I Can Tell You Why Christmas Eve Matters, Charlie Brown (Lights Please)

Charlie Brown and I have a lot in common. We both suffer from social anxiety. We’re bald. Each of us has more hope and ambition than self esteem. We’re both clinically depressed. Life pulls the football away from Charlie Brown and me. It does the same to you, of course, but that round-headed kid and I don’t cope with it as well as you do.

All of this adds up to seasonal depression for Chuck and me, though I think I’ve only suffered from it chronically for the last eleven years. During that decade+1, the football has been pulled away over and over again. The holiday season these days for me is more a matter of survival then celebration.

But I wasn’t always like this. Like every kid, Christmas loomed large in my life. Everything about the Christmas season was great–the TV specials, the school crafts and pageants, the decorations. I wonder if on my deathbed my last memory will be of walking down the streets of downtown Chicago with my parents and marveling at all of the window displays: the mechanical elves hammering invisible nails, the fake snow and blinking lights, the stacks of colorful gift boxes. Maybe I cling to that memory because it’s the last Christmas season before my family as I knew it fell apart.

I think I was in kindergarten when we made little construction paper bells with mimeographed poems pasted to their faces. The poem was a little story about counting down to Christmas. In place of a clapper, we made chains of interlocking construction paper rings. The game as dictated by the poem was to tear off a ring each night until Christmas. My mother laminated my handiwork, and for many years it served as the family’s Advent calendar. Watching that chain get shorter each night was one of the most exciting events of my childhood. By the time we got to the last ring each year, I was borderline delirious.

Of course, while the chain was getting shorter the pile of presents under the tree grew larger. We always had a fake tree that spun slowly in its rotating base, so “under the tree” is more expression than fact. The bottle brush branches could only clear the shortest gifts so the big ones remained pushed up against the walls, just out of rotational range. The base was supposed to play a Christmas song, but it suffered damage in a flood. Occasionally I’d wind up its music box just to hear the resulting strange, dissonant tune, like something from the ancient East.

I’d separate the gifts by recipient, comparing my stack to my sisters’. I’d sort them by wrapping paper, or by size. I spent hours arranging the colorful boxes into my own fancy window display.  Anticipating what was inside each box was an even greater thrill than watching the bell chain dwindle in length.

On Christmas Eve my sisters and I were allowed to open one gift. Pick incorrectly and you wasted preview night on a pair of socks, but if you nailed it then Christmas Eve was the greatest night of your life. One year I tore away the brightly colored paper to find a model airplane. I choked back tears, not because I was disappointed but rather because for the first time I knew that my father had personally selected a gift for me.

After the gifts were opened and the paper thrown into the fireplace, we were off to an early bedtime. I tried to sleep, but the anticipation was too much. A couple of hours after lights out my parents would sneak down the hall and do Santa’s work for him. I tried to discern from the noises what toys were being assembled, but I never got one right. Eventually they’d whisper their way back to their bedroom, and I’d lie there wondering how much time I needed to allow before I leaped out of bed and roused the whole family with shouts of “Santa came! Santa came!”

Christmas morning was always great, but once the presents were opened and the stocking candy was sorted (and the obligatory orange thrown away) there wasn’t much to do–nothing on TV but cruddy religious stuff, and it was way too early to go wake up Ricky Brent, the neighbor kid, and show off my new loot. There was nothing to do but go back to bed, or sit around and wait for Christmas dinner. Christmas day was kind of anticlimactic after all of that bell tearing and gift sorting anticipation.

Occasionally someone will imagine if every day was Christmas and I think, “Man, what a drag that would be.” But every day as Christmas Eve? That’s a life worth living. That’s a life filled with anticipation and hope, one where anything can happen. Maybe that person you care about will forgive you for being a blockhead.  Maybe that little redheaded girl will notice you. Maybe your dad will pick out a present just for you.

I don’t actually mind being a Charlie Brown. I still believe in the sincerity of the neglected Christmas tree, seasonal depression be damned. I just wish that life could be an endless string of Christmas Eves, endless days of something to look forward to.

And just once I’d love to kick that damned football.


Categories: Memoir, op-ed

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