I just saw a quote, something to the effect that “There’s nothing sadder than not being a child at Christmas.”
My first response was to agree with it. My second was to (over) analyze it. My third was to start humming “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
I mean, why should it be the case that being older on Christmas is sad? I don’t think that it has anything to do with age.
When I was a young parent—and still, to a certain extent, though the youngest of my children is approaching a 17th birthday—it was tremendously satisfying to stay up Christmas eve (and sometimes early morn) wrapping presents. What made it special were the twin notions of hope and surprise. Hope on the part of children (and earlier, of spouses, significant others, crushes, and of the self) and surprise (watch a kid opening a box sometime: it’s special).
Being able to hope and to be surprised, or being able to fuel both hope and surprise, is very cool (at one time in our marriage, T and I would each put a large present for the other under the tree a few days before Christmas and play a game of n questions to try to figure out what it was). But as we age (and as the internet homogenizes our wants and the availability of stuff to meet those hopes) that ability goes away. A three- or four-year-old child hopes, but doesn’t hope for specific things (I may be a little wrong on that, because our kids grew up without TV, and I don’t really recall TV until I was 7 or 8). I mean, maybe the child wants a truck but the brand, color, and size aren’t terribly important.
The best Christmases I remember were around the time I was 9 or 10, when one of the obligatory gifts would be a Japanese “tin robot”, something like this:
Such toys would break, often within a few hours or days, but there was a coolness, a surprise factor, about such toys that made them fantastic in a literal sense. I remember playing with such robots in front of the fireplace in my parents’ home, watching their laser eyes ignite the bark peeling from birch logs.
A little later in life, our hopes become specific. One hilarious case comes to mind…I must have been 12 or so. I was into models and rockets, as was my younger brother, D (but of course, I was more into them). We got up early Christmas morning and poked, prodded, and unwrapped bits of packages until we knew what was inside. We didn’t pay attention to the tags. Anyway, one of the packages contained a three-foot-tall buildable model of the Apollo/Saturn V rocket/spacecraft (for those too young to remember, Apollo was the spacecraft and Saturn V the rocket that lifted it to the moon. Tl;dr: Apollo 11). This model: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_9uXRGjfEU. It was the very first thing I went for under the tree, and I thanked my parents profusely before they informed me that it was intended for my brother!
I was crushed, not because I didn’t get some very cool stuff, but because that had been my specific hope. Ah, well. So it goes. A few years later, when I had earned my ham radio license and was operating a relatively powerful (300 watt) transmitter, I had made clear to my folks that I wanted an SWR meter, a device used in tuning a transmitting antenna. They got me one that was designed for CB radios that put out a maximum of about 5 watts:
Live and learn.
Today, of course, we have online wish lists, courtesy of Amazon, and we can be completely unambiguous with respect to our desires. And so the element of surprise dies, and hope becomes very specific, and if not met, it dies.
This year, two older children wanted to get a big present for my youngest. Knowing she was into gaming, they consulted carefully with her about what kind of keyboard and mouse she wanted, and got her exactly those. Perfect—and hope satisfied. Alas, however, no surprise. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but I do think it’s sad.
So maybe this is why, as I get older, I have given up on saying anything about what I hope for. I can always get what I want, but I like to think that surprises are better than hope. This has led, over the years, to my getting lots of chocolate (which is fine).
This year I received, inter alia (sorry), a wonderful bottle of fountain pen ink from my oldest (Thanks, M!), some jokey lawyer stuff, including a “lawyer decision maker” spinner and a book of lawyer cartoons, from my 2d (Thanks, J!), a “Don’t Blame Me—I Voted for Bill & Opus” T-shirt from my 3d (Thanks, I!), and a book called The Brothers Vonnegut from my youngest (Thanks, Tg!).
All of these were complete surprises. I had no list. I’m wearing the T-shirt, one of my pens is loaded with 1670 ink, and I’m 60pp into The Brothers Vonnegut, having finished the book of lawyer cartoons yesterday.
Maybe I’m too old to hope. Santa won’t bring me a Saturn V, or a slot car set. He won’t make my high-school crush fall in love with me, as I once hoped. But it is nice to know that at 57, I can still be surprised. And that’s not sad at all.