In Twilight Times, the Spirit Endures

Our story is the same as yours—or, if not yours, your brother’s, your coworker’s, your neighbor’s. You know who they are, whether they’ve let you in on the secret or not.

Maybe ours is better. Maybe it’s worse.

No longer homeowners, we rent, signing checks to a landlord whose financial welfare we worry for as vigorously as we worry for our own—we don’t want to have to move again. It’s a temporary situation, we tell our children, who, knowing no better, complain about their own dwindling real estate: bedrooms the size of closets and carpets that smell of the previous tenant’s cats. It’s a temporary situation, we tell ourselves. We must. There are mouths to feed, educations to fund, examples to set.

In the garage, boxes stacked in rows accumulate dust and force us to park in the driveway—the no-longer-fashionable, bitch-of-a-gas-guzzling SUV we can barely afford to drive; and the midlife-crisis coupe, a last hurrah in the face of shifting economic winds. Inside the brown corrugated boxes, our luxury items of yesterday: the extra linen from the extra-linen closet; flower vases and decorative knickknacks; champagne flutes we won’t be using this holiday season; and the children’s toys—remnants of Decembers past—that once littered our playroom floor and won’t fit into bedrooms the size of closets.

Maybe 10 boxes are labeled Christmas. I dread digging these out. I dread decorating a house that isn’t mine. Making Christmas. Faking Christmas. Like a defiant child, I want to stamp my foot in outright refusal. No to Christmas. No to this miserable economy. No to temporary setbacks, deeper debt, fear and instability. No to gray hair, high blood pressure and the frown lines that mark my husband’s face. I want to pitch a fit! Damn the ensuing coal in my stocking.

But what I really want is a Christmas miracle.

* * *

One year, our first year together—rich with youth, and future, and optimism, if not wealth—we laid a blanket beneath our Charlie Brown tree, made the best of the situation. A baby.

If it were just us grown-ups, we might skip Christmas this year, the stockings, the tree, the spending. Or we wouldn’t. We’d do it small and special, traditional and economical, stringing popcorn and cozying up to It’s a Wonderful Life.

Anyway, it’s not just us. It’s us and them—three beautiful and good children raised in a culture of naïve consumerism; raised on Nickelodeon and Disney, Hannah Montana and Buzz Lightyear; raised the primary targets of multi-billion-dollar-industry advertising; raised on reward systems; raised on Santa Claus.

* * *

I remember a Christmas from my own youth. I was 6 when my mother sought an odd, pale-yellow sock from my drawer to Scotch-tape to the wall, a makeshift stocking. I remember my relief, the following morning, to find it filled with foil-wrapped candies—I’d been warned that Santa might not come that year. “We have no money to pay him,” my mother had been saying for weeks. A can of Silly String and a Barbie wrapped in red paper convinced me of Christmas miracles; renewed my faith in Santa, just when I’d been all set to grow up.

* * *

I don’t want my children to grow up just yet. They aren’t ready. Neither am I. So I’ll dig out the boxes marked Christmas, hang wreathes, bake cookies. I’ll hum carols while I fight shopping-center crowds, checking items off Santa’s list. I’ll tense up every time I snap open my wallet, finger the plastic and pick a card, any card, another card.

But there will be shiny bows on brightly wrapped presents beneath a gloriously decorated tree. Bright eyes and gleeful shrieks in December trump January’s bills. Until January, that is. There’s nothing miraculous about January.

* * *

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe the spirit endures in the new year, mightier than bills and bank balances. My mother reminds me that the real miracle is the lasting will to give, even in twilight times. She tells me that my father’s brother, at a time he had hardly any money of his own, once showed up unannounced on Christmas Eve.

“Out of the blue,” she says, “he handed us $100. Without him …”

My mother’s voice trails off.

Our story is the same as yours—or, if not yours, your brother’s, your coworker’s, your neighbor’s. You know who they are. Maybe theirs is worse. Ours is still far from dire. There’s a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food on our table. Hell, there are boxes in the garage where champagne glasses lie in wait. And so maybe, just maybe, this year, the Christmas miracle is mine to give. Maybe it’s yours to give, too.