For some, it started months ago; for others, weeks. The traditions and rituals of the Christmas season come back to visit like old friends: Some of them are creaky bores whose visit is greeted with a silent sigh; others bring a sweet glow of recognition and the gentle comfort of familiarity.
This is a time when some people are seized with the impulse to re-create the fantasies of their past, or to fabricate a fantasy that never was. Even people who don't like Christmas have their own tradition - not liking Christmas.
"However limited the pecuniary resources may be, every family may have a happy time at Christmas, provided there be an abundant supply of kindly sympathy and genuine love," warned Harper's Wekkly in 1978. Try telling that to the toy companies who flood the television with commercials in 1977.
The rotten things about Christmas are all too apparent: the greed, the suicides, the sibling rivalry, the overeating and overdrinking, the loneliness of those who are abandoned, the frustration of those who can't get what they want. Every year, some people swear they will never do something-or-other again; every year, most people make a new mistake.
But, so what. Traditions and ritual, and navigating the emotional currents surrounding them, are the punctuation of our lives. Without them life would just be one long sentence.
Nancy Nollen grew up as the second child in a family of five on a farm in Iowa. She was 10 years old before they had running water or electricity in the house, and that was in 1950. Holidays and were major events in her family and in the rural community in which they lived.
Preparation for Christmas began in late October when children started making gifts at school for their parents. In November her mother began baking the breads and cookies that families would exchange as gifts.
But the real event look place Christmas Eve. It's a story she's told many times, and even the telling of it has become a tradition.
"On Christmas night we'd always have chili or oyster soup for supper, and then hurry and get the dishes done. We'd go upstairs with Mother, and she'd read the biblical story of Christmas, and The Night Before Christmas, and we'd sing Christmas carols.
"Meanwhile, Dad would be downstairs to let Santa in the door. (We didn't have a fireplace.) While we were upstairs, the shades were drawn and we couldn't look out the window. We'd left milk and cookies on the kitchen table for Santa, and a note saying 'Hi'.
"My father would put all the presents under the tree and then he'd race out to the barn where he had these long strips of brass sleigh bells. He'd start jingling them, first softly, then louder, then very loudly. Then he run around the house and shout 'Ho, Ho, Ho.' and 'Merry Christmas!' Remember, we'd just heard "The Night Before Christmas" and the line about making "such a clatter." The porch had an aluminum floor, and he'd go out there and stomp his feet and say 'Ho, Ho, Ho' some more.
"And then we'd hear Santa saying 'Oh, look what I have for Nancy!' And here's something for Carol!' and then we'd hear 'Well, I have to be on my way,' and Dad would stomp his feet again and take the bells back to the barn.
"He'd run back in and say 'Santa Claus has been here!' and them we would come down and open the presents."
Nancy Nollen was 9 years old before she knew there was no Santa Claus. They told her, she remeners, at Easter. "I was furious. I didn't believe it - how could there not be a Santa? He'd been in my house, we'd heard him, he'd eaten our cookies! You could go outside and see the tracks of Santa walking, and tracks of animals that were probably reindeer. I felt a great sense of loss; almost as if someone had died."
Once she had accepted the truth, and moved as most of us do, into the ranks of 'older children,' she helped to continue the ritual for her younger brothers and sisters. And although she and her husband celebrate Christmas diffently with their two children, she does not regret her father's elaborate deception; indeed, she salutes it.
One of the main places to get a Santa Claus suit in this area is from Mac or Edwina Krents who run Artistic Dance Fashions in Bethesda. Mr. Mac, as he is known by the dancers and would be dancers who flirt in and out of the store to buy leotards and toe shoes and talk about The Dance, said that for some unknown reason the Santa suit business is up this year.
"This is the $250 Santa," he said, showing a visitor his wraps. "It's made of crushed, velour and comes with a beard that's washable. That alone sells for $50. We also have a Miss Santa; it has a skirt. They lady gets white boots, Santa gets black boots. Now this is the velveteen Santa. That's $149.
"The cheapest beard, with wig and eyebows, is $7.59." He read from a catalogue of Santa supplies: "It's made of a special blend of pure white, long staple, non-shedding, 100 per cent Virgin DuPont Nylon Fiber which is flame-resistant."
There is also a beard for $24.95 of "softly curied polypropolene fibers" but the ultimate, first class beard is the $50,100 per cent elura beard that is made in Korea.
