Yesterday I asked Malcolm what his favorite part of Christmas is, and he told me, “The presents.” I paused, thinking to bring up family, and meals, and all those other, often intangible things about the holiday. Then I said, “Me too, bud.” For him, it’s the getting of presents, while for me, it’s the giving of them, but it’s about the same in the end. It’s about the boxes and bags and the sheer stuff.
I felt a moment’s pang over this; how could we be so materialistic? In truth, we love other things too–the tree, the lights, the daily countdown on our homemade advent calendar that contains healthy vegan treats for each day of December (yes, they actually enjoy these), but the presents are the main event. When I think about how it’s come to this, I discover our good fortune.
We live five miles from my childhood home where my parents still live. Two of my younger sisters live in apartments in the same building; another sister lives a few blocks away. My little brother is in college, but in state, so he’s back regularly, and I never have to go too long between sightings of him, lounging on my parents’ couch watching SportsCenter. Every Sunday, just about, my mother puts on an elaborate multi-course supper to rival or exceed the average person’s Thanksgiving Day. When there’s light enough in the day, I lace up and run there, take a shower, and come out to join my siblings for whatever my mother has chosen for the night’s “signature cocktail.” My two kids and their two cousins pile up to watch tv before the meal, and after, they dance while my brother-in-law plays the guitar for them. It sounds entirely ridiculous when I lay it all out like that, but when people ask, “Will you be seeing your family for the holidays?” this is the vision that leaps to my head. “Oh, yes,” I tell them.
My husband’s family is a bit farther afield, but no one lives more than an hour and a half away, and we see them fairly often–often enough that a Christmas visit is no novelty either. We vacation on the Cape in summer with them for a week, and drive down to see them for birthdays. As we continue to consolidate, his parents are contemplating a move to our neighborhood too.
This idyll turns out to be strangely isolating at Christmas. Watching sentimental commercials about homecomings, and time-lapse visits with grandkids only seen in person this one time a year, it’s not that I wish for long car trips or, God forbid, plane rides, but sometimes, I suppose, it might be nice to miss someone.
The trade-off has been a downgrade in professional ambition; the highly driven, accomplished set I took up with at prep school used to look at me with wonder and puzzlement when I announced I’d be attending my state university. After vet school, I was asked constantly why I didn’t apply to a residency in New York. Because it’s in New York, I’d answer. The things I love to do–write and teach–I am fortunate to be able to do anywhere, so I may as well stay where my whole family is. I still get vaguely pitying looks from people who ask me, “Why don’t you travel?” or, if I have traveled somewhere, “Yeah, but you can’t really know a place unless you’ve lived there a while.” True, I can’t argue with that. But what my nomadic peers might not realize is that there’s knowledge that only comes from staying put too. I’ve spent all but a month or two of my life in New England. I have no opposition to travel, and maybe someday we’ll have the money to do it, but I don’t long to leave this place either.
I remember one Sunday at Mass when I was a kid, no different than any other Sunday, as the priest gave the usual parting blessing. “Thank you for your presence and participation,” he said, “Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord.” One of my little sisters, suddenly jolted from her reverie, looked up and said, “But we didn’t bring any presents!” It took some explaining to get her to grasp the concept of homophones, and, more importantly, that we were not, in fact, slinging gifts at Father George for no apparent reason.
Every Sunday, we were at Mass. Every Christmas, we’re at home. Every summer, we prowl around the shores and mountains of our homeland. We’ve got presence and participation in spades. Now, bring on the presents.