk it all.
In any event, they had probably gone to sleep around 4 AM, none the worst for all the celebratory tilts of the brandy bottle. In the best of all worlds -- for them, anyway -- there wouldn't have been three hyperactive children bouncing on their mattresses at 5:10 in the morning.
But they let all three of us live, and my father would go downstairs in the dark alone, and when he'd plugged in the tree and started some Christmas music, we were allowed to go down the stairs and see our living room transformed into Aladdin's cave. And then came the frenzy: tearing off the wrappings, the moment of ecstasy (or disappointment), the quick check to see what the brothers were opening, the search for the next one, and repeat. Over and over until everything was open, we were hip-deep in wrapping paper, it was 7:15 AM, and the remainder of the day yawned, gray, cold, and gift-free, in front of us.
I have to say that I'm not certain that the American Christmas is good for children. Despite the best efforts of our parents, it was essentially a prolonged paroxysm of greed followed by a long day of letdown. Spirit, if you don't count the brandy consumed on Christmas Eve, was conspicuously absent. It was also a useless bit of training, because there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in adult life, that requires the skills a little kid learns on Christmas morning.
And there's also the fact that this personal little family ritual has been multiplied by millions of families and the manipulations of marketing experts into the most materialistic of all holidays, an orgy of brand names, bogus price cuts, mass-media adrenaline, and the pointless squandering of family resources. All to celebrate the birth of a man who preached the spiritual value of poverty and chased the moneylenders from the Temple.
I'm writing this at 4 PM on Christmas Day, at dusk. The day is drawing to a close, and although the house isn't hip-deep in wrapping paper and inhabited by sullen, over-sugared kids, I have to say that I'll be glad to see the end of it. The day after Christmas, since I don't intend to go within a mile of any stores, seems like a bright island of normality to me.
But I hope all of you had a great time. And it'll be months before we hear "Jingle Bells" again.