Unless you spend your holiday in a mountain retreat like Lake Tahoe or Idyllwild, Christmas in California does not resemble the familiar yuletide imagery. The Christmas landscape in the mythic, frozen moment of suburban American Godtime is smothered by snow, sheeted in ice. In the suburban reality of most of California, Christmas is a season of water. Rain makes its infrequent and therefore welcome visits to Southern California, delivering the gifts of added moisture to the irrigated desert and chaparral. Rain stays much longer in Northern California, as dreary by spring as the neighbor who leaves his Christmas lights hanging through Easter.
Of course, Christmas is the time when we embrace the world as we wish it would be, instead of the way it is, so Californians resolutely surround themselves with the iconography of Christmas for the 19th century British yeoman, or the 18th century New England townsperson. While focused on these snowy images, Californians try to ignore the rain. On the freeway, drivers either continue with the same speed and ferocity they use on sunnier days, or they slow down far more than practically necessary, but enough to silence their fears of what might happen to them during these unusual deluges.
Californians are not the only breed of Americans who either ignore the reality of December altogether, or become overwhelmed by it. Without the snow, we're just a bit more obvious in our habits. Elsewhere, Americans work hard at making the Christmas moment exactly right--whether that moment occurs when the children awaken on Christmas morning, or when the visiting relatives arrive from the airport, or when loved ones have just the reaction for which you had hoped when you bought them the presents they're just unwrapping. Americans have a determined vision of how their Christmases should be.
Some people are good at making these moments happen. They're the people who have empathy with and insight into the other people involved in these rituals. You have to know that Christmas morning is for the children. You learn to accept the accidental breaking of a $50 toy, or the year when your child is too old for Santa. You understand why relatives might want to visit, other than a flinty sense of obligation. You give gifts freely, without imposing another kind of obligation, the insistence that the recipients tell you exactly why they love their presents, whether or not they actually do.
The people who are bad at the Christmas moments are the ones who try to force everyone into the correct posture, words, and feelings. While the Godtime version of Christmas may provide important lessons about generosity, love, mirth, and renewal, these are exactly the things that cannot be compelled. Gifts become reciprocal duties, for the giver to give, and the receiver to receive, each in the proper way. In staged photos of families, friends, or co-workers, a rictus grin belies the real emotion of the moment. The fallacy of the statement, "It's Christmas, why can't you enjoy yourself?" is lost on the speaker.
Still, there are people who try, year after year, to enforce Christmas correctness. A dominating parent or an overbearing boss may have the skill to coax, bribe, whine, or intimidate people around them into assuming their place and pose in the Christmas tableau, as fixed and unlovely as the plastic Nativity figures that used to decorate the lawns of many Americans.
What does all this have to do with the usual topic of this blog? Everything.
In December 2007, many Americans are baffled that other countries don't want to take their places in our political tableau. We insist that we are loving, and we only want the best for them. Why then all this strife?
Perhaps if, during the rest of the year, we can't understand the reasons for resentment of the US occupation of Iraq, or the outrage over secret prisons, or the willingness to work with authoritarian leaders like Pakistan's Musharraf, or Uzbekistan's Karimov, Christmas lift the collective veil from our eyes. The American political vision is both moral and beautiful--much like the American imagery of the holiday season. It may not, however, ever completely resemble what exists in other countries. Even if the Framers had devised the perfect political system, it's not something that we can dictate to other societies. Allowing them to embrace it, or some version of it, is far better than insisting on it.
In other words, we have to be deft, not merely willful. Willfulness alone inspires resentment, not respect. Iraqis are neither children nor savages; therefore, it's unfair to them to suggest that democracy and the rule of law were doomed from the beginning. However, a constitution handed to the Iraqis by an occupying power was, unsurprisingly, not welcomed; looking for an alternate political identity, many Iraqis retreated into the factionalism that was both familiar and, as the violence increased, practical.
I don't mean to trivialize the war in Iraq by comparing it to a strained family gathering at Christmas. Far from it: I hope that, by recognizing the discomfort or pain some feel during the holidays, they can understand what a small fraction of unhappiness that is, compared to the plight of the average Iraqi or Afghan. In both cases, the insistence on a vision, even the most lovely or humane one, can have unlovely and inhumane results.
Enjoy the holidays, but don't be forced to enjoy them. Use the opportunity to make your friends and family, plus the people you hardly know, feel loved for who they are.