The Escape Claus

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, December 25, 2005

There are several very good reasons to leave milk, cookies and reindeer food by the fireplace on Christmas Eve. Obviously you want to feed any nocturnal, soot-covered visitor who might be hungry during what has to be the longest and most difficult night shift any worker has ever pulled.

Also, there is the joy that comes from hearing the first gasp of Christmas morning, when a child who normally could not be extricated from bed with a backhoe has raced downstairs and discovered compelling forensic evidence -- nibbled snack, empty milk glass, fireplace grate ajar, a pile of presents -- that the story of the jolly elf from the North Pole is true.

Thirdly, there's the importance of creating in children a reverence for the power of unseen entities who keep careful lists of who's been bad or good.

But ultimately, you do it because it's a way to stop time. It's a way to halt, for just a few hours, the madness, the relentlessness, of an accelerated culture. Rituals like this are defensive gestures, a way to turn off the meter. To restore things to how they used to be, ought to be, should always be. These traditions create the reassuring illusion that life is not linear but cyclical, that the moments we love will keep coming around.

Everyone has rituals, performed in a precise way, in a certain posture, with certain words and gestures. When you tell yourself, "I always do it like this," you are not only affirming a way of life, but declaring your immortality. You always do it, always have, always will.

Christmas is an elaborate brake on modern life. yes, it's notoriously commercialized, but it is more effective than any other holiday at shutting down every store and office in America. For one day we don't have a schedule. No meetings. Maybe a church service, maybe a movie, maybe a vague notion of going to the park to throw the football. Or maybe you won't get out of your pajamas until that panicky moment around 4:15 when you realize the sun is about to set.

Christmas is a big psychic snowfall, an immobilizing blizzard. Here in Washington there's a television station that on Christmas morning shows a burning yule log, and nothing else. It's a cheap video with background Christmas music, played without interruption for hours. It's really quite entrancing. If you miss it this year, check to see if they have it at Blockbuster.

A couple weeks ago, preparing for Christmas, I had a talk with the kids about the snacks and milk on Christmas Eve. This year is different from any that has come before. Against all common sense and parental imprecations, our children have insisted on getting older, and this year the youngest, approaching her tenth birthday, asked some hard questions about Santa. A frank conversation ensued. There were confessions. There were recriminations. There were tears. It was a conversation that broke all of our hearts. But I guess I wanted her to be fully armed for whatever battles she may face in that big scary world out there. Perhaps soon I'll brief her on al Qaeda.

In the perfect universe we could cast a spell to let our kids stay kids for as long as they wished, to let them grow at a lazy rate, to let them luxuriate in childhood rather than hurtle, in a blur, into the adult world of worries and heartaches. We'd let them soak in innocence.

But that's not an option. So I asked the girls: Should we leave something by the fireplace on Christmas Eve?

They were aghast at the question. Of course we will, they said. "It's tradition," said the eldest. "Don't ruin it for everyone, Dad!" said the youngest.

Thus the ritual will live another year, and maybe somehow we can keep it going forever.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at

© 2005 The Washington Post Company