I’ll cop to it. I’ve been kind of a Grinch for the past thirty years or so.
I was pretty much over Christmas by the time I was in my mid-teens. I had a bad case of punk rock cynicism and saw nothing but hypocrisy in every gesture of fellowship and goodwill offered up by mainstream culture during the one special time of year when you were supposed to stop being rapacious and self-serving. The plastic ornaments that festooned the suburban tract houses and malls of my youth just made me sad for all the people who could be distracted from the emptiness of their lives by a handful of tinsel. And until recently, I was pretty sure that my severe case of adolescent drama had done permanent damage to my holiday cheer receptors.
Sure, I would participate in the gift-giving ritual, even though I felt like everyone would be better off exchanging hundred-dollar bills with one another and spending the money (or not) as they saw fit, rather than enriching soulless corporations by buying trinkets that were very likely to be ignored by their recipients. And, yes, I would throw a couple decorations around the house if I thought it would make someone who cared about such things happy. But for myself, I would just as well have skipped the whole affair. The religious origins of Christmas didn’t resonate with me; and the secular, commercial aspects of the holiday made my skin crawl. I think I have had a total of one legitimate Christmas tree in my house from the time I left my parents’ home until now. You don’t even want to know what I thought about Santa Claus.
But lately, I’ve been having some strange compulsions that I can’t quite explain. It started right around Halloween, when I didn’t grumble about putting a big fake spider in our yard. I never had anything in particular against Halloween, but I didn’t want to invest any energy into it either. It was fine for little kids and college students who wanted to dress up inappropriately and drink murky purple liquor from a cauldron belching dry-ice vapors; but why would a grownup waste time decorating his lawn with plastic tombstones?
My twin girls are four-and-a-half now, which appears to be the age at which children are most susceptible to holiday enchantment. They loved the lawn-spider (they named her “Spide-Spide”) so much that I happily helped them carve two actual pumpkins—something I hadn’t done in years—and, as we trick-or-treated in the Morley Field neighborhood of North Park, took mental notes about the spooky tableaus our more ambitious neighbors had created around their houses, so I might steal some of their ideas for next year. It’s like I didn’t even know me anymore.
This newfound interest in holiday participation didn’t dissipate after Halloween either. As soon as we put Spide-Spide and her web away in the garage, my daughters asked when we could start decorating for Christmas. Instead of my usual reaction, which would be something along the lines of “Ugh,” I heard myself telling them that we could begin right after Thanksgiving.
My wife was as surprised as I was to hear me suggest that we get an actual Christmas tree made of, you know, pine needles and whatnot, instead of, or in addition to, the 24-inch white plastic one we have been putting in the bay window for the last seven or eight years out of a sense of obligation. “Who are you, and what have you done with Ebenezer Scrooge?” she asked with an incredulous smile.
Driving and walking around with my kids for the past week, much of our conversation has revolved around holiday decorations. The madness has barely even started, but they are aware of every new tree that appears in a neighbor’s window. The lights on the overpasses above the 805 are “so beautiful,” and today while we were at Bird Park, they watched with fascination and anticipation as men with step ladders and extension cords worked on this year’s iteration of the “house that Christmas threw up on” (as my friend calls it) across the street. As I watched the monument to festive kitsch being erected, I didn’t get my usual twinge of melancholy, though. Instead, I started picturing how my house would look with a twenty-foot tall inflatable Frosty the Snowman on the roof.