And you can feel it coming every year. Thanksgiving morning on the train tracks, you can feel it trembling, Christmas in transit, mere moments until it knocks you sideways and leaves you for dead. It isn’t that I don’t like Christmas. I do. Sort of. My brother and I have always thought there was something a little suspicious in the way people talked about jeans and Christmas. A little too overblown, the praise was too much. Cynics, we assigned them both to the list of the overrated. We preferred a nice pair of sweatpants, we preferred Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July or, notably, our respective birthdays. We were all that way, all of my siblings. We critiqued commercials, scoffed at advertisers who tried to pull one over on us. We laughed at “The Simpsons” and sat with grim, cruelly mirthful disdain when we watched the parade of losers on “The Ricki Lake Show.” Former high-school dweebs turned supermodels demanding acknowledgment from their ancient bullies elicited neither our pity nor our respect. We tended to side with the irreverent asshole who had shoved the girl in the locker, anyway. What a piece of work, we thought, that girl so preoccupied with what happened ten years ago. Get over it, we told her, from our comfortable positions on the rug.
My cynicism extended outward way past the expected. Until last year, I was pretty decidedly against Christmas. And not for the usual reasons of anti-commercialism or anti-secularization or even inclusivity. My problems were smaller and pettier. When I was younger, I hated how I had to wear pantyhose to church. Later, I hated the Poignant Holiday Movie which came out every year, featuring Diane Lane, a pretty dumb script, corny Bing Crosby music, and a theme of generalized hope. And it wasn’t that I was anti-hope, it was just that even on my worst days, the last person I wanted offering me a message of hope was Diane Lane.
When my brother first picked up Catcher in the Rye, he was struck with the same sort of feeling. Salinger was just barely saved from the sphere of the overrated and hopeless by my brother’s sheer boredom. But plowing through the altogether too casual lyricism and italicism and the endless blather about phonies (he had a suspicion that Salinger himself might be phony, for all his talk), my brother found himself starting to like the whole ordeal in spite of himself. And it was odd because one started to realize that my brother, minus the gratuitous cursing, was a lot like Holden Caulfield. Maybe in the end, the sort of self-important theme of our youth brought him around on Salinger.
I think there is something nice to be said for finding a love in spite of yourself, in spite of your own institutional biases. Which is why I was sort of pleased – in addition to being shocked – to discover last year, mid-cocoa-sip at Starbucks, that I liked Christmas. I like the delicate prettiness of stringed Christmas lights. I love egg nog. I love Love Actually and I love Colin Firth even more. I even like the weather sometimes, since it is the only time you get to curl up on couches with total impunity. And I started remembering that, somewhere way back in my childhood, winter had always been my favorite season. In my memory there are wonderful blizzards and homemade soup and snow angels. I remember being mesmerized by Christmas carols in church; I remember adoring nativity sets.
A lot of our institutional biases are impositions we create for ourselves. Our best instincts get lost in the over-thinking, lost in the constant skepticism. Some things are automatic, like a bit of sympathy for a former nerd, and some things are supposedly automatic, like the highly-touted comfort of jeans. Either way, we might learn a lot from listening to these instincts, both the organic and the learned. In the general din of self-actualization and personal achievement and anti-conformity, the wisdom of general consensus sometimes gets lost. Many times this consensus is not an imposition, but a collective instinct expressed all at once, all together.
Franny and Zooey closes with a piece of advice: “Do it for the Fat Lady.” As Zooey explains, the fat lady is every person, is “Christ himself.” It is very sound advice. We are surrounded by fat ladies we never give a moment’s care to. We are surrounded by fat ladies we pick on and abuse. We lack a very certain sort of basic respect for one another. We will say the smallest, pettiest, most hurtful things. We discount people entirely and with very little effort. We often lack that little measure of empathy and respect which would make our criticisms legitimate. In the story, Franny at one point laments that she is tired of just liking people. “I wish to God I could meet someone I respect,” she says. But the secret is to cultivate a sort of respect for every person. It is time to start respecting the Fat Ladies around us. It is time to start respecting the remote people you give only a moment’s thought to. What you do, you do for them. It is time we start to respect the masses, otherwise how are we ever going to leave this academic hole and serve anyone but ourselves? You will only help the people you respect enough to help, otherwise it is not service or achievement. It is an act done purely for yourself. And that seems pretty cheap.
What I discovered I love most of all about Christmas is its general good will. The simplicity of smiles, everything lit up, even at night. Winter may be the darkest season, but Christmastime makes it rather resplendent. And I think we have a lot to learn from a holiday which preaches good will towards all. It is the one generally agreed upon time of year we are all supposed to feel warm and happy – it may very well be that it is cultural imposition, psychological egocentrism, commercialism, consumerism, or any list of evils we set ourselves against. Down with cynicism of my youth and down with the list of the overrated. I propose that we have nothing overrated and nothing underrated, I propose we have everything just as it is. And here is the hard part: to love it and respect it just as it is, for all its crass complications and motivations. Do it for Christmas, do it for the fat lady, whatever: Just do it. The greatest thing about the holiday season may be our instinct towards the grand picture. For once, let those good old stalwarts of general opinion suffice. And we can talk about all the horrible faults of humanity when January rolls around, when there are resolutions to be made.