The Hinkle household is a blended one, which is to say that half the management is male and the other is female. This usually works out fine until around Christmas, when certain politically incorrect gender stereotypes exert themselves.
At the time of the merger several years ago, the male half's holiday décor consisted of whatever Christmas cards came in the mail. Pick out a festive one, tape it to the front door, and voila! – you're done. The female half of the enterprise came with several large storage tubs filled with tree trimmings, lights, stockings, garlands, advent calendars, ribbons, bows, wreaths, and so on. This admittedly amps up the holiday atmosphere by several notches, but somebody has to haul it all out and put it all up. So the male half of the household hauls it out and then waits for instructions.
And yet when it comes to decorating we are relative pikers. The house across the street has so many lights it could serve as a beacon for the space shuttle, if the shuttle were still flying. The folks up the hill have gone to even greater lengths. But then one of them also spent Halloween night on the porch roof in a hockey mask waving around a running chainsaw. Someone always has to blow the curve.
It's the same with presents. Some of us like to get all the buying and wrapping done early—no later than the Fourth of July, if possible. But others, like a former editor at the newspaper here, prefer to wait until after work on Christmas Eve, then buy everything in a mad rush. It's faster that way, but you take your chances: Grandma might have to settle for metric socket wrenches instead of standard ones. Well, that's life.
The focus on gifts is something we're all supposed to feel vaguely guilty about, according to certain grim people with very strong views about the Evils of our Commercialized, Materialist Society. In lieu of presents these people give things like certified carbon offsets and donations in your name to International A.N.S.W.E.R. Their kids get seaweed gummy kits and "Peace in Our Time" cooperative board games from the Catalog of Socially Responsible Gifts, and exact revenge by growing up to become arbitrageurs.
On the other end of the spectrum are the market ideologues. These are the folks who write earnest monographs on how everybody has the wrong idea about Ebeneezer Scrooge, who was really a thrifty capitalist hero. Their idea of a neat Christmas present is something like a "Who Is John Galt?" doormat—except there isn't one, because John Galt was nobody's doormat, dammit, so instead you get a book on Basel bank-capital requirements and a bookmark in the shape of Ludwig von Mises.
Which is not to say that either group is wrong, mind you—merely that, like the madman in Chesterton's "Orthodoxy," they are "trapped in the well-lit prison of one idea…sharpened to one painful point." You want to say to them, look: If British and German soldiers could sing carols together at Ypres in WWI, then the rest of us are entitled to give politics a break for one lousy day. Here, have some peppermint bark.
After all, giving people a break is what the holiday is all about. The story of Christmas is the story of a wrathful, smiting God who had a change of heart. A God who said: "You know what? All those horrible, awful, things you've done? Forgiven. We're going to wipe the slate clean and start over. Yet get a second chance."
That is, at bottom, what makes Christmas such a poignantly joyous holiday. There are not many of us who have not at some time felt lost, broken, inadequate, consumed with guilt. To be forgiven is a great relief. But it is also a great relief to forgive someone else: to let go of grudges and resentments, to give them a reprieve and accept them as they are. And this is something even those of us who cannot swallow the New Testament whole can take part in. You don't have to make peace with the story of Jesus to make peace with your neighbor.
That's why the tut-tutting about the commercial side of Christmas seems overwrought. The spirit of generosity that pervades the season is a state of mind, but gifts are its tangible expression. And practical experience, as well as research on human happiness, both show that the quickest way to cheer yourself up is to do something nice for someone else.
All of which helps explain why you find so many people walking around at Christmastime with silly grins on their faces, or humming hokey carols along with Bing and Nat while they put up yet another string of lights from the manifold storage tubs in the garage. It's hard not to feel cheerful when you know that – for one day at least—the long knives have been put down, everyone is okay with everyone else, and all is right with the world.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.