[A piece I wrote eight years ago, printed as an op-ed by the local paper. Still rings true to me.]
It used to be that Thanksgiving, or the day after Thanksgiving, marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. I think there was a time when Christmas shopping didn’t begin until well into December, but my memory isn’t what it used to be. Which may be a blessing in itself.
Anyway, once you got used to it, the transition from one holiday right into another actually made sense. We’re thankful for our blessings, then we get ready to celebrate birth and light. Thanksgiving and Christmas, side by side. Logically, perhaps Thanksgiving should come after Christmas and not before, but having them close is good enough.
- (Note: “Christmas” has literal significance for only one of several very different end-of-year feasts. But in the US, it’s the most commonly used label for the time. If anyone can devise an alternative designation which gracefully incorporates all the other feasts, I’ll be happy to use it.)
However, this year, to judge from the TV commercials and the direct mail flyers and the canned music in the malls, Christmas shopping began the day after Halloween. There we were, a little more than a month ago, raking leaves and wondering if there’s enough anti-freeze in the car. One evening it was Trick or Treat, and the next morning is was Deck the Halls.
I don’t blame the merchants, really. A shopping season is whenever you can sell something. I know people who spread their Christmas shopping over an entire year. The problem isn’t how you get from buying Halloween candy to buying scarves and CDs. The problem is how you make a personal transition from one season to another, from Halloween directly into Christmas.
At first glance, the transition is not an easy one. A celebration of ghosts and goblins, then comfort and joy. But this year, two things conspired to make it more than easy. It’s almost inevitable.
The first thing was the parade of Trick or Treaters. We recently moved into a different community, and were unsure what sort of turnout to expect in our new neighborhood.
It was, in a word, wonderful.
Late in the afternoon, the sidewalks began to fill with small creatures whose costumes, colorful and inventive, sweet and outrageous, frequently interfered with ordinary movement. Or maybe it was the anonymity created by
a mask which freed them to move in different ways. Whatever it was, only a few were walking. The rest came skipping and waddling and lurching up the front walk for their treats.
Back in the shadows, where danger customarily lurks, were bigger and darker shapes. These, however, seemed anything but threatening. They were protectors and supporters, and in the spirit of the occasion, many of them also were wearing costumes. In fact, many of the householders answered their doors that evening in costume.
The invasion of diminutive candy-collectors and their background guardians lasted for only a couple hours, then it was over.
Yet look at what was going on. The community was coming together in good spirits, with good neighbors and good cheer, where children could enjoy themselves under the watchful eyes of parents, who also were enjoying themselves. People were sharing openly with others.
That is what Christmas ought to be. I hope some of that scenario can be re-created a week or two from now, in place of what I’ve frequently seen: the frenzied rush of people, uncharitable and unhappy, suffering to meet Christmas obligations while ignoring Christmas joys.
The second thing which helped solidify the Halloween-Christmas link in my mind was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Although I’ve read it, I am one of perhaps only three or four people in the Western world who never saw the movie or the play. This year, by way of overcompensation, I got involved in putting in on the stage, in Saratoga. I began to see how perfectly the ghosts blend into the whole idea of Christmas, the ghosts who teach Scrooge to understand the ill fortune of others, and to accept an obligation to help them however he can.
Furthermore, playing Scrooge forces me to look at the nature of charity — not the particular charity of dropping coins in the Salvation Army bucket or sending a check to UNICEF, but the more general charity of actually seeing other people, appreciating them, and treating them well.
I’m sure Scrooge at the beginning of the story is a worse man than me. It’s difficult to be unswervingly cold and hard, and I wonder if I have it in me to be that heartless, even when it’s only a play. But at the end of the story, Scrooge has become a better man than me, and I wonder it I have it in me to be that good, even when it’s only a play.
So the stretch from Halloween to Christmas is not such a difficult one after all. There is a reasonable connection, at least for me. I remember the neighborhood charm of little goblins and ghosts, and perform on stage with bigger ghosts and apparitions. It all leads into Christmas.