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A family occasion most of all


HAVRE DE GRACE -- They started draping the downtown business district here with Christmas decorations even before Thanksgiving, which almost everybody privately thought was tacky.

But because almost all American towns do this sort of thing now, and because to object might seem small-minded and insufficiently supportive of the local merchants, few of these reservations actually surfaced. Besides, the issue wasn't important enough to warrant a fight. There were quiet sighs, a few eyes were rolled, and that was all.

Something like this happens every year. It's as much part of the holiday ritual as office parties and mysteriously out-of-order bathroom scales. The discovery that Christmas isn't what it used to be bothers us, even though it probably never was.

You can blame this on advertising, or the Zeitgeist, or anything in between, but you probably shouldn't blame the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU and its allies, with their squinty-eyed assaults on courthouse-square creches and other perceived encroachments of the powerful church on the defenseless state, are sometimes accused of destroying Christmas. It's a bum rap; the process of secularization was under way long before the First Lawyer crawled up out of the primordial ooze to seek the First Injunction.

Something missing

Curiously, those most offended by the ongoing commercialization and secularization of Christmas seem less likely to be traditional church-going Christians than those who have drifted away. Perhaps this is because the faithful are engaged in seasonal activities which provide a sense of fulfillment, while to those who haven't been to services in years, a Christmas devoid of religious significance suggests there may indeed be something missing in their own lives.

What matters to many of us, believers or not, about Christmas has to do with continuity, with doing familiar things in the company of those we care most about. That way over time many Christmases run together, but there are always a few that stand out. As Gilbert Sandler recalled on this page the other day, 30 years ago Maryland had snow for Christmas. I was glad to be reminded of that, for it was a Christmas I remember well.

I was working in Washington on Christmas Eve, and was absolutely determined to get home to Harford County that night. But as I made my way north in my elderly Volkswagen, the snow fell ever harder and the traffic became ever more hopeless. I considered and rejected the idea of finding a place to wait out the storm.

When eventually, late at night, I reached the back roads near home, they were unplowed and almost untracked, and the snow was blowing wildly in the headlights. But as I knew those roads so well I was able to blast down each hill at enough speed to carry me up the next, and eventually, wheels spinning, I turned in at our lane and got to within about 10 feet of the garage before the car bellied up in a drift and could go no farther.

I got out and stood in the darkness and the quiet with the snow falling steadily out of the dark sky and thought that there was nothing more I would wish for that Christmas than simply being home.

Some years passed, including a couple in which I spent rather lonely Christmases overseas, and then I found myself once again at home for the holiday. There was no snow that year, and the December countryside looked brown and lifeless. At home it wasn't the merriest of holidays either. My mother wasn't well, and she surely suspected that this Christmas would be her last.

Christmas with no tree

Let's not bother with a tree this year, she had said. She and my father were going to drive to Florida in a day or so, and she thought it would be too much trouble to put up a tree and then have to take it down right away. But that didn't seem right to me, so on that Christmas Eve I quietly went out and found a little cedar tree in a back pasture, and while my parents were out at a neighborhood gathering that evening I brought it in and trimmed it.

I wasn't there when they came back, but Pop later said it meant a lot to her. I hope it did. It did to me, and it still does, the more so because it did turn out to be her last Christmas.

An American Christmas can be observed in all sorts of ways -- by believers, by heathens, by capitalist entrepreneurs and by those who inveigh against them. But it's a family occasion most of all, and worth cherishing by families each year in the sure knowledge that the old hourglass is still running and that they won't always be all together.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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