‘Tis the Season for Reason

‘Tis the season to exploit the season. Actually, the season to exploit the season is winding down. Christmas is but two days away. My sense is that marketers didn’t capitalize upon Christmas or Hanukkah this year with any more fervor than in past seasons.
Nevertheless, as Christmas Eve draws near, I always find myself experiencing an enormous sense of relief that the commercialization that marks our world is approaching its annual pause. At least it feels like a pause. It seems to me that even the most rabid of marketers lose a little of their growl and foam by Dec. 24. I certainly don’t expect this year to be an exception.
The advertising effort that rankled me most this past month? The New York State Lottery’s use of holiday songs in both the name and the marketing of its instant scratch-off games: Jingle Bills, Merry Money, and Holiday Bucks. Actually, “rankled” is too strong a word. I didn’t find them offensive. I found them annoying and amateurish. If you’re going to commandeer someone’s venerated traditions, at least rise to the challenge of Old Navy and put a red sweater on a dog that looks like a sausage.
But now we are reaching that stage in the season when, if we are lucky, we can take a deep breath and sit very still. We can focus for a moment on all that is right with the world and all that is wrong — on all the ways we have striven for personal decency in our lives and, alas, on all the ways we have failed. We can recall the people we have loved who we have lost, and ponder the friends and family who deserve more attention than we give them.
I find it interesting that Christmas and Hanukkah fall at the end of the year: We have a moment when we can celebrate faith and the inexplicable mysteries that drive us toward divinity, and then we can face the New Year with resolve. We can, if we are either ambitious or delusional (or both), make concrete resolutions to do better. To try not to make the same mistakes again. And again. Some of us — the fortunate and the blessed — will vacillate between joy at all that we have and despair that so many others are struggling for food and shelter and warmth. For safety. For survival.
The other day I had lunch with my friend Stephen Kiernan. Kiernan used to write for this paper before he decided to focus exclusively on his books. He shared with me a statistic he had recently come across for a book he is researching and writing this winter.
“What do you think is the average age of a homeless person in this country?” he asked me, and I answered 31. It was a guess, and it was way off. The answer? Nine. The age of a fourth-grader.
By almost any measure, the chasm between the rich and the poor in this country is widening, with an ever-shrinking percentage of the population holding an ever greater percentage of the wealth.
Meanwhile, we spend a large part of December encouraging one another to consume. To be frivolous. Extravagant. Self-absorbed.
OK, now I sound clinically depressed. I’m not. And my point is certainly not to add a wisp of gloom to anyone’s holiday. I love Christmas as a Christian and (yes) as a consumer. I know as well as anyone that stuff is love.
But it is these days right now, as the sound and fury of bauble-buying is starting to wane, that we can meditate on what our faith and religion mean to us and what would be our priorities if we were not quite so imperfect. Sometimes, it seems, the world works best — spins most smoothly, revolves most gracefully — when we allow ourselves those moments of quietude and peace. It is then, perhaps, that we see most fully both ourselves and our neighbors: What we have and what they need.
Merry Christmas. May 2008 bring us the courage to look our less fortunate neighbors in the eye and tell them that this year we will try — really, really try — to do better.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 23, 2007.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “‘Tis the Season for Reason

  1. Neil says:

    Age 9?? That’s had to grasp.
    Try this Holiday Giving Guide if you want to help by giving, and you want to know the organization you choose puts the money to work for the beneficiaries rather than overhead.
    Merry Christmas Chris!

  2. Limitations Of The Self says:

    I’m guilty as charged (not that anyone was charging *me*, specifically, but still). Yes, I think about those who suffer deeply. But that’s really all that *I* do: think about them. Feel sad for them. And cry for them, at times. But I do not help them in any material or other way. So, what is my point? Well, this is the one blog entry of yours where I cannot be my usual, somewhat flippant self. All that you write of is true. And my Guilt is not a good way to alleviate Any kind of suffering (one’s own relatively small share or the massive and ongoing suffering of those who do not have a place to live or enough to eat and for all that are scorned by those who do, so often). I do pray for them, in my own way, but I know that’s not enough, either. The fact is, it is much easier to look the other way or only give at a major Holiday (which is still better than not giving at all). I do what I personally feel I can and it boils down to something extremely simple and limited: to not demonize or patronize those who are less fortunate than myself. It’s really very little but it’s something that I can do with little trouble to myself. I guess that it boils down to my own wish to not be troubled, as well as a genuine and humane quality within. I do value that quality, in myself and others, even though it’s not going to give anyone shelter or food and so, is quite limited.

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