A New-Fangled Holiday

Forget 'A Christmas Carol' and presents; pour some wine and chow down with friends and family.

Hi. My name is René, and I hate A Christmas Carol. There's plenty to loathe about this Very Special Season, but even more than the Target ads and the holiday Musak that kicks in the day after Halloween, I hate Dickens' beloved story and every enactment of it ever produced. I hate Scrooge, and Marley and Tiny Tim and his wee crutch, too. I even hate the goose.

(When I go to hell, I'll be locked in a room where a loop of some wooly old black-and-white Christmas Carol plays for all eternity. Boy, will I be sorry.)

I despise the Carol first for its suffocating tedium--"Dear God, we're still in Christmas Past!"--but also for its gruesome inevitability. Once a year, there it is again, pre-empting your regular shows and starring anyone from Mr. Magoo to Patrick Stewart in the challenging main role. And this horror is just one tiny part of a season ruled by repetition compulsion--why, just like A Christmas Carol!

Ah. That feels better.

The more the increasingly elaborate holiday loop cycles around, the more arbitrary it all seems. With Christmas, we started with the birth of a child in Roman Palestine, then bit by bit, we acquired magic trees, an oddly clothed grandpa figure, candy canes, bells, greeting cards and a thing about reindeer.

And, of course, gift-giving. What, exactly, is the connection between the nativity story and mob-shopping? Yes, I know, the holiday gift fetish supposedly began with the three kings--Epiphany, actually, not Christmas--but why that part of the story? We could have picked other bits to enact: The celebration could have been about sleepovers in barns, or mass stargazing or appreciation of livestock. We do have the whole family and feasting deal going, which is good--it feels right to hunker down together and eat and tell stories at the dark bottom of the year. But how did maxing out credit cards on consumer electronics get to be part of it? This can be a fruitful subject for meditation while you crawl east on Broadway Boulevard, trapped in the apparently universal pilgrimage to Park Place.

So here's where I'm going with this: We could just stop doing all the seemingly obligatory holiday stuff that's so exhausting and irritating and put all our energy into the parts that really make us happy. (Not that the details would be easy: One of the touchiest issues in my marriage is when, how often and at what volume the Nat King Cole carol album gets played.)

Yes, we could have the family and feasting and visiting without Christmas specials--and without presents! (Except, of course, for the kids--shopping for them is fun, and watching them open packages is a blast. Besides, some of us want to play with the toys.) And no homemade-only deals, either--they're hell on the craft-challenged, and besides, this isn't about virtue, but about pleasure. We who are not 5 years old anymore should be able to forgo the thrills of unwrapping in the interests of tranquility, time together and maintaining a nice distance from bankruptcy.

Under my Holiday Reform Plan, only gifts of food and drink for immediate consumption would be allowed--never required--so that we might arrive at the day itself in a relaxed, well-rested state. It's a radical and even shocking idea, but this is the way it's done in much of Europe: They go all out, but the big spending is on luxurious foods that only appear once a year. (My personal dream Christmas, I believe, is happening somewhere near Sienna, and it involves wild mushrooms, Chianti and lots of panettone.) It's our holiday, by God, and we can have it the way we want.

Of course, if the no-gifts movement catches on, it will upset retailers, whose welfare so deeply concerns us all. ("Are cash registers jingling in Tucson? Team coverage at 10!") But they'd manage. The really hard part would be selling the concept to family and friends: Unilateral non-shopping would clearly be open to grave misinterpretation. Since we've all accepted on some level that presents equal love, the crossover will take time and conviction.

However, I can't start negotiations with my own circle just yet. I've still got half my list to do at Macy's.

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