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Great Expectations
Holidays bring out the kid in all of us -- but why does our inner child have to be such a sulking adolescent? Maybe it's time to get out from under the weight of tradition

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2000 1:14 PM

I'm saying this now because if I say it later, after all the other stuff, it's going to sound slighter than Cindy Lou Who: I love Christmas. More inclusively, I love "the holidays," the more-the-merrier party we throw to brighten the overlong nights. When you picture December, don't you just see it by candlelight?

I love the fellowship and the food, I love the anticipation. It's cold skin and velvet and quick, puffy snows.

I love the frenzy -- in kitchens and restaurants and malls, even. You know 'tis really the season when you can't seem to locate your car.

I love that it all starts in September, when Labor Day ends and the long, busy buildup begins. We walk faster and think faster and do more more more until we do ourselves into a stupor. Then we eat too much and give ourselves stuff and finally take a day off.

I've figured out why I hate Christmas.

Yes it's too commercial, yes the whole "meaning" is lost (not the Christian one -- you'd have to have your head in a bag to miss that one; I mean the pagan one), yes it oppresses non-Christians or folks without families and steam-rolls them into eating Chinese food and going to movies. Yeah yeah yeah.

But those aren't it. It's the yuletide bait-and-switch.

I'm a good American, I watch TV. I've got an eagerly awaited annual appointment with Rudolph, Charlie Brown and the Grinch, and I live George Bailey's life with him as it goes from bad to worse to wonderful. Every. Single. Year.

From these (I thought) unimpeachable arbiters of all things merry, here's what I've learned about Christmas:

Step One: Our hero experiences Very Dark Things.

Charlie Brown gets ignored, humiliated and, of all the childhood horrors, laughed out of the room by a mob of his peers -- which is led, you may recall, by his own dog. The Grinch goes on a breaking-and-entering binge, then ices the cake by lying point-blank to a child. George Bailey loses hearing in one ear, loses his dream, loses his last dime, loses all hope and resolves to take his own life. Rudolph? Rudolph has a birth defect.

Step Two: Christmas is so powerful, so universal, so benevolent that it saves them all! Yay!

It makes Charlie cool, the Grinch warm, and George Bailey want to live. (And it gives him a box of money.) Christmas is our annual emotional peak -- and Rudolph single-hoofedly saves it, for all of the people on Earth!

Now.

According to the truly unimpeachable arbiter of all things Christmas, which is Christmas itself (but you thought I was going to say Martha Stewart, didn't you), the festivities actually follow a decidedly different arc. I'll use the HaxChristmas 1999 to illustrate how the thing really goes:

Our heroine experienced a killer early December cocktail party. She was tired, she was thirsty, she was ready to rock. All is forgiven, mankind! And the revelry wasn't alone in uplifting the heroine's spirits. Nostalgia, like a restless child, got into everything, touching noses, ears and eyes. This, I thought -- not bills, not commuting, not work, this -- is what life is all about.

Such is the power of Christmas. Which was good, because it had to last for two more weeks of bills, commuting and work.

And it did, for the most part. Then it more or less withstood the Beltway, I-95, the New Jersey Turnpike (barely), the George Washington Bridge, the Henry Hudson, the Cross County and the Hutch, and I swear it breathed a little sigh of relief on the Merritt Parkway.

As did I, because I knew we were close . . . to . . . the thing of it, and I knew the exact dimensions of the thing, of our Christmas, before it had even occurred. All of us who could make it, my sisters and I and our families, were going to be there, having shopped and anticipated and traveled traveled traveled just to gather 'round the table at the Hax ancestral home (since 1975; humor me), for Mom's annual roast beast feast.

I knew what was waiting for me at home was going to be exactly the same as last year and the year before and the year before, because that's what Christmas is -- a deep and beloved rut. There was an X-factor this time, in the form of Mom's lingering cold-fluey plague, but we figured that she wasn't contagious and we'd just all pitch in extra help. The show must go on!

Or not. At 6 o'clock Christmas Eve, dinner prep got underway and Mom waved us all off because she was doing just fine preparing the . . . filet mignon and potatoes.

Steak and fries.

As in, n-n-not roast beast?

