The Ghosts of Christmas Past

‘Twas the night before Christmas Eve and I finally drove down to bustling Portsmouth to buy a Christmas present for my mom. I slipped across the snowy brick sidewalks and peered into glazy colonial windows. There was wood moulding and freaky floral wallpaper prints. Christmas trees and soft glows of candles or fireplaces – very Portsmouth. I shivered and hid my face from the wind, pulling my hat down low, but perhaps someone could see my smile when I passed the yard. A big Bernese Mountain dog, a red hankerchief around its neck, bounded across the snow. A little girl, wearing reindeer antlers, leaped off a snowbank. The Berner barked at the door and the two playmates ran into the warmth, leaving me in the shadows of the white string lights outlining the two-hundred-year-old house.

I used to park in front of this house every day and I was about to walk past my old apartment, on the edge of downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s cultural capital. I have lots of happy memories from living here and lots of melancholy ones, too. There’s the place where I first discovered and tried kombucha, there’s the corner where I proudly introduced a prospective girlfriend to some old friends, only to realize later that it was our first and only date. Once I parked here in my car and read a Hemingway story in which a waiter accidentally knifed himself while he practiced bullfighting a chair in the kitchen. Once my friend and I eyed through a Playboy we found in the back of a car I bought from my uncle. I sat on a porch near here with a girl who tried to lure me in before I left for work to smoke a joint with her, but I chose not to – sometimes I think I should have.

I’ve been known to wander, when I want to capture something and put it down on paper, but these days I stick to new adventures. This time, however, I was to keep my visit brief and on target: Celtic Crossing, a gift shop that promises to give unattended children kilts and swords. Not sure if that’s a threat or a great idea, but I like it.

A little elf told me a few things my mom might like for Christmas, and one of those things was here, a store I have walked by a million times but have never dared enter. Leather journal covers and stone-carved chess sets and map-o-Ireland tea towels had me touching everything, wondering if they’d threaten me with a kilting. But when the simple little gift I sought appeared before me – a body lotion by Inis that has seaweed and shea butter in it – I snatched it up and raced for the counter. There wasn’t a line and I felt I was having a pretty good run so far, avoiding my Portsmouth emotional traps. The nice woman behind the counter swiped my card real quick with her iPad, which I always get so excited to sign with my finger, and then she put the lotion in a bag for me, with green tissue paper poking out like emerald waves.

I thanked her for saving me the effort of wrapping my gift and I ventured back out into the cold. I tucked the bag under my arm, aware that everyone was lugging some sort of gift around with them. I wanted to feel ashamed, like I was part of the machine, this materialist Christmas joke. But I didn’t feel ashamed. A passerby and I exchanged smiles. Most people kept their heads down, in a hurry to get out of the cold, or into a restaurant before that inevitable large group beat them to the last good seats.

On my walk back, I finally stepped into an emotional puddle lurking along the sidewalk. And I was knee deep. The smell of baking pizza mixed with the gas fumes from traffic, cigarettes, the winter cold, and the faint roasting of coffee a few blocks away. A girl I used to date and live with in town worked at this pizza place. I’d always hang out late into the night, eating free pizza, and watching the drunks stumble in for a slice.

She’d always get sad around Christmas time. Her mother committed suicide when she was very young, right around Christmas. It makes me sad around Christmas time, too, sometimes. When I knew her, she was a tough girl – probably still is – but I was never able to navigate this time of year well enough around her. Lack of relationship experience and, at the time, perhaps, I did not share enough empathy. Two rock-headed kids will find ways to smash their heads together often.

In another solar system, I grew up with the picture-perfect Christmas mornings that Norman Rockwell would paint if he were around in the 90’s. It must have been 1991 that I rubbed my dreamy eyes and found a Rockadoodle VHS tape and a Super Nintendo Entertainment System under the artificial Christmas tree that would be a mainstay in my family until at least 2013, covered with ornaments decorated by my siblings and myself. While I don’t remember what happened to the Rockadoodle VHS tape, I rocked that SNES until 2009. I remember playing John Madden Football and thinking that running out-of-bounds was how to get a first down. Damn, I must have been pretty good, though, now that I think about it. Years later, I was winning games 90-0, leaving my opponents with negative yardage, but then our two pet rabbits squirmed back there and ate all the wires. My girlfriend (mentioned above) surprised me with a “new” one from eBay and we wrapped all the wires up tight, where not even bunny chompers could reach them.

As I grew up, moved out, went broke, moved again, moved in with girls, moved in with drinking buddies, saw my parents separate, family traditions disappeared, new ones formed, and Christmas became a little less Norman Rockwell. (I visited my dad on Easter once and he told me, while eating Taco Bell and watching Spike TV, my mom could have us kids on the holidays. My dad and I share little moments like that, instead, which mean a lot to me.) There was always brunch at Mom’s – and there is again this year – but for a while there was also pumpkin egg nog and black strap rum (or was it the other way around?), punk records, cigarettes, and shady friends. We’d drink two dollar Snowblower stouts down at the Barley Pub and bitch about our distaste for materialism, shop-til-you-drop-bust-down-the-doors-on-black-friday-madness; we’d embrace all things counter cultural, we’d reject the Norman Rockwell scene. All the ladies who worked at the hipster coffee shop down the street would show up and tell us how drunk they were, wish us a Merry Christmas, disappear, and we’d sigh and dream about it. Then we’d each walk home in the snow and fall on our mattresses and try again tomorrow.

