Christmas, when you’re young, is the morning, the race down the stairs to the tree, the brief, stunned pause when eyes — overwhelmed by blood-pumping excitement — can’t quite process the presents and fattened stockings.
It’s unwrapping and unboxing and unfolding, putting batteries in and squeezing dolls and hardly believing that what you asked for — written in a letter to the North Pole or whispered in the ear of a bearded elf at the mall — materialized.
Christmas arrives, it departs, the days reset and the countdown begins again.
I remember thinking how dreadful it must be for adults to have lost all the fun of toys and tearing open gifts — how could they possibly take their time unwrapping something? – and having a day of play that ended in exhaustion and wonder.
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Then I grew up and Christmas changed and I became the adult with kids who look at him and say, “What do you mean we should take our time and enjoy it? That’s ridiculous.”
But what I learned — and what I won’t tell my kids, because I don’t want them to think anything could be better than Christmas morning — is that, as the years pass, Christmas expands and gets better.
It stops being a singular event. It stops being just the morning and the heart-fluttering excitement that follows.
It becomes a series of moments before, during and after Dec. 25 that make you stop and think: “That — that right there — is Christmas.”
There’s the moment in church when you’re kneeling before something far bigger than yourself and the priest shakes you from your busyness and material motivations and reminds you what the season is really about. And you feel good, like a weight has been lifted, if only temporarily.
And the moment when you hear a holiday song you forgot existed, and it takes you right back to when you were a kid and heard it for the first time and couldn’t get it out of your head.
You write a column — because you’re an adult now and have a job — and tell people about a charity that needs help. And the next day you find that people helped — a lot — and you get pictures emailed to you of people volunteering at the charity and you believe, without a doubt, that there’s good in the world.
You look out the front window into the cold and snow and see that a neighbor has shoveled your walk, and you get to stay inside and be warm.
The moment when you slow the car down and take in a house lit up with colorful Christmas lights and wacky inflatable creatures that, had you seen them when you were a kid, would’ve made your head explode with excitement.
And you smile, like the kid version of you would have done.
The moment during a holiday piano recital when a child struggles to find the next note and the parents endure the long seconds until the right key is hit and everyone smiles because we’ve all been there, in one way or another.
Cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.
That’s definitely Christmas.
I feel lucky now. Little me never would’ve seen that coming, but it’s true.
It’s no longer about presents, though I enjoy those and encourage you all to send me some. It’s not about a morning of joy or any one moment.
It’s about all the moments. Any moment, really, when I can step back from the bustle of life and feel the warmth of a fond memory, or appreciate a new experience, or bear witness to goodwill, or even catch the reflection of the Christmas tree lights in the window and feel, in every way, home.
That’s all Christmas.
You just need to keep your eyes open.
So for everyone kind enough to read these words, those who celebrate Christmas and those who don’t, I wish you one thing: open eyes.
There’s plenty of wonder out there. And you don’t have to be a kid to find that exciting.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
©2016 Chicago Tribune