I am halfway to 34, and this coming December 24th will be my 34th Christmas Eve, which is how I measure Christmases. For me, Christmas has never been so much about lists and presents and trees as it has been about making those lists and anticipating those presents underneath that tree. Which means that, for me, the essence of Christmas is the breathless hope of wishing on the brightest star in the sky and believing it might come true. That singular moment of potential.
Christmas Eve occurs before the fire at my parents’ house, surrounded by my mother’s sister and her family, as well as any friends who happen to wassail their ways to our home. It’s full of egg nog and sugar cookies and chances are there’s enough nog it gets blurrier as the evening continues in fits of discarded wrapping paper and torn asunder envelopes, but one thing stands out. One thing always stands out.
Christmas at the Sawyers
Comin’ on Christmas, people decorating their trees. I printed out my newly finished manuscript I had dedicated to Veronica and jammed it into the backpack I wore across midtown Manhattan as I made my way to Port Authority to catch a Greyhound home. One of those slate-grey, nondescript buses down the Jersey Turnpike blur the spindly trees along the side of the highway, all the way back to my hometown by way of connections and cars, at which point I called Veronica to ask if we could meet up, because I had a serious surprise for her. I guess she could hear in my voice how eager I was to see her, and perhaps even that I had specific reasons for being so eager. She told me she didn’t have much free time, but I could attend Christmas Eve mass with her family.
Perhaps that’s the most you need to know about Veronica: not that she is beautiful, though she is; nor what she studied; nor what she’s accomplished since college; nor any other thing, because perhaps nothing will tell you so much as that Veronica Sawyer is the kind of girl for whom you attend Christmas Eve Mass at midnight. It’s the crowded mass, full of not just the fervent but also all the people who go to church solely on Christmas and Easter. I can’t tell you I was among the faithful; by then, I’d swung closer to agnostic, which was a major step in my own spiritual evolution—finally accepting that I didn’t know all the answers was slightly out of character for me. I had grown up attending Catholic schools but had transferred out on the first day of my junior year, after which I’d swung hard enough the other way that other people might call it over-compensating, filling my days and studies with classes about cold, hard, rational science and the kind of philosophical discussions that excluded God in favor of morals and “quality.”
But Veronica told me I could meet her at the mass and then return, with her, to her family’s house, where she and Tom would be up until the wee hours, wrapping presents over hot chocolate and Christmas tree cookies. I wrapped the manuscript folder I’d bought in my mother’s leftover wrapping paper and set it on the front seat of my car as I drove to the church and then, afterward, her house.
I have to admit that in the past few years, I’ve become less interested in Christmas and holiday festivities. I’d say it began two years ago, the first Christmas I spent alone in Hollywood, but really I think it started before that. Thing is, it’s happened, in a way, to all holidays, at least for me; I’ve always been the sort of person who gets totally excited about doing things right up until the very moment you tell me I have to do them, at which point I get all stubborn like the Taurus I am and dig in my heels and refuse to budge. Thanksgiving, anymore, only makes me wonder why more people aren’t grateful every day of the year, for example, and Christmas? Christmas, just lately, only reminds me I live in a society where people shoot people in a Toys ‘R Us and frenzied shoppers trample employees at Walmart.
This particular Christmas seems particularly turbulent, in fact, mainly because of the economy. I read the comics page of the Philadelphia Inquirer this morning, and no less than three of the comics contained “jokes” about the current “financial crisis.” The headlines are all over the place today; jobless claims are way up, while consumer spending is way down, and most analysts say we’re just in for tougher times ahead.
Still, I can’t help but feel some hope in that.