Amanda Hooper nailed our Christmas bitterness – in those days of the 2008 recession – in an old issue of TDV’s Homegrown:

The glamor of the nineties for most of us is dead and with it has gone some of that magic “Christmas spirit” that made me want to watch all of the Christmas and ice skating specials around this time of year and start writing down a wish list. I’m just not ‘feeling it’ anymore… And with my age comes the assumption that I am now capable of obligations of the “adults” at Christmastime which includes doling out a wedge of my hard-earned money to exchange for unnecessary gifts that all of my relatives will not remember by next Christmas.

I’m sorry, but F*** that.

She proposed a boycott of Christmas, though I think there is a place for gift-giving. It depends on the reasons why someone wants to give them.

The Ghost of Christmas Presents

I’ve never been the best gift giver, but I’ve sure tried. The nice thing about bad gifts is that people just let them disappear down the memory hole. The good ones are remembered and cherished. So there isn’t much shame in failing.

In recent years, I’ve become more involved in my family’s newly-reforming traditions. I’ve tried to become selective and personal when it comes to gift-giving. My mom likes antiques and Little Women, so one year she received a beautiful old copy of Alcott’s novel. My brother lives in California and probably misses home, so I am mailing him a loaf of sourdough bread baked at a local shop.

I shy away from gifts like cash and gift cards. I’d rather not give anything if those were expected from me. If someone bought me a Starbucks gift card and I gave them a movie theatre gift card, we might as well have just got a coffee together and seen the flick. I can see how cash or a gift card can be given with purpose, though. One year, my mom gave us a package of Cascade dish detergent pods and a few hundred bucks for a new dishwasher. It wasn’t an aimless gift; it was more thoughtful than anything we could expect – and a little easier than lugging a dishwasher around.

I love the old stories about pioneer families sticking oranges in the stockings for the kiddoes. They were a simple and thoughtful present in a time of scarcity. I’m extremely grateful that in my youth, I was given amazing machines like the SNES – and yes, even video tapes about roosters that sing like Elvis. Those were the oranges in the stockings of the economic boom times. I’m not sure what all the hoopla is about this year – I don’t follow it. I pay attention to the things around me, the people around me I care about, and my puppy, of course. Santa’s bringing him a nice big bone to chew on Christmas morning.

It’s always amusing – in the awkward way – when someone is given a gift and feels compelled to return the favor, as if they forgot what a gift is. I feel like the joy from giving gifts comes from the giving part. Not for altruistic reasons, but because it brings me joy to make someone I love happy. There’s value in that, of course. I agree with Ayn Rand, who wrote that the highest moral purpose is happiness. While “buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you” can be viewed as problematic, there is nothing wrong with being kind, generous, and caring. Even she had a heart, albeit a grinchy one.

The Ghosts of Christmas Future?

As long as this exponential economic system we live under exists, this strange new Christmas is here to stay… and it will grow exponentially, as well, I think. The stores are going to be open on Thanksgiving from now on, ready with Christmas deals. The Christmas songs will be on the radio sometime after Halloween forever more. Traffic and crowds of shoppers will grow. Surreal movies like Jingle All The Way become all the more real each and every year. But there’s no point in being upset about this. There are compelling arguments that some of this is actually a good thing — as long as we are not harming other people in order to superficially impress our children, of course.

The world isn’t going to change anytime soon – only individuals can change. One of my favorite books published in 2016, Prosper!, touches on this phenomenon – that the world is going exponentially crazy. The authors, Chris Martensen and Adam Taggart, temper the impending doom of our society with a more positive outlook:

Modern civilization is finally encountering the limits of a finite planet. . . . Our societal “growth = goodness” narrative is no longer enabling for us. . . . If we do not adopt a new narrative, the destructive status quo will continue . . . until the point it simply can’t. . . . The first step toward achieving long-term sustainable prosperity is, of course, to adopt a better narrative. A narrative of living within our means of resource stewardship, and of finding happiness in a life of purpose, not of possessions.

As I scurried out of Portsmouth, I thought of all the things that people these days are saying is “wrong” with Christmas, even as we partake in them: the consumption, the materialism, ignoring the Salvation Army jerk with the bell so we can buy things that make kids jump around like lunatics on Christmas morning, only to be forgotten by January 1st. That’s not really a problem, if you ask me. I just hope people find meaning in the things they do. That they’re truly feeling happy with their decisions. That the giving of gifts gives them joy in response. I hope that every day when my mom reaches for the Inis, her day gets a little better. I feel that every day when I stick a Cascade pod into the dishwasher she helped us afford.