I'm not saying I didn't recover, and quickly -- but that this even required a recovery duly makes me sick. Another year, another soaring start, another emotional thud.

That's the dark side of tradition. We make it all up, pretty much -- I mean, someone at some point had to write "Silent Night," and the Wise Men didn't go caroling. (Which is why the grumblings about Kwanzaa as a "made-up holiday" are always good for a grin.) We manufacture meaning on the worldwide level, choosing December 25,

though the Russians aren't with us on that and some experts say Christ was a Virgo. We do it on the nationwide level -- explain to me fruitcake -- and on the family level, with a plump Christmas Eve-y roast beast.

So we make it all up, throwing in a little Christianity, a little paganism, an oddly dressed fat guy and a year's supply of butter, then we act like it's written in stone. The expectations we build! Despite the fact that any grown person knows that expectations, even little ones, are not treated kindly by life.

Think about it. Which felt better and which ultimately paid off: working toward a raise, or expecting one? Hoping for calls from a suitor, or expecting them? Getting knocked flat by a wonderful gift, or expecting one?

Expectations don't bring out the best in us, either. Our fondness for unrealistic, arbitrary or childish ones is what makes us snub a good guy if he's short, hate a high-paying job if it's boring, pout at our filet mignon. They're roots for our uglier moments.

Our culture is hip to the expectations problem. Let's get in the proper mind frame -- pop in the Vince Guaraldi Trio's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" CD, the grooviest downer on Earth -- and briefly revisit ol' Charlie. He has high hopes, the little round-headed fool. He'll run the pageant and give Christmas meaning and he'll even set up a live tree.

Christmastime is heeere . . .

So here's what life gives him in return. It strips his soul down to the buttons, kills his tree and sends him back home in despair. Decorate this, Chuck.

But here's where it gets interesting. Look at how life treats despair. It gathers around you, joins hands, revives your tree, lifts you up and belts "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

Loo loo looo, luh-loo loo loo loo

[deep breath]

Loo loo looo, luh-loo loo loo!

The oh-so-heartwarming message: Suffer and ye shall find. Or maybe it's even darker -- have a simple and worthy vision, take pains to attain it and ye shall suffer. It seems the higher we set our hopes and the more we let ride on them, the harder the whole thing'll fall.

Our culture might be hip to this message, but we aren't. Otherwise, we wouldn't be slaughtering beasts and baking all night and polishing silver and melting our Visas and thinking we can spend an entire week in an oversmall house without sniping. Otherwise, we wouldn't be rushing ourselves sick and bringing that sickness back to the oversmall house full of sniping family.

Otherwise, we wouldn't show Christmas to children. Merry XXXmas, mature audiences only, complex emotional situations. "Be careful what you wish for" is something we all grew up hearing, but remember your age when you finally grasped it. And when you realized that if Grandma did a good job raising your mother, then the two of them are too independent to share space for more than three days. How old must one be to appreciate anticipation itself, to know that's as good as things get?

Maybe the Christmas Day letdown is less common than it used to be, what with these fat, happy times. I don't think you have to be too old to remember when parents were younger and families bigger and savings as slim as a reed. But the good times aren't rolling for all of us. And I suppose that, given the way of families these past few decades, any improvement in material gains has been more than offset by deeper, divorce-related losses.

Still, I pity any parent setting the yule bar too high. Consider the great Filet Flap of 1999. Consider that, at some point, you're going to be too beat for china or too strapped for Sony or way too sick for roast beast. What will your kids go through then? Expectation withdrawal. As if life hadn't planned that already.

Do the math, and you'll see Christmas teaches the exact opposite of the values you most want to teach your children:

1. It's a lot more fun when you're lied to. Life really is never the same after you find out there isn't a Santa.

2. Low expectations are key. Did that cookie taste good? Okay then, Merry Christmas.

3. Sometimes, you feel better when you receive.

4. The more you look forward to something, the greater the chance it will suck. Plus, when you get older, you can say "suck."

5. Family's best in small doses.

6. Beauty is better skin-deep. The lights are bright and the songs are pretty and what the hell, let's all root for world peace.

