I browsed my archives searching for holiday spirit and found this. It first ran on Dec. 1, 1993. Lightly updated, of course:
When do you know it’s the holidays? Is it when you see the first Christmas commercial on TV? The first display of lights outlining someone’s porch? Is it when you settle in to watch It’s a Wonderful Life (how many times has it been)? The crush of shoppers at “the mall”? Macy’s mechanized windows in the Loop? The smell of the first batch of butter cookies?
The holidays arrive at a different moment for each of us, depending on our readiness to take the plunge. For some it may never arrive.
Whether your holiday is Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Divali, the Winter Solstice or the ancient Roman Saturnalia, the holidays arrive suddenly, unexpectedly, sneaking up on us, surrounding us, filling us with expectation, adrenaline, dread, melancholy, sometimes even joy.
It might arrive at the lot where you buy your tree or wreath, or while burrowing into the storage area to locate the ornament boxes, or unwrapping the first ornament that transports you several generations back in family lore, or the first sip of eggnog or the aroma of mulled wine.
The meaning of the holidays isn’t grand and spectacular. It is found in the small things — the first measurable snowfall and the avalanche of childhood memories it sets off. Finding yourself humming Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus while you vacuum pine needles off the rug, decorating the tree with those you’re sharing life with. Singing “Drummer Boy” at tuck-in time and discussing the enormous task that lies ahead for Santa. Searching the cabinets for canned goods or the closets for old coats to donate to local charity drives.
It can be found in the moist eyes of those watching films like The Bishop’s Wife, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, Family Man and The Family Stone or those reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Capote’s Christmas Memory, O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi and Dylan Thomas’ Child’s Christmas in Wales.
And you can see it in the sleepy eyes of a child opening the doors of an Advent Calendar, day by day, the excitement building.
We spend so much time questioning the holidays, lamenting them, critiquing them, but we keep them in our own small ways, in our own time. How do you keep Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Saturnalia/Solstice, and when does it arrive?
Normally, it arrives for me the first time I hear “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and hear my favorite line: “And Death’s dark shadow put to flight.” Last year, it arrived on a Saturday morning in early December as I stood by the bedroom window in my shorts, singing, “This is the Moment” from the musical Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Who can begin to fathom the workings of the human heart?
This year it arrived on Thanksgiving as several of us gathered in the kitchen of the family home, reading the various gift lists posted on the fridge and ribbing each other about the requests. Curious exercise each year, stating publicly what you “want.” Our wants reveal something about us. I want a high-powered telescope. Does that mean I’m far-sighted or magnify everything out of all proportion — or both?
Or maybe I’m just a voyeur. I’m certainly curious. When do the holidays arrive for you? I asked my father and he took me back 50 years to the University of Cincinnati, where he was “a guest of the federal government,” continuing his studies until it was his turn to be shipped over to Europe to finish off World War II. It was his first Christmas away from home. He was 19.
The following year, 1944, he spent Christmas in the Ardennes Forest (Belgium and Luxemburg) hoping to survive the Battle of the Bulge and wondering if this would be his last holiday season.
In 1945, he was on a troop ship in the mid-Atlantic, heading toward New York Harbor. When he heard “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” he started feeling sorry for himself. “Then I thought about all the guys who would never see another Christmas,” he said, “and I felt pretty lucky.”
He said he would never forget, several weeks later, when they pulled into the harbor and saw fireboats shooting streams of water to welcome them, accompanied by Fred Waring and the Young Pennsylvanian’s “This is My Country.” My dad never failed to play that song every Memorial Day and July 4th thereafter.
I think what he was telling me was that the holidays arrived for him in January of 1946 — and never left.
If the holidays haven’t arrived for you yet, never fear. The season has a way of finding us — in ways we least expect.
I hope it finds all of us.