I remember the exact moment when the whole concept of Santa was killed for me. I was 10, in the midst of art class, and we were assigned to emboss shiny red foil with shapes of holly leaves and stockings. One of the males of a higher social rank -- I'll call him Snooters McDreamcrusher -- said something along the lines of "Gah, who believes in this Santa stuff anymore anyway? My parents told me he was fake a lonnnggg time ago."
My eyes became wider and wider as the nods of the surrounding students confirmed that Santa was indeed a fraudulent model for inducing good behavior. When Snooters crushed the supernatural, mysterious side of Christmas for me, the holiday didn't seem to have much left.
However, I find that many of my friends and the rest of the population still find some magic in the holiday season despite their own spoiled experiences.
This afternoon, one of my friends told me a story about how, years ago, she was at her grandma's house for Christmas and decided to play the classic computer game "Jezzball" before dinner.
After a considerable amount of time had passed, she went upstairs to find that she had jezzed right through Christmas dinner. She then had to microwave a dismal plate of leftovers.
But today this same forgotten child won't let an hour pass without mentioning that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year.
I still have trouble finding the wonder. Over Thanksgiving break, I went to Lowe's and felt a familiar nausea as I pushed my cart through the seasonal aisles. Inflatable, towering figures appeared overhead: polar bears grasping Coca-Cola bottles, Santas in Nascar race cars and Orange County choppers and Mickey Mouse holding green and red wrapped presents.
Is this what Christmas has been reduced to? I'm not religious by any means, but I don't think the J-man would think putting illuminated corporate-sponsored motorcycles in our yards is the best way to commemorate a time of family and giving.
But that is what Christmas seems to mean, no matter how many feel good stories come on the 5 o'clock news or dimes you throw in the bell ringer's bucket. December should be about being thankful for your family and friends. However, we recognize the start of the season with Black Friday, a consumer blowout.
Since gifts have become a low commitment symbol of appreciation, the whirlwind of buying the perfect present has consumed us. There really isn't any room for reflection or even conversation when you have to make sure to get to Kohl's by 4 a.m. to pick up that flat screen TV.
I won't say I don't like presents. I mean, c'mon. In fact, one of the few magical parts of Christmas for me is seeing what interesting things my family thinks I'll enjoy. But gift-giving stimulates an odd sense of competition, in which one of those Lexus RX SUVs with a huge bow on top is the way to really show someone you dig them. And the worst part is that December is polluted with commercial ads.
It's difficult to even relax and watch "A Christmas Story" with your family because the commercial breaks bombard you with gift-giving images. Will your brother know that he means the world to you if he finds "Guitar Hero III" under the tree? Will those diamond earrings say "Thanks for being my source of life, Mom?"
It's great to give your friends and family things that you think will make them happy, but when you depend on gifts instead of words to convey strong sentiments, well, that's when Christmas loses its magic.
So this Christmas, after your family unwraps their various presents, remember to follow it up with the best gift of all: a good old-fashioned hug.