Having, over the past few months, found my own children's book, The King in the Window, doing strenuous and generally losing battle on various lists with Bill O'Reilly's children's book — How to Become a Seven-Year-Old Reactionary Blowhard, or whatever it's called — I don't want anyone to think that I am a sore loser just because I think that O'Reilly has it all wrong about secularists and Christmas. (I am a sore loser, but I wouldn't want you to think that.) I mean by this his notion that the liberal humanist has turned on Christmas out of lassitude and an unreadiness to meet the demands of the spiritual life. In fact, the secular humanist Christmas is approximately ten times more demanding than the religious kind. The believer, after all, only has to bow his head and profess his faith, and go to what was quaintly called, on the public service announcements of my childhood, the Church of his choice. The non-believer, who nonetheless loves the season, lacking true faith, has to immerse himself instead in events, with all their eventfulness. Just this week, our own Jewish-Lutheran-Pagan-Buddhist ménage, for instance, has tickets for Messiah, the Nutcracker (with dinner after at a Russian restaurant where they do the thing right, complete with decorations and presents for the children), the Radio City Christmas show, and a carol ceremony at the Unitarian Church down the street (where last year the minister, wisely avoiding the whole touchy Bethlehem-stable issue, gave an odd though informative seasonal sermon about how Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer came to be written.) We are also giving, at my wife's insistence, two Christmas parties, one for unattached pagans on Christmas Eve, and another for atheistic families on Christmas Night, for which one amateur piano-playing father has had to learn the chord sequence for Mel Torme's "Christmas Song." The believers, believe me, have nothing to complain about. They should be grateful for all the spare time mere faith provides.
This Christmas week, to be sure, promises to be busier than any other recently simply because my wife, Martha, was down with the flu all last week, and couldn't do her usual efficient preliminary shop-scan, which usually solves all smaller stocking-present problems even before they present themselves. It also left me with the usual struggle, common to Good Dads in this age of the Good Dad: dressing the six-year-old girl in the morning. In my experience, each father has a small area of expertise in this field, and doesn't easily stray from it. Mine is tights. I do tights very well, picking them out to match and helping them on with a solid bunch-and-pull system, harder than it looks. I do tights, but I don't do hair. The whole business of barrettes — I can't even confidently spell the word — and clips is beyond me. As a consequence, the six-year-old girl arrived at kindergarten looking a bit like Zelda Fitzgerald just before madness hit: impeccably dressed, but significantly disheveled. (My eleven-year-old boy, of course, dresses himself, on the American eleven-year-old boy principle that all clothes should be large enough for two eleven-year-old boys to fit into.)
The idea of belief, to be sure, takes odd turns in this odd time. Last night, during that Messiah at Carnegie Hall, between choruses I leafed through the PLAYBILL, and found one of those prescription drug ads, urging your doctor to become a pusher for his own good. It was for a sleep aid, and warned sternly that you shouldn't try it "unless you have several hours to devote to sleeping." An odd thought, this, having to be devoted to unconsciousness before you could attempt to cure insomnia; as though one should have several hours each day dedicated to aimlessness, a period of the year specially consecrated to blank mindlessness. Our fathers — or your fathers, somebody's fathers anyway — kept, as Handel reminds us, the birth, the passion, and the ascent high in their devotions. We are spiritually superior; we cannot even take a pill without being devoted to its effects. So there O'Reilly.
Books mentioned in this post