"Christmas is coming," my daughter sang in that piercing, glass-shattering treble of eight-year-old girls. "Christmas is coming, my father’s getting fat. Please put a penny in the old man’s hat." So I gave her a stern and serious lecture about honoring her parents, while I swung her up in the air and dropped her, giggling and squealing, with an oomph on the living-room sofa.
In truth, I could use the penny. And somewhere in the run from Halloween’s candy to Thanksgiving’s sage-and-bread stuffing to the Christmas goose, the old man did manage to get as fat as, well, that same Christmas goose. All domestic discipline seems to have gone up the chimney with the letter to Santa Claus. The brakes are off the sled, and the household’s financial, dietary, and even¯as my daughter’s open teasing of her father suggests¯parental controls have vanished. Probably in the bright flash that sent me out to buy three new strands of Christmas-tree lights and new batteries for the smoke detector as our old lights announced their retirement in a fine cascade of sparks and the stench of charring plastic.
"Did we leave that candy dish in storage?" I asked in my annual exasperation, as I performed the annual unpacking of the annual implements of annual Christmas decoration. "You remember, the glass one my grandmother gave us. I always use it for the gummy candies your sister sends." And with endless patience, my wife answered that no, it isn’t in storage, because I broke it three years ago, the day after Christmas, when I tripped on the scattered parts of the train set I’d insisted that any little girl would love for a present. That was the tumble, she reminded me, in which I’d broken a lamp, a side table, and a pair of the Christmas mugs my mother gave us. Plus the candy dish, the train, and a household rule about not using certain earthy expletives in front of children.
Ah, yes, that Christmas. Other people seem to remember Christmases by what they received or what they gave: a Christmas of presents. I tend to mark particular years by what we lost: a Christmas of breaking things. The year the tree toppled and smashed the ornaments we got from Egypt. The year a log rolled out of the fireplace and singed a trail across the living-room rug. The year I smiled down from the ladder as my toddler daughter, wide-eyed with wonder, tried to hand up to me the angel we used to put atop the tree. I seem to remember she learned a few new words that Christmas, as well.
"Tidings of comfort and joy," the carol proclaims. And joy there certainly is. But comfort ? That always seemed to me a slightly skewed theology about Christ’s Nativity, at least in the usual modern sense of the word "comfort," and anyway, it isn’t true. I had this insight just this morning, as I knelt on the floor, trying to brush out of the rug the tiny slivers of silvered glass from the latest broken ornament. I cut myself, of course, because, well, that’s what those ornaments are for, aren’t they? I mean, not actually for physical injury, although probably the annual wounds are a secondary design feature¯in much the same way that the silver tinsel which looks so nice in the package is in fact carefully calculated to get tracked through the house, make the dog sick, and get sucked into the vacuum cleaner’s housing so the motor burns out with a smokey whine.
But surely some discomfort is part of the season, if only to remind us to look for Christmas joy rather than Christmas comfort. These are, after all, different things. Comfort, as we use the word these days, is an aspiration that can never be fully reached short of the grave¯for each new comfort creates its discomforts, which need in turn their own new comforts. And, anyway, the desire for comfort is the hunger for a condition, a state.
But joy, well, joy is an activity, isn’t it? Joy is something we do, or at least something we feel while we are up and doing. There’s probably not a lot of mileage to be gained by trying to spread the uncomfortable tiding of discomfort and joy. And, in truth, a little comfort this Christmas would be a welcome change from the usual run of breakage and spoilage. But I’ll take the joy, since that seems to be what is chiefly on offer.