The Christmas column that almost wasn’t

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 12/16/10]

Let me set the scene. It’s around 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday. Another hectic week is drawing to a close, and deadline is fast approaching.

Early in the week, I decided that I wanted to write about the holidays — something kind of nice, not too schmaltzy. I kicked around some ideas, but nothing stuck.

All the classic holiday tropes have been done to death. Every year is just a retread of these same themes — the real meaning of the season, it’s better to give than to receive, being with family and friends, yadda yadda yadda.

It’s all good stuff; don’t get me wrong. It’s just not anything I felt particularly inclined to write about (at least not in the traditional way).

So there I was, idea-less and a little stressed.

On occasion, when I’m lacking a story idea or looking for a different perspective, I’ll crowdsource it. I’ll send a text message out to friends, put up a post on Facebook or solicit ideas from people I encounter during the day.

Results may very. Especially with Facebook. Sometimes I get no response at all. Often, they are flippant and unserious. Other times, they are just entirely unsuitable for publication. But every now an then, I get a gem.

So I put up a message on my Facebook profile: “writer’s block… need a holiday story idea…”

About 10 minutes later, a classmate from high school suggested I write about a kid that needs to find the meaning of Christmas when a parent loses their job and can’t afford to buy gifts. The child then finds meaning with a homeless man who, despite having nothing still has a Christmas.

The post made me smile. It was sweet, and despite being your classic Hallmark Channel plot, my mind began to wander as I thought about how I could breathe new life into it.

But I wasn’t writing fiction. I needed something grounded in reality, more specifically, something that was grounded in the local community.

I refined my post, stating as much.

A few minutes later, fellow Rutland Herald columnist Sharon Nimtz dropped a great idea in my lap: a solstice story. I already knew of a few people who held annual celebrations — it would be fun to write.

Unfortunately, Dec. 21 is still a little ways off so I decided to file that one away for later.

By now, the responses were flooding in. One local friend suggested I write about the many groups in Rutland that adopt families, providing them with food and gifts for the holidays. Another great story.

I immediately thought of MSJ’s Project Help on Dec. 21 and 22. There was also the Community Cupboard’s annual “Celebrity Servers” nights at Three Tomatoes.

However, on my now tight schedule, I didn’t think I could pull it off.

My search continued. Jessie, a friend who is currently teaching in South Korea, thought that I should explore the evolution of how people celebrate Christmas — from the traditional stuff like Jesus and Santa to contemporary, ironic interpretations like Festivus and ugly sweater parties.

(She also offered to send me a video of her young students singing Christmas carols in English, which she assured me that while not newsworthy, was highly entertaining and adorable.)

Carol Tashie, another Herald columnist, pitched her tradition of not buying or receiving gifts during the holidays. If you’ve ever read Carol’s Weekly Planet columns, you’ll know it’s not as Grinch-ly as it sounds — it actually makes a lot of sense when you see the madness this season can bring out in people. In a private message, another friend echoed Carol’s view, deriding the commercialism of the season, saying, “How about the Christmas that wasn’t (meaning that everyone decided to not buy presents) and just spend time with their families?”

She sardonically followed her idea to its logical conclusion, adding, “If this really happened, I fear our whole economy would collapse. Yikes. Get out the credit cards, Americans. Charge!”

While worthy of consideration, rampant consumerism somehow lacked that holiday warmth I was looking for.

Fortunately, the tone quickly turned back to the festive when my friend’s dad shared a tradition from his family:

“In my mom’s family, her uncle threw coins on Christmas Day to all his nieces and nephews. Then, he threw them to our family. When he died, his wife threw. Then, my dad took over and he threw for his grandchildren.”

This is a great family tradition.

Still, nothing was really jumping out at me. I left Facebook, to do some real work, hopeful that an idea would eventually bubble up in my brain.

A few hours later, I signed back in. As I looked at the string of responses in my page – well over a dozen – something began to occur to me: there was a story here.

At the bottom of the thread, Sharon had arrived at the same conclusion.

Sifting through these varied responses revealed to me the unique nature of Christmas.

You can walk down the street observing the gaudy decorations and flashing lights, the mistletoe and the holly and endless drone of sugary songs, but underneath that red-green blur of sameness is something intensely personal.

Everyone has their own traditions and memories, as a result of their own baggage, they bring into the season. Everyone navigates the holidays in their own way with and has their own take on it: traditional, commercial, whimsical, altruistic, cynical, political, irreverent.

It’s easy to get caught up in any one of those and miss the whole point of it.

As the year draws to a close and the weather turns colder and the days grow shorter, the holiday season can be a time to gather with family and friends and community to celebrate what is truly important.

Like I said, a little schmaltz isn’t so bad.

Happy holidays.

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