On some level, my parents both knew this -- or fate knew it for them, given their youth and their brood (four little mouths to feed, not counting two basset hounds, before they were 30). They knew of tradition and knew of its freight, and kept things so perfectly plain. The best things go down Christmas Eve. It always kicks off with the service, the 5 o'clock show at the Methodist church down the street. Wait -- I've gotten ahead of myself. First come the luminarias, the candles in bags that make Trumbull so bright and serene. (That's my New England hometown.)

Then church, which in my family's hands can take on a life of its own. The 5 o'clock comes with a pageant, which was always terribly cute for the parents -- and us, for a couple of years. But the older we got the longer the sit, and somewhere the natives got punchy. And they stayed that way.

My mother unwittingly launched The Passing of the Mints, for example, in which, in the interest of minty-fresh carols, a roll of Certs is dismembered and sent piece by piece down the pew, now spilling over with Haxes young, old and by marriage. One year, someone along the path -- was it Pops? -- popped all the mints in his mouth. There went our good church composure.

Then there was the year the church saved us the trouble of flipping through hymnals by typing out words to the songs. With a priceless "Silent Night" twist: "Radiant beans from Thy holy face."

There went our good church composure.

I won't even get into what can be done to a candle when you soften it up in your hands, or what it means to sit next to Debby, the quiet sister -- and handmaiden of Satan. The one year that church didn't get funny was the year we chose not to go.

Despite the do-it-yourself entertainment value of church, part of the tradition is resisting Mom's pressure to go. Sniffles turn tubercular, naps become deathbeds and Nick, my clever husband, will pack only old, ratty clothes. My nephew once cried in the service -- and five noble Haxes rushed to the rescue. All five of them brought the kid home.

After the forced-march-to-misbehave-in-church tradition is the overeat-roast-something tradition. The Haxes may choose to be plain, but all of us know how to eat. (My saying this, by the way, will be riotously funny to my Greek in-laws, whose average Tuesday lunch looks like a U.S. Thanksgiving for 12.)

After the feeding comes the feature presentation: The Popsian "Night Before Christmas" tradition. Dad -- he was still "Dad" then -- started off gamely enough when we were little, reading it straight and then sending us all off to bed. But as any parent knows, a funny thing happens after the 20,000th reading of a rinky-dink story. The syrup eats into your brain.

From "Pops's Night Before Christmas," 1999 edition:

'Twas the night before Christmas

and all through the place

not a creature was stirring

regardless of race.

The stockings were hung

by the chimney with wire.

My hairpiece fell off

and went into the fire.

The children were nestled

all snug in their sheets.

They'd eaten their carrots

but passed on the beets.

And ma in her kerchief

and I in my shirt

had run in the yard

and rolled in the dirt.

When out on the lawn

there arose such a commotion

I sat up in bed!

and slapped on some lotion.

Away to the window

I flew like a flash,

then off to the kitchen

to warm up some hash.

The moon on the breast

of the new-fallen snow . . .

Does snow have a breast?

Then where'd the bra go?

When what to my wondering

eyes should appear,

but a guy in a sled

getting pulled by some deer.

Brushing aside the excruciating burden on Pops of having to find new ways to mangle the same story 30 years running while maintaining a G-rating -- because, hey, it's not my burden -- this tradition has proven easily and gleefully sustainable for all of my conscious life. In fact, a new generation of foot-pajama'd offspring is well on its way to a bent sense of humor.

And yet amid all these simple expectations, we even managed to simplify one further -- and it brought a sigh of relief. As soon as we got old enough to (a) handle it and (b) be independently college-, house- and/or kid-poor, we went to the one-gift rule. We now pick a name every August, and buy that person a sub-$100, heavily thought-through surprise. Is the gift always just so? No. Is it great not to like your one gift? No, and sometimes it can be painful.

But here are the things that don't fail: Every year, we file back to New England, to the old house where we all grew up, and every year, each one of us gets a good laugh, a warm meal, a warped bedtime story and a little something that another of us gave at least four months' worth of thought -- whatever that is, I'll take it -- and then we all shuffle back home.

The truth is, I kind of can't wait.

CarolynHax, a Post columnist, is the author of Tell Me About It. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article on Monday at 2 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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