Marley was dead: To begin with.Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Yesterday, I challenged a few people at work to identify the quote above. No guesswork here, though – it’s the opening line to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This is perhaps my favorite holiday story ever, and of course the only worthwhile film adaptation is this one:
It isn’t often that I reflect on the goodness of the world and the past year; in fact, more often than not I agree with Dickens’ opening sentiment: Marley, of course, representing my spirit, soul, etc. etc. yada yada and so on and so forth.
But as I sit here at 7:30 AM on Christmas morning, my wife and son still fast asleep, drinking coffee and freezing my ass off until the house warms up, I have cause to take stock of what the last year has brought me – what it hasn’t – and what this time of year might mean to me, if only I were open enough to receive it.
You see, fourteen years of working retail has jaded me to the season significantly, as I’m exposed year after year of rampant consumerism, frantic last-minute shopping, frustrations, stress, anger, and griping that we just sold out of whatever the hell it is you thought your kids needed when really they probably just wanted you to stay home and spend some time with them. But behind it all, there are these little tokens of kindness, small moments of humanity, that filter through like starlight on a dark winter night. (That’s my poeticism for the day.)
I’ll give you an example: I was picking up coffee yesterday before heading in to work, and as I was I saw a car pull up to the drive-through, ordering presumably their own caffeine fix to get them through the chaos of Christmas Eve shopping as well. And I overheard the barista say, “The car in front of you already paid for your coffee.” And in turn, the person ordering paid anyway, saying, “Keep this as tip for yourself.” I wasn’t really in disbelief, but something warmed my Grinch heart slightly at that moment.
Here’s another one. Last weekend, our family spent a night at a bed and breakfast in Bethlehem, PA. It was really quite pleasant – we got to walk around a quaint victorian town, visit a Christkindlmarkt (basically a giant Christmas-themed flea market), and relax in a way we haven’t been able to do in a very long time. But what really made it special was the people we met: as we were sitting in the lounge, enjoying fresh-baked cookies and free port (!), we had the opportunity to talk to several other couples, and they really couldn’t have been nicer. We talked about where we were from, what we did, and why we were staying there. It made the weekend, for sure.
Last night, our family continued our tradition of choosing for each other one gift to open on Christmas Eve, as a way of sparking the holiday spirit. This is important to me more than ever now, as my 15-year-old is starting to lose the spirit of Christmas a little, in favor of moody cynicism and exhaustion at dealing with relatives, and it means we have this small opportunity to rekindle some of that feeling of magic and kindness.
Here’s how it played out: I gave my wife a toothbrush. (I mean, a fancy electric one, but still.) My wife gave our son a puzzle box (he’d been fascinated by the ones at the Christkindlmarkt), and he was genuinely pleased. But then, they gave to me something that was truly special. Somewhere, they found a copy of the original script for the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, complete with a cover including signatures of every major cast member. I can’t begin to say how overcome I was: here was something I’d never wanted, never thought of, and am now totally in love with. For me, this is really what the idea of gift-giving is all about, and something I struggle with to this day: it really isn’t about the gift at all – it’s about showing how well you know the person to whom your’e giving it, and letting them know, in subtle sort of way, just how much you love them.
And here’s what I guess I’m driving at: after a year of ups and downs, mania and depression, broken hearts and renewed relationships, this drove home to me that my family truly loves me. And this is something I’ve been taking for granted for far too long. For years, I’ve convinced myself that I live for them, and not for myself; that I labor to keep them happy, with no thought for myself. And recently, I’ve been torn between feelings of obligation to my family, and desire to pursue my own happiness.
But what I’m just starting to come to terms with is this: I have no obligation to my family. There is no conflict between them and my own fulfillment. What I have is two people in the world who love me dearly, and who deserve that love reciprocated. I can find happiness of my own, and be happy in their company. The two are not mutually exclusive.
And this, I think, is what Dickens was driving at with A Christmas Carol. Scrooge believed that others’ happiness came at his cost. He thought that there was no room in the world for human relationships. He knew that his own miserly desires were far more important than any display of affection or love. And he was wrong.
As Dr. Seuss so eloquently pointed out, Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. It’s not about getting gifts; it’s not even about giving them. It’s not about the ‘spirit of Christmas’, or any of the feel-good crap that is shoved down our throats this time of year.
No; I think the real meaning behind this time of year – Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other seasonal celebration you might observe – is to take a moment to reflect on the life, the love, and the company we keep. It’s to make sure that we don’t take these things for granted. And above all, remember to give in mind and spirit all that you can – because that is how you receive the same from those with whom you share it.
As I opened, so shall I close: the final lines of that famous story:
It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol