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Truly: Happy Holidays

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How many treatises have been written on “The True Meaning of the Holidays”? Quite a lot, that’s for sure. In fact, Joseph was probably cranking one out while Mary was…well, cranking one out. (The One, if you’re Christian.) Certainly, no one can beat the infamous letter to Virginia, assuring her that there is indeed a Santa Claus.
This is a travel column, and travel is inextricably linked with the holidays – most often one travels to family, though “away” is a feasible direction as well. (See Four Christmases. Or rather, don’t.) So here comes yet another treatise – a meditation, if you will – on the holiday spirit.
I know what it is this year. This is my first Christmas (for that is the holiday I celebrate) as an Adult. It is also the first Christmas in eighteen years I will not be spending at the childhood home I have, with fervent relief, always retreated to after my poor cramping wrist and befuddled brain have jointly, if incoherently, penned the last word of the last December final.
In spite of all the jokes and memes and sitcom episodes about dealing with dysfunctional family, coming home for the holidays has, personally, always held a wordless sort of joy: a sweet, silent contentment would settle over me as the place I knew best greeted me at its warmest. Intertwined garlands and lights wrapped around the banisters, an old-fashioned leather strap of jingle bells hung from the hall door and an all-cream nativity graced the hall table. Santas, reindeer, carollers: all the symbols of the season graced our shelves and mantles, transforming familiar rooms into refuges of ineffable cheer. We always chopped down our own tree, and it was a long and painful twenty-four hours we endured waiting for the branches to settle so we could haul up the boxes and rediscover the years of handmade and souvenir ornaments that brought Christmases past into magical alignment with the present.
This year is a bit different. This year that home is on the market, soon to begin building memories anew for someone else, and some of those cheerful figures have been sold in the name of consolidation. This year, I don’t get to go home for three long, languorous weeks of recharging, but rather three or four days before returning to work back here in Chicago. Three days seems hardly enough time to acknowledge that Christmas is here, never mind wallow in it, pig-in-the-mud style. Um, hello? It’s the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” people, not the “Long Weekend of Christmas.”
Which brings me to the advent season. As a kid, every moment of December was magical. You started singing Christmas songs the day after Thanksgiving – every song, every time it came on the radio. Store windows were enchanting. There were classroom parties, which eventually became dorm hall parties and group gift exchanges. Days were spent deciding who was on your gift list and looking for just the right present for them. As you got older, even tests and finals couldn’t detract from the joy of gingerbread lattes and ugly sweaters and multiple viewings of Love Actually.
This year, I’ve hardly had time to notice Christmas. That old advent hymn “People Look East?” Hell, I barely have time to look left before crossing the street. I haven’t done any Christmas shopping yet, because I’ve been too busy working three jobs to pay rent and student loans. I don’t have much money left over, so the decorations in my apartment – far from overtaking the place – are minimal. One of my jobs is outdoors, so instead of gleefully greeting the snow with an upturned face and joyful romping, I’ve been keeping my head down and shoulders squared against it as I navigate my bike over the icy roads. The sight of flakes falling has caused my heart to sink rather than to lift. Instead of spending an afternoon joyfully preparing my contribution to the one Christmas party I went to, I hastily threw together a pasta dish because I was too exhausted to do more. The Internet is out at my apartment, so I have not once turned on the Pandora Christmas station (and let’s face it, kept hitting the “next” button so as to exclusively listen to Michael Bublé and Mariah Carey). I have not yet watched Love Actually, sent Christmas cards, or made Christmas cookies. I’ve gotten to wear my ugly Christmas sweatshirt a measly two times.
I have donated money through a giving tree so that a child can have a pair of shoes this year. I’ve seen the face of a homeless man light up when I brought him a cup of fresh, hot apple cider. I’ve been in a bar vs. bar snowball fight. I’ve watched my sister belt “All I Want for Christmas Is You” at a local karaoke dive. And I’ve put a very silly cut-out Santa hat atop the head of a very serious-looking Audrey Hepburn print we have in our apartment, which makes me laugh every time I see it.
And I am grateful. Grateful that I have those jobs to pay my rent and loans, that I have sweaters (ugly and otherwise) to keep me warm, and most of all, that I have my family – the all-important ingredient – to still go home to, no matter where that home is. And, riding to work the other day, I realized that I still have time. Time to do the watching and the baking and the shopping and the wrapping, because the holidays are, as much they are about celebrating miracles and being joyful and generous, about living in the moment. At what other time of the year do we regard every day as an opportunity to indulge in all the things, big and small, of which that exact month, that exact moment, is about? Deepak Chopra says that people are never in the present because they’re always looking toward the future, but even when they get there, they aren’t truly there for it, because they’re looking ahead again. Christmas is the one time of year when we are bombarded by the present. There is no getting around the carols, the windows, the cookies and hot chocolate, and the bevy of Santas to whisper your deepest wish to. Everywhere we go, we are reminded that no matter how many presents we have or don’t have to give, no matter how many days we have off, no matter how many movies we watch or parties we go to, we have a glorious present to live in, and we can use it to spread an infinite amount of love.
And I’m proud to say that, as the snow came down last night, I rode with my mouth open and my tongue out, catching flakes all the way home.



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