Photo: Lori Nix
There was this one December when the anxiety—or melancholy, maybe, or profound uneasiness from an insufficiently examined life, but anyhow the sort of thing you pay psychotherapists a lot of money to poke around in—was already roiling by the time I started Christmas shopping. This was about five years ago. I had a rule about never making any actual Christmas purchases before Thanksgiving, and I was a little obsessive about that, too, so the year our local Macy's went crazy and put wreaths in all the windows right after Halloween, I just closed my eyes whenever I passed it, I mean literally squeezed my eyes shut, because I knew that allowing the sight of those wreaths to pass through my corneas would set off the anxiety/melancholy thing and I would have to start worrying right then about the gift for my father, who fundamentally distrusts Christmas except that he is deeply fond of the presents part; and my stepmother, who has elegant taste I've never managed to bull's-eye; and my children, who had reached the slithery teenage phase, which by its very nature precludes parents from perceiving exactly what material object would make them happy.
So it must have been after Thanksgiving. December 1, let's say. My husband, Bill, would not have been with me; I used to wander around the manly parts of the stores worrying about his present also, and the way I had snuck up on his nonobservant but nonetheless Jewish self with the concept of Christmas, stringing a set of white lights around the ficus in our first living-together apartment, and then the next year buying a pathetic sawed-off spruce top that I stood on an end table and decorated with, I don't know, an orange. After a while he humored me entirely, and his mother sent us a menorah, so there were candles and dreidels in the room with a hulking Christmas tree, and that was all right with both of us, but now there was more to buy. Small Hanukkah presents for the kids: two kids, eight nights. Plus the boxes under the hulking Christmas tree. And this particular December I'm speaking of, I had a cold. My head had the swollen, tied-inside-a-plastic-bag feeling that makes noises from outside resonate thickly and in slow motion. I remember picking up CD players, sweatshirts, fountain pens, bathrobes, acrylic paint sets, ceramic bowls, ski gloves, and an illustrated history of World War I. I remember a wood plaque on which a mounted tin fish opened its eyes on cue and sang, "Wasting away again in Margaritaville."
The year after that, we banned presents.