Ready?: Facing, not fighting, the ‘annual crisis of love’

Is Christmas ready for you?

The twist in the standard circa-Solstice question is a good one to ask.

Are we ready for Christmas is one thing, but is Christmas ready for us?

Loudon Wainwright wrote of “The Annual Crisis of Love,” which adeptly assesses our culture’s complicated relationship with the Christmas holiday, a season and celebration both grand and grotesque.

“There comes a time for me on Christmas when the holiday changes suddenly, when the event — like the fall season — is past its peak or color and excitement and the day begins to sink,” Wainwright wrote.

He might have done so when more than one acquaintance called out in passing, “Are you ready for Christmas?” The writer might have been struck by the faded quality of the question, and the way it reminds us that, somehow, the month of December turned into a period of expectations: self- or other-imposed lists and criteria that must be fulfilled before 12/25.

But Wainwright goes on to say, “The precise moment may vary but it is most likely to arrive before the turkey is done and when the litter of gift giving remains.” He calls it “the anonymity of loot.”

“At such moments, I am the victim of a curious mixture of disappointment and guilt and I begin to look forward eagerly to the wine. I wish, in short, that Christmas had never come.”

He wrote this in Life magazine in 1965. A half-century earlier, the tinselization of Christmas was well present in American culture. Fortunately, we had Wainwright to comment on it, with eloquent passion:

“But I have weathered too many Christmases to be surprised at the letdown. And I don’t really think it can be attributed to the usual complaints about the season. Indeed, there is crass commercialization, the greeting cards are just awful and the shabby Santa Clauses come out too soon. There is, too, the hysteria of shopping in time with the simplified tinkling of sleigh bells and there is even a limit to the number of times one can tearfully respond to those crutch-propelled twins of Christmas, Tiny Tim and Amahl. But these are all mere nitpicks, and I always hope that — this year — the magic will not pall.

“Still, it does, and I think the reason for it rests in the fact that Christmas is not so much a holiday as it is an annual crisis of love. We must somewhere suffer its effects.

“That it is just such a crisis seems obvious when one considers the sheer emotional baggage of the day. It is a frightfully heavy load, and it increases with the years. Among other things our expectations for our own behavior seem extraordinarily high at this time. We expect ourselves to be cheerful and generous on Christmas even though we may have been getting no practice in these areas for the rest of the year … with expectations so high, it is almost impossible not to fail, at least a bit.”

Wainwright recounts “the multitude of meanings” of Christmas and the confusions over Santa and the crushing moment his parents inadvertently revealed the myth, the performance of gift receiving.

“Still, I would not suggest changing any of it,” he writes. “Families need the annual Christmas crisis. More than any other time it forces people to expose themselves and their feelings to those who are the very closest. If there is too much tension in it, too bad. At least we come to know each other better. More often than not, the tension is a healthy one, and at the day’s end — stuffed, sated, perhaps a little disappointed — we have nonetheless connected.”

A Christmas Treasury, Viking Press, 1982

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