High on a shelf, taking up much-needed space in our New York apartment, is a cardboard box containing Christmas tree ornaments-decorations from Christmases past that haven't been used in 17 years, but that I can't quite bear to throw away. In the early days of our marriage, my husband and I bought a fir tree-the regulation cedar-placed it in the corner, and covered it with ornaments. Some of these were the ones we'd grown up with: the gold bell with the filigree ribbon and my name painted in white that I'd gotten at a childhood birthday party. The angel with a halo and blond hair, now a bit tangled and worse for the wear. The star whose weight invariably tipped the utmost branch drunkenly downward. The snow-topped bulbs and horn-blowing bears, the rearing horses and the miniature merry-go-round that spun from the heat of the electric lights. Having no children, we became Santa Claus to ourselves, sneaking in during the night and stuffing each other's stocking. We opened gifts on Christmas morning, listened to carols and Handel's Messiah, and enjoyed the sweet sorrow of remembering.
But gradually, a sort of withdrawal occurred. Partly because we were busy working types, partly because we were put off by the increasingly secular and stressful nature of Christmas, we began to treat it as something to be survived rather than enjoyed. Instead of buying a cedar, we'd just put a few bulbs on the ficus tree; then-Scrooge be damned-no bulbs at all. The presents dwindled and became more practical and their wrappings more cursory: a ribbon or card attached to the brown paper bag containing computer paper, business cards, ballpoint pens. We'd plan un-Christmasy things-to go out of town, go to the movies, or work all morning; several years ago I went to visit my ailing mother in Virginia. It became a campaign not just to reduce the frenzy and fanfare surrounding Christmas, but to pretend it wasn't happening.
This was both sad and futile: futile because Christmas is ubiquitous and you can't wish it away; sad because the day provides one of those rare moments of commemorative reflection where we live as vividly in the past as in the present, surrounded by the memories of family members long gone. Yet if we stopped observing Christmas, it was also because Christmas had stopped including us. Once a family celebration-and a celebration of family-the focus had shifted to kids and the truism "Christmas is for children." The soaring, collective religious feeling of such anthems as "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," and "O Holy Night," with their ringing exultations and awesome silences, had to contend withmall and department-store Muzak, dominated by present-buying jingles like "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
Once certain trends had become irreversible-the weakening of religious ties, the de-emphasizing of Christianity out of deference to other religions-it seemed there was no place to go but the ecumenical world of the marketplace, and the justification for all this hoopla had to be children. That is, to salvage some sense of the spirit of sacrifice, parents beat themselves out in frenzied competition to buy the Must-Have toy for their offspring.
Am I relieved or regretful to have missed one of those peak parental experiences, the chase for Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch dolls? For some women, the marketplace, and the dwindling supply of the toy du jour, seems to offer an opportunity for satisfying bloodlust impulses that have too little exercise in today's high-tech world. In a throwback to their animal roots, when a mother bear or antelope would fight to the death any predator that threatened her offspring, the maternal warrior of the late 20th century deploys a battery of instinctual and acquired weapons to track down and capture the prize merchandise-a nose for bargains, finely honed shopping skills, a take-no-prisoners strategy, ferocity when aroused, and an intuitive feel for the terrain.
Certainly, when I was a kid there was the one present you Had to Have, selfishly and obsessively, but it wasn't the same present that every other middle-class kid had to have. Obtaining the bike or the Barbie doll or the train or the chemistry set wasn't a proof of parental love, nor did its purchase secure bragging rights at school for the haves over the have-nots. The emphasis was more on communal activities: We went to religious services, sang carols in the neighborhood, built a creche at school, played shepherds and wise men in the pageant.
We who are without children, having been excluded from all the kid-oriented "specials" of Christmas-movies, toys, games, ballets directed at the pint-size consumer-have only one option: to beg, borrow or steal a friend's child in order to participate in the holiday. My godson was my surrogate child. Before he grew up and went away, I used to take him to a movie and lunch. And on Christmas day my husband and I go to my old friend Julia's. She and her husband have four children, and her mother, my adored "Mother B," comes up for the holidays. Throughout my childhood, Mother B was my second mother, baking cakes especially for me, including me on trips, and now still a joy to be with. Mentally sharp though confined to a wheelchair, she and I drink champagne, watch the children open their presents, and travel down Memory Lane together. Pretty soon she'll be gone, and then there will be no one of that generation left. Her gift to me is the same every year-an ornament for the tree, the tree she doesn't know we no longer buy and decorate.
At Christmas we generally feel like the odd man out, spinsters at a wedding, yet the peculiar thing is, we're no tiny minority. There are huge numbers of married couples without children at home-i.e., families who are either childless from the start, or whose children have grown and gone. We were 24 million at last count, and our numbers are rising. Because of an increase in both empty-nest baby boomers and their childless offspring (newlyweds of the Gen-X crowd), the figure may grow by a whopping 29 percent between 1995 and 2010. Yet, it's as if we didn't exist. When the seasonal assault on the minds of kids and the pocketbooks of parents begins, as early as Halloween, we're not in the equation. We're the ones who are "home alone," a small country of childless couples who've never seen a Teletubby and who feel left out of conversations involving Barney and all post-Muppet artifacts and collectibles.
The dividedness of the country and emphasis on ethnic plurality has meant a fragmentation of Christmas, from a holiday that, despite its denominational origin seemed to include everyone, to a partisan "imperialist" celebration that must be defended against with sectarian symbols and holidays-a Jewish menorah, the African Americans' Kwanzaa. We're more aware of different people and different customs, wary of mixing the symbols of church and state.
Still, the impulse persists, if only to retrieve our lost memories. Each year I feel a strong desire to listen to Christmas music, either recorded or in the nearby church where we were married years ago. Something may come up to forestall my good intentions, but the feeling is still there, and all the commercial frenzy and social fragmentation in the world cannot change the Christmas spirit that remains forever in most of us.
In The Holly and The Ivy, a lovely British film of some years ago, a small-town minister (Ralph Richardson) complains to his grown children of the selfish and hectic holiday that Christmas has become, noting that parishioners come to church but their hearts aren't in their prayers. To which his daughter (Celia Johnson) replies that the magic is not in Christmas itself but in that moment when you first awake. That moment of tingling anticipation, before the cries and excitement, when you feel the great wingspan of family love embodied in the idea of Christmas, not yet parceled out into the concrete and the material, not yet rushing pell-mell toward the inevitable letdown. You realize that, like all moments of anticipation, nothing can quite live up to it, but it lives within each of us, a special moment in time, sad and lovely, as immune to the fads and frenzies of Christmas as stars on a midnight clear.