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Merry Christmas

This essay by Gregg Easterbrook, "The Gift Behind the Gift," appeared in the New York Times on Dec. 24, 1983.

LYDE PARK, Montana - The most splendid Christmas gift, the most marveled and magic, is the gift that has not yet been opened. Opaque behind wrapping or winking foil, it is a box full of possibilities.

An unopened present might be anything - gems, crystal, oranges, a promise of devotion. While the present is unopen, it can rest under the tree to be regarded and speculated upon at length, becoming whatever the recipient wishes.

Opening the present, by comparison, is often anticlimactic - no matter what the contents. For once opened, the gift passes from the enchanted realm of promise into the constrained reality of material possessions.

Then it begins to impose terms on its owner - terms like sizes, warranties, colors, maintenance, accessories, storage space, assembly, extremely thick books with instructions. (Anyone receiving a personal computer this year should not expect to speak to loved ones again until next year.)

Open a gift and, like the vacuum in a coffee can, the possibilities whoosh away, never to be recovered.

So it is that Christmas Eve is the best part of Christmas.

Compared with the clamor and urgency of the day itself - the schedules to satisfy, the near-strangers to pretend to be close to, the post-gift frenzy to compare windfalls - Christmas Eve is serene.

It is the moment, still and expectant, when the warmth of the season may be felt for its own sake - the moment to light candles and listen for a sound in the distance. It is the moment when the meaning of the day, for those who wonder at it, may be contemplated without distraction from timetables or remote-controlled robots.

If anticipation is the essence of Christmas, Christmas Eve is the essence of anticipation. All the holiday's elves and henchmen revel in it.

Snow is most beautiful while it falls, noiseless and free: Once on the ground, it succumbs to soot and stumbling tracks.

The solitary country house is most beautiful observed from the cold hill above, as it shines out yellow squares of light and firesparks, promising friendship. The smell of Christmas cookies baking can be as satisfying as eating them, the first cup of Christmas cheer as gratifying as the next five combined.

Lighting the tree is the finest part by far. Often what precedes is better than what follows, even when, like Christmas Day, what follows is good.

The first kiss, clumsy as it always is - first kisses generally have all the grace of two freight trains colliding on a dark siding - can be the most moving. However physically inadequate, it conveys the promise of further kisses, more esthetic or athletic, and the promise of proximity before and after, the companionship that a kiss seals.

By that way of thinking, the most excitement available under the mistletoe is not the touch itself, but the instant just before, when she (or he, depending) steps forward to join you there. That is the moment when you know someone else wants to be near you, a moment blushing with what might be.

The original point of Christmas, now better reflected on tranquil Christmas Eve than on the madcap day itself, was to proclaim what might be.

Wise men and shabby shepherds alike went to Bethlehem that first Christmas Eve because they hoped what was happening there would begin to elevate humankind - to make us more truly humane and deserving of each other.

So far, it has not worked out that way.

But that does not mean the ideal was wrong or the goal unattainable. What might be only elusive, not impossible.

Peace on earth and mercy mild are still possible.

On Christmas Eve, all things are possible.


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