Are you ready? It's finally here, the day before The Day. For many of us though, tonight is The Night. For me, Christmas Eve has always been the most magic time of the season, in fact some of my favorite few hours of the year. And I think it all boils down to anticipation.
It's the anticipation that drives the whole Christmas experience for me. The building excitement, and the coming together of the generations, all wrapped up in our family's traditions, is what makes this day special, not just waiting to open up the loot. The presents, although they're in the forefront of the busy push to Christmas, are a distant second to what is really important. No, I'm not going to go all mushy and noble on you. I like receiving a great gift as much as the next one. But at this stage of my life, it's more important to be together sharing the family jokes, the kidding nicknames, and the Christmas morning breakfast casserole.
As I thought about Christmas Eve for this article, I couldn't help but think about all the pressure we put on ourselves and I wonder why we do it. I'm pretty sure that the idea I have of Christmas and the rituals that surround the season have been planted there by three life experiences . . . church, childhood memories, and (wait, are you ready?) Madison Avenue. . . . the advertising world.
Most Christians would say that their Christmas feelings are first and foremost based on the birth of the babe in Bethlehem . . . the Greatest Gift, the mantra that in recent years has aptly been labeled the reason for the season. All my life I've known that Advent was the time of looking forward to arrival of God's gift. But these days the first weekend in Advent is begun by Black Friday. The seasonal anticipation has been supplanted by the dread of December's Visa bill.
Sure, we kids looked forward to the presents when I was young, but they were simpler. And I do remember much more of a religious presence to the season. The ACLU hadn't entered the discussion and manger scenes abounded on private lawns and public parks. Caroling was common, often directly from the hymnal, not Rudolph or Blue Christmas in three part harmony.
My childhood memories include the year that my mother finally decided we would open our presents on Christmas Eve. I was either 11 or 12 and I thought it was terribly sophisticated . . . just us girls with my being past all that other "childish" anticipation. It was a long time before I realized that my hard-working mother merely wanted to sleep in on Christmas morning. I was delighted to play with my new presents in the morning. That Christmas Eve gift tradition remained for almost twenty years until I married, in fact until my firstborn arrived.
And the last influence the advertising world? Maybe the greatest change of all. Back in the day, the only way we kids knew about something special was to spy it in a store window. Repeated visits throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas created great anticipation . . . that wonderful wind-up monkey or baby blue Schwinn was only a pane of glass away from the end of my cold nose. No television ads, tweets or computer pop-ups foisted the hard sell on us. Kids today, and their parents, are surrounded by the electronic maze, the hyperbole of the very latest. It's all coming at us so fast that soon the newest gadget in your pocket will be outdated before the Master Charge clears.
But today is Christmas Eve. I am seriously relieved that the big effort is over that got us this far, yet I don't foresee the time when I'll do less. I'll always want to go to those special holiday parties with the same casts of characters and I don't want them to change. I'll probably always make pounds and pounds of buttercrunch and the dozens of cookies that are expected. Whether I'm number 15 in the post office line or shopping on line at midnight, all the preparation experiences add up to an anticipation hysteria that gets a little tighter each day. Instead of asking, "Is it cold enough for ya?" small talk is reduced to "Are you ready?" No one has to explain for what. It's as if right after Thanksgiving the train left the station and we're all along for this fast, bumpy ride to the destination . . . tonight.
Let's face it, if we haven't got it done by now, it's probably not going to happen. I won't even ask if your shopping is done. That's sort of a given unless you're one of those brave, but foolhardy men who are thinking about starting this afternoon. I've never understood that phenomenon, but I do know it exists. It has to be all about the adrenaline rush from the thrill of the chase, some viral form of testosterone poisoning. Yup, it's a hunter-gatherer thing.
For the rest of us, though, we've waded through the Christmas chores we've assigned to ourselves and I for one am always try to ignore that little voice that's nudging me, "What have you forgotten?" Whatever it is, the family knows I'll find it in April.
Now, only one anticipation remains . . . the warm, fuzzy feelings of tonight. Church on Christmas Eve is as reflective for me as New Year's Eve is for most people. It's what brings everything together, making sense of my need to complete all the traditions for Christmas. Come to think of it, I'm just following a 2,000 year-old custom of bringing gifts. I wonder if Melchior stressed about frankincense being the right present?
When the organ begins Adeste Fideles, "O Come all ye Faithful . . ." I draw in to that comforting hour knowing that the anticipation is over. Peace is here.
I hope that you find your moment or two of serenity and happiness. And that no one gives you a box of myrrh . . . without a gift receipt.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Marcy O'Brien can be reached at Moby.firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't expect a response for a day or two, she's taking a nap.