Christmas is a lot like zoos. People always say they visit the zoo to take the children, but reliable surveys have found out that it’s the adults who really want to go. They take the children along as a kind of protective shield. (I walk by the lovely Honolulu Zoo entrance daily and see excited looks on adult faces.)
Not that children don’t enjoy zoo, but their enjoyment is less meaningful than that of the adult: They understand less, fine fewer parallels between animal and human, draw no philosophical conclusions, are less moved by the beauty and innocence of animals.
Something of the sort can also be said about Christmas. We say that “Christmas is for children”—and of course it is. Who, having experienced it, can forget the heart-pounding moments on Christmas morning between waking up and venturing, half fearful, into the room with the Christmas tree? And then the blinding dazzle of the tree itself, and the painful ecstasy of beholding all the wrapped presents underneath!
Those are moments we can’t recapture once we reach the age where we are the ones who arrange the presents under the tree rather than the ones who gleefully grab them back out again.
But we remember those moments, and in remembering give them a new dimension and meaning.
Even on those who don’t observe Christmas in their homes, the season makes its mark. The good will of Christmas sweeps up all in its path. Its music becomes part of the life of people of all faiths and none. We all acquire Christmas memories, one way and another.
As the years pass, the layers of meaning build.
We begin, of course, with simple childlike delight at being given wonderful things for no special reason. That pleasure never ends.
A friend now places in our hands a prettily wrapped gift. We know it will be modest; so is ours to the friend. But we savor it in anticipation, perhaps set it aside where we can look at it for a few days and wonder what it contains, and then open it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, in a ceremony as exciting as any we knew in our childhoods.
Now, however, we can claim a pleasure even greater than that of receiving: the pleasure of giving. There was, to begin with, the joy of spotting the item that was “just right,” and then the contentment of picturing its recipient unwrapping it. How clever we were to think of that; how surprised our friend will be!
But our gifts are not only for those we love. The years have made us painfully aware of how many people go unloved in a fast-paced, impersonal world. Christmas is a time for trying to bring them into the fold as best as we can. We think to smile more, hesitating less to smile even at strangers, forgetting for a brief magical time our acquired skepticism and mistrust. “Thank you for coming,” is a nice expression to offer tourists.
We reach out to old friends, too, our lives again touching for this moment. We catch up, at least in a superficial way, sometimes the reconnection “takes” and the friendship again grows and strengthens as the months and years march past.
There is a lot of talk every year about how nice it would be if people could behave the year ‘round as they do at Christmas. There’s little argument with that. On the other hand, it’s a lot like saying how nice it would be if we never had bad weather. Human nature seems to thrive best on contrast. It’s one of the ways we learn to understand ourselves and, with a little luck, improve along the way.
So, each year, Christmas brings its amazing shift in perspectives and sensibilities. It always takes us just a little by surprise. Sometimes we feign indifference, and sometimes we vow not to get caught up in the holiday madness whirling around us. But it’s a rare individual who can remain detached from Christmas—or who really wants to. Some of its cheer rubs off on all of us—even the cynical “Scrooges.’