And now the bustling streets and malls fall strangely quiet. In many a home, the living room stands ankle-deep in an effluvia of ribbons and paper and bows, while in the background someone has left the TV running — Alastair Sim throws open his window on a bright and shining world for the 59th time and asks the lad in the street what day this is.
It’s Christmas morning, sir. And yes, we certainly do know the shop on the corner with the big, fat turkey still hanging in the window.
By day’s end, much of the predictable hand-wringing over the commercialization of the holiday will have faded away, as in many homes the most expensive new Christmas toys will lie broken or abandoned in some forgotten corner, while toddlers play themselves to happy exhaustion in that yet-to-be-unseated, all-time-champion source of Christmas delight: the empty cardboard box in which a present arrived.
A fancy, high-tech toy has no option but to remain a fancy, high-tech toy, you see, while a cardboard box can be a frontier fort, a hot rod with a stick shift, a lonely aircraft dangerously icing up as it makes the perilous climb over the Andes …
The youngest parents may fret the holiday didn’t turn out exactly as planned. That’s when a grandparent is allowed to place a sympathetic hand on the shoulder and recall the Christmas when granddad hunted high and low for just the right red Texaco fire truck, only to watch the child in question spend the day exuberantly constructing a full Javanese gamelan out of old pots and pans systematically looted from the kitchen cupboard.
“Commercialization”? Since Christians didn’t exactly invent the date — merely superimposing their own celebration onto a Winter Solstice week of feasting and merriment observed by the Romans and the pagan tribes of a thousand years — it does seem less than generous to protest whatever traditions others may cherish at this season.
Even if that does include animated Santas sledding across the snow on highly unlikely rotary-blade razors. (For that matter, some of us even pine for the throaty ladies who used to sing to us about shaving cream and cigars.)
Here is a day for friends and family, for again celebrating our freedoms and the bounty they create.
There’s a tendency to think today’s crises must be more complicated and dispiriting than those of days gone by. In fact, most of today’s doubt and confusion pales when we consider how the future hung in the balance for a generation of cold and lonely sailors and G.I.s and Marines, stretched thin on freedom’s line, in the desperate Christmases of 1941, ’42 and ’43.
Listen to the radio. When were those songs written? Isn’t it interesting, how many come down to us from those desperate days?
Even today, have we no moment of gratitude to spare for the young men and women who stand a frozen vigil on some lonely shore this Christmas Day, wishing they, too, could be home sipping cider by the fire?
It was for such as they that Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote, in the far darker days of 1943:
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, make the Yuletide gay. From now on, our troubles will be miles away. …
“Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough … and have yourself a merry little Christmas, now.”
It was for such as they that Kim Gannon and Walter Kent wrote, in 1943:
“I’ll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me. Please have snow and mistletoe, and presents on the tree.
“Christmas eve will find me, where the lovelight gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas … if only in my dreams.”
Merry Christmas to all. May your days be cheery and bright. And may all your Christmases … be white.
(Irving Berlin, 1942)
A version of this editorial first appeared in this space in 1998.