Why God Created Christmas Eve
by Jack Cashill
ave you ever been to a Wal-Mart?
These are big suburban stores with wide-bodied customers and even wider aisles to accommodate them. Apparently, there are many such stores throughout the country, and they sell just about everything.
I found my way to my first ever Wal-Mart a couple of Christmas Eves ago, and the display of heretofore unthought of things to buy dazzled me. I even deceived myself into thinking that for once, finally, some artifact unearthed from this fresh potlatch would evoke a “thank you” from my family beyond the polite and obligatory.
Having learned some time back that kitchen appliances did not exactly warm the cockles of a woman’s heart, I zeroed in on goods of even greater sentiment and utility: smoke detectors, carbon-monoxide alarms, roadside breakdown kits, and other useful gadgets.
After all, I figured, what says, “I love you,” more than a 20-pound, U.S. Navy, cartridge-operated, purple-K, dry chemical, potassium bicarbonate fire extinguisher?
By the time I checked out, I had already put a couple of Chinese kids through college and convinced myself that I had solved the “what to buy” problem. It turns out that I had not, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that my loved ones, if not exactly thrilled with their new gifts, were at least safer for having them.
I must confess at this point to being the sort of knuckle-dragger about whom soft-core sexist jokes are told, the kind who actually begins his shopping on the 24th and thanks the good Lord for CVS so he can finish it up on the morning of the 25th. Dang that snowstorm last year!
In the way of added pressure, my wife’s birthday is on Christmas Eve, and I have two more or less adult daughters. This means four sets of gifts for people whose sizes I cannot judge and whose tastes I cannot begin to fathom, all to be purchased in a mad dash of four or so hours.
Time, however, is not really an issue. No amount of it would remedy my inability to buy any of them anything that, of their own accord, they would ever actually apply, wear, watch, read, listen to, dab, smell, hang, plant, plug in, or otherwise cherish. So by delaying, I merely compress the misadventure into a manageable time frame.
What sustains my Christmas spirit is Christmas Eve itself, the promises it holds, the memories it evokes. In my youth, we never even bought a tree before Christmas Eve. I was told that it was something of a family tradition chez nous—not a phrase we used a lot back then—but as an adult I could see that tree lots offer some enticing discounts come late afternoon the 24th.
We would, of course, decorate the tree that same evening. Why wait? My parents went heavy on the tinsel, figuring, I suspect, that cascading sheets of aluminum foil would hide the otherwise yawning gaps in the greenery. Trees that hang around the tree lot until the 24th usually do so for a reason.
For all its imperfections, however, the tree was real. I have never had a fake one. Back in the day, we felt as sorry for kids with artificial trees as we did for kids with artificial limbs. Their parents we held mostly in contempt. If there had been a child abuse hotline, we would have called them in.
Once our tree was in place, my father would bring out the already vintage train set, the only heirloom from his Dickensian childhood. He had inherited the set from his old man, a dipsomaniac who once shot the balls off the Christmas tree before vanishing from the planet when my father was about eight.
Our friends envied our trains. The newer sets were all small, safe, and quiet. Ours were big, loud, and dangerous. “Lionel made its trains larger than anyone else,” says Wikipedia in something of an understatement, “making them appear to be better values.” If my memory serves me, each car was about one-fourth the size of an actual boxcar and twice as noisy.
Quickly bored by watching the trains run in circles around the tree, my brother and I would improvise obstacles for them to plow through, trestles for them to cross, and canyons for them to leap, which they never quite did, resulting, as hoped, in furious crashes and mini-firestorms of sparks.
“Be careful in there boys,” my mother would yell benignly from the kitchen. “Don’t electrocute yourselves.” Parents in that generation, having children to squander, never seemed overly worried that one or the two of them might just shock themselves into oblivion. Still, for all our freedoms—no seatbelts, no bike helmets, no three-pronged plugs—we generally survived our childhoods.
We did our shopping on Christmas Eve back then, too. My brother and sister and I would get our parents a carton of Raleighs, stick a ribbon on it, and call it a day. Christmas, after all, was about us.
Although as self-absorbed as the next kids, we looked forward to the Eve’s penultimate event, the roll out of the Holy Land action figures—shepherds, sheep, wise men, camels. These too were sufficiently oversized that if they had a mind to, they could have hopped a ride on a Lionel boxcar and looked at home.
The angels and the Holy Family we took seriously. My always-crafty father had built a crèche for them, a word, like myrrh and frankincense we used but one time a year and with as little understanding.
The introduction of the nativity scene shifted the mood of the room and served to remind us—we desperately needed it—what Christmas was all about. It also served as prelude to the evening’s natural highlight, Midnight Mass.
As kids, going anywhere at midnight was wonderfully daring, but going to Mass was especially so. Not only were we out. Everyone was out. It was as if a whole community decided to do something radically transgressive. Despite our unholy yearning for Christmas booty, the sights and smells of Mass, the whole redemptive spectacle of it all, uplifted our grubby little souls.
To be sure, Christmas Eve is not what it once was. There is much that our enlightened courts have taken from us, but there is much more that we have lazily given away.
That is something that you might want to contemplate this Christmas … on your way to the 10 p.m. “Midnight” Mass, of course.
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