Christmas comes but once a year. Joy to the World.
My goal is to get through the next few weeks, escape with a couple of bucks left in the bank and get the credit card off life support. If, by chance, there's still a way to leverage a long weekend in Key West or Myrtle Beach after the tree comes down and the grandkids retreat, I will offer a personal rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus."
There is no point belaboring what already has been said about the commercialization of the holiday and shopping mall madness and the glitzy television ads that are only a little less aggravating — and no more reliable — than political spots around Election Day.
One of my favorites involves a husband buying an SUV for his wife and then sticking a big red bow on the roof. She comes to the window on a snowy Christmas morning and swoons at the sight of the hulking beauty in the driveway. He stands by proudly. What we don't see is the sequel: A month later, the bill for the first payment arrives, the wife gasps, grabs the keys and races to the dealer in hopes of killing the deal. To herself she mutters: "He gets me a car? All I wanted was a new pair of boots."
Everything is outsized about the holiday these days — but what do we expect? Inflation doesn't affect only the cost of Big Macs and movie tickets. As loyal Americans, we have always insisted bigger is better, newer is nicest. Christmas didn't stand a chance. This season, I notice, a popular outdoor decorating item is the cordless wreath illuminated by LEDs — instant atmosphere, battery-powered. Isn't science something?
Most of us can remember different times.
I came from a minimalist household. On Christmas Eve — not the day after Thanksgiving, as now seems the habit — Dad would shove aside the hefty Magnavox radio console that he got by cashing in Raleigh cigarette coupons to make room for the tree. It would not be one of the lush, modern specimens that seem to have been force-fed Miracle-Gro but something spindly dragged home from a street corner lot in Brooklyn.
Next, Dad would string the lights, plump and flame-shaped. Red, blue, orange and green. Our contemporary all-white minibulbs would have baffled Dad. "What?" he might have said. "We couldn't afford color?" Then Mom would put on the ornaments, gorgeous, all of them and handed down through a couple of generations. Birds in nests, elves with pointy hats, a gold ball so heavy it bent the thickest boughs. Finally came the tinsel, draped on the branches, one strand at a time, until the tree was declared "done."
"Nice," Dad would say.
"Be-you-tuful," Mom would agree, stretching the word the way she did when especially pleased.
And that was about it. Midnight, Christmas Eve, they would wake me, their only child.
Around the bottom of the tree would be running a Lionel train, .027 gauge, and the lights of the tree would be on and maybe the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would be singing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," on the Magnavox. There would be a few presents, nicely wrapped, and we would hug, the three of us, and be glad for the little Brooklyn apartment and the spindly tree and the tinsel and the train and boxes soon to be opened. Who could be happier?
But the years pass. More money, higher expectations, commercial pressures guarantee a holiday season that could push the most avid celebrant toward nervous breakdown. But we cope. We install the cluster lights on the edges of our roofs, spend ourselves silly, and, at the end, tell ourselves it's all good.
Complaining about Christmas only makes the family edgy and could lead to serious acid reflux at the big yuletide dinner. We've got to learn to relax and look for signs that the real Christmas — the one of peace, goodwill and small acts of kindness — emerges from behind the auto ads and inflatable front-lawn reindeer.
Sometimes, you don't have to look too far.
Just as Christmas madness was revving up, my wife, Wink, called me at work to say the car wouldn't start and she was stuck down by the deli, a hike from our house. It turned over, no problem, five minutes before when she left her class at the local Y, but now, not a whimper.
Employing my advanced knowledge of vehicular technology, I instructed Wink that surely she had unintentionally locked the steering wheel and that she must turn the ignition key while rocking the wheel back and forth to disengage. Rock, she did. No luck.
Across the street, Wink spotted a white pickup truck and said hello to the driver, a fellow named Gary who was sharing the front seat with a little white dog sitting on a cushion. Can't start the darn car, Wink said. Be glad to help, said Gary.
I spoke to Gary on Wink's cellphone and we discussed strategy. Accordingly, Gary rocked the wheel, turned the ignition. Again and again, he tried. Citing various mechanical principles, I persisted. Rock the wheel, I said. Trying, said Gary, but nothing doing.
After several minutes, Gary suggested an alternate theory. "Battery," he declared, digging out a set of cables and hooking them to his truck.
Presto, the engine revived. Wink said thanks to Gary for his kindness and patience with her husband, the automotive genius. Gary said he was glad to be of assistance, his pleasure, really, see ya, have a nice day. I don't know Gary, or how — or if — he celebrates the holidays, but he's the kind of guy who puts a glow on the season, no LEDs required.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS. Have you ever been helped by strangers in a big way? No matter what time of year, their unselfish act was like a gift. Share your true story about how someone you never met before offered the hand you needed when family or friends weren't around. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Act 2 Editor, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, N.Y. 11747. To be considered for publication, include your name, full address and phone numbers.