Goodbye to Christmas

The tree is in pieces and back in its box. Decorations are wrapped in newspaper for safekeeping and stowed away in a red plastic tote. Colorful lights that illuminated our porch for three weeks are unplugged, hanging in the cold, waiting to be taken down.

We aren’t cozy on the couch under blankets watching Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, or The Grinch. We aren’t going from house to house visiting family and friends. We aren’t eating cookies and candy canes, drinking eggnog or holiday spirits.

The build-up, the excitement, all that wonder leading up to and carrying us through Christmas is gone. Now, it’s back to the same old routine. School and work. Dark mornings, gray days, early nights. The everyday existence that isn’t necessarily bad, but is challenging, especially during winter in Northern Michigan. The season that always overstays its welcome.

My 12-year old son and I are at the recycling station. Freezing, as we break apart and crush boxes.

“This is how you know the holidays are over,” he says, stomping an Amazon smile against the icy asphalt.

He is getting tall. Stretching out. Every week it seems his pants are getting shorter and his voice is getting deeper. Every day, his face grows more hair. My God, I think, at this rate, by next Christmas, he could have a beard. What will Santa do then? Razor of the month club?

I karate chop and flatten a foot massager box then shove it into the bin. Some of the cardboard that others have left behind is questionable. Pizza and food boxes. Boxes full of wrapping paper, plastic, and Styrofoam. I don’t understand it. Recycling isn’t hard. And what about common courtesy? I chalk it up to the easy answer–laziness. It’s the reason household garbage is left near recycling bins. It’s why able-bodied people park in handicap spots or refuse to work. It’s why people toss their cigarette butts onto the ground. But I don’t want to go to negative town, so I put these thoughts aside and watch my son. He walks around picking up bits of cardboard, plastic cups, and cans–none of which belongs to us–and puts everything where it belongs. This, of course, puts warmth in my belly and a smile on my face. Today, I’ll look past the mountain of dirty clothes on his bedroom floor. After all, what’s one more day?

We get into the car and roll out onto the road toward home.

“Are you sad Christmas is over?” he asks, warming his hands over the heating vent.

“Yep,” I say. “Now, it’s back to the real world.”

“The real world? What’s the real world?”

There’s a lot that runs through my mind when he asks this. Mostly, I wonder how in his 12 years on Earth he hasn’t come to understand this phrase. I know he’s heard it dozens of times at home. He must have heard it on Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube. But my son is funny like that. Although he’s sure he knows everything and he’s certain that he doesn’t need any guidance, direction, or reminders, he’s a bit naive. It’s very likely he doesn’t understand what I’m saying, and I like it. I like it a lot. It means that the world has not yet spoiled him. That with all the information available at his fingertips there’s still plenty he doesn’t understand.

“The real world, buddy. You know, our everyday life. Work, school. Standing out in the cold breaking down boxes and tossing them into a recycling bin.”

He looks out the window to the sky. It is bright and blue over icy Lake Huron. Spring is up there somewhere making its way toward us.

“But what is real, Dad?”

I see now. It’s not that he doesn’t get it. It’s that he’s getting a bit existential on me. I’m not sure I’m prepared for this. His mind-expanding. Thoughts outside the box. I don’t know that we’re ready to question reality, where we came from, what happens after this. Maybe he is, but I’m not.

“Good question,” I say. “But here’s the more important question…Is hot chocolate real?”

It’s cruel, I know. Shutting him down like this. Pulling him back down to the reality that is this–a father and a son saying goodbye to Christmas–but I know that his love for hot chocolate is greater than his thirst for knowledge. And I know that we’ll have plenty of time for much deeper things. For now, we park outside the local coffee shop and head inside. He opens the door and holds it for me.

“Hot chocolate is as real as it gets,” he says and smiles.

KJ Stevens ­– husband, daddy, writer — lives in Alpena. His Stories, Observations and Wonderings appear here the second Thursday of each month. Email him at kj.stevens@gmail.com.