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Day of Discontent

Charlotte Allen, author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus," co-edits the inkWell blog for the Independent Women's Forum.

It’s the day after Christmas, and you’re asking yourself: Is that all there was? Some toys might already be broken -- the kids’ XBox, you sort of hope, not your new DVD Handycam camcorder. The pile of brightly wrapped boxes under the tree has been reduced to clutches of shredded paper and bits of shiny ribbon. The tree is beginning to shed -- time to get rid of it. (If you’re truly efficient, the tree is in the dumpster and the ornaments back in their boxes.) That mountain bike you so fervently desired 24 hours ago seems a poor antidote for the strange emptiness you now feel.

You can blame capitalism for your mild depression -- the products, the advertising, the hype that made you think that it was absolutely necessary to surfeit yourself and your family with more than any of you deserved. Or you can blame the American cultural penchant for the super-sized, the need in this most prosperous of nations to celebrate our holidays in the most ostentatious style possible: 1,000 mini-lights, instead of a dozen, strung along the rain-gutter.

Next year: simplicity. Organic foot-warmers for all, hand-creweled from sustainable Guatemalan hemp.

Next year: no January surprise credit card bill.

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Next year: no Christmas.

It’s psychologically inevitable that whenever there is a big buildup, there is a big letdown. These days, the Christmas buildup starts early, gathers momentum through rounds of office parties, frenzies of shopping and cooking, and frantic runs to airports to pick up relatives -- and then suddenly fizzles after the presents are unwrapped on Christmas morning.

A few years ago, I read an ad for a series of holiday floral gifts that you could shower upon your love. It was called “The 12 Days of Christmas,” except that the 12 days preceded Christmas, not followed it as they do in the carol. Every morning, from Dec. 13 to Dec. 24, a messenger would deliver a different yuletide plant or bouquet to your beloved’s door. On Dec. 25 and afterward, there was nothing at all -- not very cheery.

In the old days, people had it psychologically easier because Christmas did not begin until Christmas morning. In Chaucer’s time, people watched the December sun gleam low and pale as the frost hardened the ground, and then, just as the season reached bottom at month’s end, they lighted the fire, broke out the boar’s head and the wine, and “ ‘Nowel!’ crieth every lusty man.” As late as Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in the 19th century, Scrooge & Marley Inc. was not the only establishment in London to keep its doors open until close of business on Christmas Eve. There was no Christmas letdown, but rather a soft landing, as people feasted and eased themselves through New Year’s Day and beyond, until they finally had to do something about the spring plowing.

In moving our expenditures of Christmas energy to the weeks before Christmas, rather than the weeks afterward, we have created a vacuum, a hole in our souls that can’t be filled by cutting off yet another slice of cold turkey and downloading more tunes into our brand-new iPod. It’s a feeling I know well from childhood experience because my father suffered from intense holiday melancholia. Torn from the work in which he could bury himself, he was compelled to contemplate, in enforced idleness, the void he saw at the center of existence. My cheerful, stylish mother bustled to fill every corner of our house with decorations that were not only pretty but elegant, yet gloom hung from our Christmas tree like old-fashioned lead-based tinsel.

Nonetheless, I’ve learned that something can be done, and it doesn’t involve self-righteous, neo-puritanical gestures such as moving to Cuba or giving your kids certificates of donations to Oxfam instead of presents in their stockings. Nor do you have to pretend that the Middle Ages are back and try to revive Childermass and other arcane post-yule feasts long since forgotten -- you don’t have to learn how to morris dance. But you can remind yourself that Christmas isn’t supposed to be just a round of parties and a blowout gift exchange.

It is actually -- remember? -- the celebration of someone’s birthday. A baby was born. Everything connected to Christmas revolves around that, and everything falls into place, into perspective.

It’s lovely to light up the face of your son or your spouse with gifts, but those gifts aren’t ends in themselves but earthly reflections of a greater gift, your Christmas feast a reflection of the heavenly one. So your house doesn’t have to look as though Martha Stewart got early parole to decorate it, and you don’t have to glut the gang with so much that you might face bankruptcy in February. Best of all, you can stretch it out, keep your Christmas going, save some of it, put off for a few days the big movie or the last present or the last party or even the final few tree ornaments.

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When a baby is born, you don’t stop celebrating the birth just because the first 24 hours have gone by. Even if you’re not religious, you can still remember that Christmas isn’t about you and your needs, your entitlements, your sense of emptiness or your pending mortality; it’s about bringing love and comfort to others. Remember the old bromide about banishing the Christmas blues by getting out and volunteering for a charity? It works! And the hungry, the sick and the homeless will all still be around on Dec. 26.

My final post-Christmas suggestion: Kwanzaa. Yes, it’s for African Americans, and yes, my inner purist bristles at the idea of a holiday dreamed up during the 1960s as a Marxist, atheist alternative to Christmas. But I live in a mostly African American neighborhood, and my neighbors, Christians nearly all, have managed to fold Kwanzaa gently into their yuletide celebrations as a family day, a quiet post-Christmas continuation of the great Christmas feast. You and I, even though we may not be black, can do likewise in our own way. Today is the first day of the rest of your Christmas.


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