"The moustache on this set is wired so it stays close to your face," Mr. Mac said, putting on the beard. "See? If you look closely at a Santa you can tell what kind of beard they have."
This season, Mr. Mac has sold a Santa suit to a man who said he was a pilot for a major airline who was planning to wear it on a Christmas Eve flight and pop out of the cockpit at an appropriate moment, and another to the Burger Chef Santa. He also sold a beard set to a pet shop owner who owns a gorilla suit. "He said he's going to have someone wear the beard on top of the gorilla suit and be a Santa for pets to come and visit!" said Mr. Mac with the air of someone who has not yet seen everything.
The White House Santa suit, a grand affair trimmed with real rabbit fur, came from Mr. Mac's rental business before he sold it (the business, not the suit). He's outfitted a Father Christmas for the Swedish Embassy (he wears a long robe and a bishop's hat) and once got a call from the U.S.S.R. Embassy.
"They don't do anything religious you know, so they call him something different," he said. "They said 'Do you have a suit for Grandfather Frost?' So I said , 'What does he look like?' They said 'He has a white beard, a red coat, a little red hat . . .' When they sent it back there was a bottle of vodka in the boot."
Mr. and Mrs. Mac and their two children, who also work in the store, get a kick out of the people who buy a suit and practice right away how to be a Santa. "They say 'Ho, ho, ho' and scare all the little kids in the store," Mrs. Mac said.
Mr. Mac was asked if he ever plays Santa at his house.
"I'm Jewish," he said, with anun-misakable twinkle, "We don't use Santa."
The National Children Choir, a group of about 70 children between 5 and 18 are as heterogeneous as a Coca-Cola commercial, have revived their tradition of singing a midnight service Christmas Eve. This is a busy time of year for them, and also the time to make the money they need to carry on.
But they all voted to sing for free at St. Aloysius' Church at North Capitol and I Streets on Christmas Eve. The church is an oasis of architectural beauty in a desert of hars government buildings and low income housing; destitute men wait outside the fine wooden rectory door for a handout, and the church is rarely heated because of the expense.
"We'll be sining earlier in the day at the cathedial, said the choir's director and den mother, Judith St. Aubin, "We'll be getting a little money from that. here, there's nothing - except this fantastic spirit. Some of the kids in the choir are from this area, and so we're expecting a lot of families. The kids really wanted to do this."
Last Sunday at 5 p.m., despite the pouring rain, more than 30 people were in line at the main post office downtown at Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol Street. Carrying neatly wrapped packages and bundles of Christmas cards, most of them seemed to be in a jolly mood, knowing that their packages and cards might just get there by Christmas.
A man wearing a hat with a feather around the brin and a pin on his coat that said "JOY" hopped from one foot to another as he waited in line, as though dancing to the tapped Christmas carols playing in the post office. he wanted special Christmas stamps for his cards, and, having purchased them, joined a small clutch of people at the end of the counter. Lick, stamp, lick, stamp, they went, industriously preparing their Christmas cards like a subsidiary of Santa's workshop. That's one of the rhythms of Christmas: lick, stamp, lick, stamp.
"Aloha from Hawaii and a new life, "1977 was a sad year for the Pettus family. In January we lost our June after a long flight with cancer. It seemed long to us but in retrospect it could have been much worse, in that the acute stages lasted only some eight months. All of the children were home for most of the time she was ill and and each was a working member of the nursing-house-keping team . . . All of us felt that we should take care of her in those last months and the children were models of strength. We were aided by many, many friends, too numerous to mention, but our thanks goes out to them who were of such great comfort and assistance during those difficult days. It was a sad ending to a too short but happy life and we are now in the process of picking.
". . . we have moved from Washington and settled in Honolulu . . In fact, we sold the house, took Rachael out of school, gave the dog and cat away, packed up (I left mos of this to Katherand a magnificent view of Koko Head, all complete with palm trees, flowers, a crippled old collie and a cat. I swear it is the last house I'll ever buy! It is fairly big so we can put up visitors and we look forward to you paying off this Christmas letter without June's ine and Ruth) and got to Hawaii in just over three weeks . . .
"We have bought a great house on the water with surfing off the back yard name, but we are learning to carry on and we look forward to a better 1978 and a sunny Hawaiian future.
From all of us a MERRY, MERRY Christmas and THE BEST FOR THE COMING YEAR and, of course, ALOHA from Hawaii!
Jim, Winston, Katherine, Ruth William and Rachael ( in absentia)"