Christmas Day always seemed like the longest day, when in fact it falls soon after the shortest day of the year. This is the benefit of being a kid. All time is warped. Nothing feels quick when you are a kid, except maybe that hour before bedtime. A school year feels like an eternity. The week before your birthday feels like a month. And the month before Christmas feels like a year. And then the day comes, and everything, naturally, stands still.
My two older brothers and I all had bedrooms upstairs. We waited together at the top of the stairs to go down together and spy what Santa had left for us. This was usually at 4 in the morning. By 9 o’clock, when my dad made a big breakfast with eggs, bacon and biscuits, it already felt like a full 24 hours had passed. But we still had the whole day.
I never got out of my pajamas, unless it was to ride my bike down to my friend Leslie’s house and see what she had gotten. Sometimes, even then, I just threw a jacket over my flannel pants and shirt and pedaled in my slippers.
By lunchtime, I had already opened all of my gifts, and I was waiting for my dad to put everything — Barbie houses, baby doll equipment, a new bike — together. We still had the whole day ahead of us.
I would say things like, “If I was in school right now, I’d only be in math!”
Dinner usually passed unnoticed. We picked at leftovers and padded around the house with new games and books tucked under our arms. By bedtime, it felt like a week had passed.
I loved Christmas Day.
Today, Christmas Day seems to sneak up on me. It arrives too early — soon after the Halloween catalogs have gone in the trash — but the advertisements and sales linger all month as a visual reminder: It’s coming! Christmas is coming! You’d better hurry and do your shopping! There are lists and projects and a million different ways to let people down.
Didn’t get the Christmas cards done in time? Check.
Ordered the big-ticket gift too late for Christmas delivery? Check.
Had a headache and couldn’t attend that holiday party? Check.
Whereas the month of December once felt like a year all by itself, these days, it goes by in a flash. And I’m beginning to think it’s because we adults know too much. We know Christmas is just 24 hours. We know the world will be still for just that amount of time, and then it will whiz past again. Worse, we know that not everyone is happily surrounded by family, gifts and celebration. Indeed, we know that for some adults Christmas is the longest day for a different sort of reason: it’s painful and lonely, and Dec. 26 can’t come soon enough.
Last year I had a hard time celebrating. In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., where six educators and 20 first graders were killed at the Sandy Hook School, Christmas trees, candy canes and gifts seemed irrelevant. I put on a happy face for the kids, but all morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the unwrapped gifts under the trees in Newtown. How would those parents ever celebrate again?
Almost a year later, my friend’s husband died in a helicopter crash during the final weeks of his deployment. I’ve seen her Facebook updates about getting and decorating a tree alone, and I can’t get it out of my mind.
Last month, a young photographer died of lung cancer.
Last week, a house burned down in our city.
When I was a kid, I never suspected any of this about the world. December, and especially the 25th, seemed totally insular. It was a cocoon, and, happily, it seemed to go on forever.
And yet, back then, Christmas was pretty easy, too (although probably not for my parents). It was about presents, staying in my pajamas, and eating a big breakfast. Most of us know that isn’t the true, adult meaning of Christmas. Dec. 25 exists not to give us a “pause” button for the world, but rather to remind us Christians that in a flawed, troubled, human environment, there is hope. Christmas happens among the sadness and despair, not despite it.
I know now that as we grow older, we delight in our children’s innocent excitement waiting at the top of the stairs and then rushing down to the tree for this exact reason. They are our cocoon from the fact that on Dec. 26, we’ll get dressed and carry on in a world that will never be as perfect as it once seemed on Christmas morning when we were kids.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.