One must adjudge that for Canadians in general Christmas is the Big Scene on the year’s tabular array. Unlike Americans who apparently distract themselves beyond recognition for the Thanksgiving Holiday (think of the winsomeness of Pilgrims and wild turkeys), Canadians prefer instead to immerse themselves in the nostalgia of skating on a frozen pond and everything rustic that is manifested by a Cornelius Krieghoff painting reminiscent of “the hardships and daily life of people living on the edge of new frontiers” (Charles C. Hill, Curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery). This selected ambiance of holly berries, freshly-cut spruce boughs, a blazing hearth and frosted window panes is second nature to hearty, healthful Canadians. The Christmas season combines and heightens the elemental dimensions of traditional Canadian life in addition to heralding the midwinter solstice and the wretchedness that is winter.
There is however imperceptibly an erosion of the Christmas tradition, an encroachment borne out not only by a markedly changing religious landscape (or mounting resilience from religion) but also by an increasing number of people – mostly young adults – who are disinclined to nurture their children in the material cupidity regularly associated with Christmas. Yet apart from these fanatics – and let’s face it, that’s the popular sentiment about these joyless naysayers – Christmas continues to hold considerable stock for both young and old Canadians. Nonetheless it remains a cautious affection and the landscape is changing. With the looming demise of the parents of baby-boomers it is possible that Christmas as we once knew it is on its last legs. The ringing peal of Christmas bells as a mandatory beck for one and all to return to the family home to reunite over turkey and Christmas pudding could well be losing its potency and allure. There is also the very real possibility that the declining parents have already departed in one sense or another, making the performance of returning to the homestead (or some other family member’s substitute home) more of an unwelcome social obligation and holiday interference than a mirthful foregathering.
The leading edge baby boomers (those born between 1947 and 1955 comprising one of the largest segments of people in history) are now easing manifestly into old age and there is little doubt that their former preoccupation with igloos, snowmen, hallway decorations, mistletoe and tinsel is waning. On the other hand the prospect of an opportune tropical vacation during the otherwise “dead” Christmas week or loading the car or van for a six-week jaunt to Arizona is of more stimulating interest. And considering the deplorable lack of employment for many of today’s youth, the thought of giving them anything other than money for a Christmas present is a preposterous extravagance. All of which is to say, being home for Christmas has lost more than a bit of its sheen.
Quite apart from the ritual hike to Southern climes, there is a darker side to the absentia from home at Christmas. In plain terms, being home for Christmas and having to put up with one’s family and extended family is not always pleasant and seldom the picture of blessing depicted in Norman Rockwell’s syrupy family scenes of glowing white folk gleefully clustered about a linen and silver banquet overseen by a kindly grandfather and apron-clad grandmother. When you think of it, it is odd that we should once a year assemble with people whom we don’t otherwise see or socialize with on a regular basis. In fact, it is probably closer to the truth that if we were given the choice, we wouldn’t socialize with them at all, not especially because we don’t like them but more because we haven’t a scrap in common with them. And yet there persists this mania fostered in particular by homemakers and by the more searching members of the clan to ensure that one way or other the family capitulate their self-centered private desires to the esteemed corporate welfare. It is assumed that the evolution of the congregation will in good time and measure reveal its beneficence, at least that’s the premise. What on the contrary often emerges is a conflict of personalities paradoxically fueled by Christmas cheer. Brothers and sisters reignite their long-forgotten enmities; parents mechanically reassert their dominion over anything that moves and pronounce what they truly think of their children’s partners; in-laws find themselves standing in the back yard shaking their bewildered heads in dismay and pining for an accelerated departure; and disgruntled, bushed grandchildren become annoying to everyone. With surprising alacrity the celebration of Christmas disintegrates into something shy of an indulgent Roman feast and the object of Christmas is laid bare as a pagan ritual of material gluttony and excess.
The exception to this gloomy picture of Christmas at home is of course the view afforded through that very narrow window called childhood. This I believe is the sole constituent of the family celebration of Christmas; namely it is a ceremony reserved for young children whose fanciful minds are spirited by the sparkling lights of the Christmas tree and the anticipation of Santa Claus. Going to the bother of mixing this ingenuous undertaking with the comparatively lurid trappings of an adult social gathering ensures that the two worlds will collide with devastating results. One demographic will ultimately triumph at the expense of the other. Beyond this restricted setting, most people have long ago abandoned their childhood, and the re-enactment of the former ceremony is questionable.
Assuming one succumbs to the logic of this reasoning and determines to forego the privilege of being home for the holidays, there remains the penalty of conscience for those who are uninitiated to the apostolic maneuver. You can safely count on being buried in a pile of sanctimonious bricks before effecting your escape. After all, you are up against a social institution which competes with motherhood for popularity – not an insignificant obstacle. In the end however it might be just as well to be home for Christmas if only in your dreams.