“NEVER EVER WRITE it that way,” I was warned in the fourth grade by another fourth-grader who saw me make the “X” the way my mother made it on the boxes that held our Christmases. “X-mas 1968,” she would write on large strips of masking tape that covered X-mas 1967, X-mas 1962, X-mas. . .who knows when? To this day, I’m not quite sure why she marked the boxes, why it mattered. The decorations changed very little. There were the colored lights- the large, heavy kind that you now hear called old-fashioned. And the glass balls, more than we needed, although we used them all. Every year we would break one, somehow making the survivors more precious. There were tons of wooden “cookie-cutter” ornaments, and papier-maché ones, and the faded green construction paper ones that my sister and I had cut and glittered in nursery school. And the felt Santa Clauses, my favorites. Still, new ornaments would be made or purchased, and every year something would be left off the tree, and maybe that’s why my mother marked the boxes each January before hauling them up to the attic-maybe she wanted to know what she wouldn’t have to haul down when December came again. Or maybe she was just checking-off those Christmases like tasks taken care of.
“Never ever write it that way,” the kid said. “It’s worse than…” and he proceeded to trace with his finger a swastika. “It’s putting an X on Christ’s name.” That made great sense then, and I felt ashamed. And I wondered why my mother didn’t know what she was doing, putting swastikas, as it were, on all those sacred boxes in the attic. Now I write it all the time and say it out loud, too -’X-mas, X-mas, X-mas’-confident that neither Christ nor any deity could notice such a small transgression in light of what’s been made of this holiday. “X-mas,” I’ll say. “How I hate it.” I say it simply for shock effect, but fewer and fewer people are shocked. “Do you hate Christmas, too?” they ask. “No,” I want to say, “not really.” But I don’t. I say yes. And I continue to buy my Christmas cards in funny colors like orange and black and to coolly write “Merry X-mas” on them, and wonder why I’m sending out Christmas cards at all. I drop a string of colored lights on my floor (the small ones, the “new kind,” my mother would say) and call the pile a tree. I count the number of shopping days left until Groundhog Day.
I have become an advocate for skipping Christmas altogether, but no one believes I am serious, and I am not. Still, I have a strange daydream. It goes like this: It is December 25 but not Christmas, simply because I don’t know that it’s Christmas. I have forgotten. I awake knowing that I don’t have to go to work and assume it is Saturday. Not having set the alarm on my clock radio, I hear no Jingle Bell Rock, and although I see the newspaper on my stoop, I don’t pick it up, thereby missing the color illustration of the Nativity bleeding into the story about the dead Israeli soldiers.
My friend Sarah calls to invite me to lunch at her house. The morning air is cold and clear, Texas winter at its best. I arrive at Sarah’s to find my favorite people, the ones I really like, not the ones I pretend to like. There are strangers too, and soon the whole room is alive with loud conversation and laughter and the kind of urgent enthusiasm generated when strangers in need meet strangers in need. Sarah pours red wine into each person’s glass, and as it is consumed she pours more wine, so that the glasses are never empty. I wonder only for a moment where all this wine is coming from. Sarah’s diligence does not look diligent as she moves among her guests, halfway humming along to the old jazz record on the stereo. She stops to talk with these people, who, like me, have forgotten that it’s Christmas, and who find nothing strange about the impossible ease of the day. Even the old man wearing the Santa Claus suit fails to trigger our memory. He is just being funny, we figure, no more peculiar than the boy with the spiked hair or the wealthy-looking woman in stiff taffeta.
The Santa man starts talking about how he’s lost his faith, lost his ability to go down chimneys and see all that sadness. He tells how he dropped into this one house and found a small girl crying in the corner of a splendid living room-silk drapes, red candles, enormous wrapped boxes-because her mother had chosen Christmas Eve to take a few more tranquilizers than usual. That’s why he’s here, he says, because he can’t take any more of the sham. He sounds serious, and we, too, feel sad for a moment, until Sarah tells us that the food is ready.
We eat mounds of food, all sorts-roast beef and chicken and Mexican food and Chinese food and cakes and pastries and tarts and candies-and we drink more wine. We tell stories and tell jokes and laugh until we ache. Someone starts to sing Gershwin’s Summertime, which only makes us laugh harder. But then someone else chimes in and soon it’s a sing-along and there we all are. drunk and full and. . .”fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high.” And then, for Santa: “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay…” But he is gone. No matter. “Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day…
My fantasy belies itself. I want Christmas. I don’t want it the way it is. I only partly want it the way it was. Last Christmas I went home and surprised my father by telling him that I wanted to go to the midnight candlelight service at the church I grew up in. I wanted to go for the music, all that familiar music, but I didn’t tell him that. So we went together. And the music was wonderful- Angels We Have Heard on High, Green-sleeves, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen-and I felt some guilt about being there just for the music, although now I think I must surely have been there for something more. But my few affections for the holiday are mostly as tar from Bethlehem as the North Bale. I want Christmas cookies and fireplaces and mistletoe and good will. But I also want the pleasures and pains of the rest of the year that Christmas is too quick to disguise. And, all right, maybe I want some of whatever’s in those boxes that my mother marks X-mas. We each have our own need for X-mas. She may be trying to save Christmas. Maybe not. I’m just trying to rewrite it.