Halloween snuck up on my family again this year. A new baby, a child entering college, a late start to homeschool, and the ever-present demands of work and family just about pushed the whole thing out of our minds. We were going to do a family theme: the Skojecs as the Avengers for Halloween. It was perfect. I’m roughly three times the size of everyone else, so I was going to be the Hulk. With four boys in a row, we had options for our core heroes. One of the babies was destined to be Ant-Man. It all sounded so good on paper.
Alas, this is not how things came to pass. A fun idea, but not any kind of a priority, Halloween planning fell by the wayside. Instead of a grandly-coordinated effort to impress the neighbors, I wound up at Wal-Mart at 8PM on Halloween night as we scrounged the remaining costumes for something workable for our 9-year-old girl so at least she had something. No, you’re not going to be a skeleton. No, you’re not going in a boy’s prison jump suit. (I was proud of her for not even asking about the trampy costumes.)
We wound up skipping trick-or-treating. Instead, we settled for a party at home involving our partially-assembled costumes, a few bags of only the candy we really wanted — no Smartees, Tootsie Rolls, or non-descript taffy wrapped in orange wax paper — and a movie. It was a good enough plan.
So to fulfill Plan B, I finished the Wal-Mart excursion by seeking out the requisite candy. And that’s when I wound up having to buy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in a Christmas-themed wrapper, because on Halloween night, that was all they had.
Let me stop right here and say it: I love Christmas. Love it. It is now, and has always been, my favorite time of the year. And though I have little doubt many of you will give me grief for it, I’ll admit to being a willing victim to a certain degree of Christmas commercialism. (Suzan Sammons ably described a more virtuous approach to the season, if you’d like some ideas on how to be better than I am – and trust me, the bar is low.) I’d apologize, but I am who I am. I have long failed to treat Advent as a penitential season in the way that a proper Catholic should. Saying I grew up that way is a poor excuse, I know, but there’s some incredibly strong nostalgia involved. Give me old stop-motion movies about Rudolph and Yukon Cornelius, at least one run-through of Elf and A Christmas Story, premature Christmas-parties, gingerbread house-building competitions, frequent musical recourse to Christmas classics by Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald and Michael Bublé, and as much conceivable time as possible for a real, naturally pine-scented Christmas tree to be set up in my living room without starting a brush fire, and I am one seriously happy camper.
Christmas turns me into a kid again. Every time I come down in the dark of the morning and plug in the lights on the tree, I’m seven years old again, finding a Joust! Atari cartridge in my stocking, Star Wars action figures wrapped in Santa-print paper amidst an awe-inspiring array of packages, and marveling at the new sled, too big to conceal with anything but a bow or even fit beneath the tree. It’s not the point of Christmas, but I always loved getting presents. And now that I have children of my own, I love giving them – especially the ones I pick out for my boys so I can play with them – helloooo, remote-controlled helicopter!! I like going to the Christmas Eve Mass, Handel’s Messiah blasting on the car stereo, getting home at 2AM and wrapping the rest of the presents until I’m so tired I can’t see straight while drinking something delicious and boozy and knowing that it’s all worth it to see those little faces come into the room and the morning and realize there’s so much more cool stuff under the tree than there was when they went to bed.
And on Christmas day, we just hang out, eat, and play. Like no other day all year. (Except the day after Christmas, when I have my wife’s leftover rib roast with whatever bottle of wine I didn’t open yet for breakfast, and then play all day. This is the best thing.)
Yes, I know that I’m that guy. The guy who is tainted by the consumerization of Christmas. Yes, I’m aware that I’m getting the traditional Catholic approach to Christmas all wrong. Forgive me Father, for I’m a child of the 80s. But if you ask those who know me, my natural tendency is to be a grumpy, stressed out, difficult guy. This ritual, this tradition, the sparkling lights and the intricate ornaments and the smell of blue spruce and the crinkle of paper and the whirring of little toy motors – these make me so profoundly happy that I won’t let anyone wreck it for me. I continue to believe I can keep the Christ in Christmas while also keeping the fun in there, too. Christmas is my holiday. If I could force it to snow every year just so it would be picture perfect, I’d do it. Every time. All the better for hot cocoa and a roaring fire.
Christmas is, therefore, a delicate fusion of past and present, of nostalgia and anticipation, of memories and expectation. Like the dance of some sugarplum fairy, it unwinds with fragility and grace, and it DOES NOT DO SO BEFORE HALLOWEEN. At the very earliest, it begins with the (now almost-unwatchable) Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade — another time-honored tradition in my family — and its assortment of Christmas-themed floats. (If they keep making it gayer, I’m going to have to start watching Miracle on 34th Street as a substitute.)
So despite my willing embrace of certain aspects of Chrismtas commercialization, I think Christmas creep is a real problem. Every year, the retailers start pimping their Christmas wares earlier and earlier. This year, Christmas started to show up in the stores before the leaves were even off the trees. I was wearing shorts, because it was still 80 degrees. This is not acceptable. This is just…wrong.
I know times are hard. I know people have to make a living. But for heaven’s sake, find another way. This should not need to happen:
The collection of special days — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Day — that Americans have taken generically to referring to as “The Holidays” are like a reward for getting through yet another long and difficult year. They mean lowered expectations at work. Company parties at nice restaurants. Driving home when it’s too cold, and too dark. They mean time off spent with family and friends. They signal a change in season, an ending before a new beginning. They feel good when they happen on time – almost like you’ve earned it. They don’t mean nearly as much when they are forced on us prematurely.
You can — and should — make liturgical arguments to not get all jumpy with the decking of your halls. You can — and should — remind people that Christmas doesn’t really start until the big day, and that trees shouldn’t come down until after the Epiphany – or after the Superbowl, if you’re me, and you just want to hold on a little bit longer.
But you don’t need to be a liturgist or a historian or even particularly religious to recognize that things have gone too far. No Christmas in October. No Christmas before Thanksgiving. No, No, No!
Knock it off retailers. Don’t ruin it for us, or you’re going to get coal in your earnings reports.