(Above: The Small Family Christmas Tree, circa 2001. And yes, I realize that even though I rail about the over-commercialization of Christmas in this essay, I have a few obvious commercial-type ornaments on my tree. Look, I never said I was perfect...)

There are those moments in every man’s life which are destined to live forever in his memory, no matter how hard he may try to forget. For me, the day after Thanksgiving 1995 certainly proved to be such a memory…

I was sitting at my desk that morning, scraping the walls of my relatively tired mind for a new column topic while occasionally wincing in pain from the gastronomical nightmare I had inflicted upon myself the day before, when I heard my wife’s voice filtering in from the next room.

“Honey,” she said, “why don’t we jump in the car and go for a drive? It’s too nice a day to stay bottled up inside the house doing nothing all day.”

Actually, it’s doubtful that we would have been doing nothing all day. On top of having a column to write, there was still the fact that we were not quite finished putting the new house together. Add to these chores the presence of a four-year-old son – who despite our best efforts had not quite grasped yet that the proper response to the parental exclamation “No!” is not a toothy grin and a head-long plunge into the very action he had been warned not to take – and you have all the makings of a full, rich day.

On the other hand, the fact that my wife was speaking to me at all was a development I could not simply ignore. Apparently she had forgiven me for my comments about the size of her shoe collection in a previous column…

Never having been one for letting a good repreive go to waste, I grabbed my coat, scooped up the kid, and rushed out to the car. Twenty minutes later, after finally realizing that I had actually taken her up on her offer, the wife joined me and we hit the road.

The first few miles of the journey were relatively uneventful. The air was chilly, but the sky was clear and the sun was bright and the scenery was beautiful. It wasn’t, I found myself thinking, a half-bad day to be alive.

Then I turned the wheel and found myself going around the sort of corner one usually finds only in some old Twilight Zone re-run. Where moments before we had been the only souls on the road, we now found ourselves engulfed within a vast multitude of vehicles; all of the cars were moving in the same direction, and the drivers all wore the same blank, zombie-like expression--as if their thoughts and actions were being controlled by some powerful but unseen force.

As I made several unsuccessful attempts to extricate my car, my family and myself from the vehicular mob, I realized with mounting horror just where we had gone wrong.  We had made the mistake of hitting the open road on (shudder!) The Day After Thanksgiving-- also known as THE BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR.

I have long maintained that the only reason the day after Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping day of the year is because we--”we” being the news media, a coffee klatch to which I am sometimes reluctant to admit I belong--tell you it is the biggest shopping day of the year. It used to be just another day, until some yahoo of a reporter went to his editor on an extremely slow news day and said, “How about if I go out and do a story on how the day after Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping day of the year?”

So every year - just as it did back in the 1970s when Johnny Carson joked that the nation was in the midst of a toilet paper shortage - the public-at-large once again demonstrates its susceptability to the power of the media by going out before the turkey has been completely digested and spending money it hasn’t even earned yet. The Force can have a powerful influence on the weak-minded…  

So it was that, despite my best efforts, I found myself swept along by this tide of holiday shoppers as they moved, lemming-like, into the parking lot of a vast shopping mall in some unidentified city.

At one point, as the car directly in front of me pulled into an abandoned parking space, I had a chance to break free of the mob and make a mad dash for home. But my wife shrugged her shoulders and said, “Listen, as long as we’re here…”

It was at this point that I came to the unmistakable conclusion that one of two things had happened when I wasn’t looking. Aliens had either zapped my wife’s brain with their mind-discombobulator ray, or else had abducted my wife altogether and replaced her with some pod-grown facsimile. Either way, she wasn’t exactly herself.

Cautiously I placed my son in his stroller and followed this woman who looked like my wife and the rest of the lemmings inside. There my senses were assaulted by the sights and sounds of the Day After Thanksgiving. Life-sized animatronic teddy bears were spinning and whirling to the dulcet tones of Christmas Muzak around artificial Christmas trees. And in the center of the mall, children were being forced against their will to stand in line and wait for the chance to sit on the lap of a mall employee clad in an ill-fitting Santa Claus costume, while parents made glassy-eyed from the Muzak shelled out $10 for a Polaroid momento of the occasion.

Despite my best efforts, I myself eventually succumbed to the mind-warping effects of the atmosphere and gleefully joined my wife and the rest of those poor misguided souls  in their shopping frenzy. It wasn’t until we were well on our way back home that we finally regained our senses, and it was some time beyond that before we were able to look one another in the eyes and face up to our weakness.

And thus did another Christmas season begin…

*      *      *

Okay, so the preceeding story from nearly two decades ago may seem a bit heavy-handed. But I can’t help myself; I always feel a certain sense of dread around this time of year.

It’s not that I dislike Christmas. It’s always been my favorite holiday. I love Christmas. I love what the holiday commemmorates: the birth of the Saviour, the beginning of God’s redemption plan. I love all the warm and wonderful things that Christmas is supposed to represent.

And right there, contained within that last sentence, is the problem. The way I see it, what the holiday is supposed to represent and what it actually represents these days are two entirely different things. 

I hate the way we’ve commercialized Christmas. It bugs me when I see the department stores putting up their Christmas displays a month before Halloween. I hate seeing pictures bearing the likeness of that idiot from Family Guy in a Santa Claus suit. And the very thought of an album of Christmas songs by Justin Bieber makes me positively ill.

(To be fair, I detest Family Guy and Justin Bieber all year long. But that’s an essay for another day…)

For centuries the Christmas season used to be a time of love, of peace, of praise and thanksgiving. In the short space of my own lifetime it has been transformed it into a time of greed, of shopping frenzies, and a seemingly array of pop psychologists with their own TV shows trying to explain why so many people feel so miserable during this time of year.

Little kids (and more than a few adults I know, as well) think of Christmas strictly in terms of how many presents they can con out of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, et cetera. I don’t remember ever having seen a holiday catalog in the house when I was a kid until after Dec. 1; these days most kids start making out their new Christmas gift lists on the morning of December 26.

Back in 1990 – when my younger brother’s wife and kids were staying with my parents while he was over in the Middle East getting ready to put his life on the line for American oil interests – my young nephew wasted little time in making certain that Uncle John and Aunt Melissa had a complete list of EVERYTHING he wanted for Christmas. The fact that it was only AUGUST didn’t seem to bother him any; I guess he figured that getting his request in early meant that we’d have more time to completely fill the order. 

Boy, did he ever get a surprise…

And even if you somehow manage to get your little munchkins everything they want, they won’t be satisfied with it. It wasn’t what they said they wanted. Or it was, until they saw something else and changed their minds. 

Not that it matters; they’ll probably have the toy broken in minutes anyway.

Sometimes I feel a little bit like Charlie Brown. Remember how he was so turned off by the way Christmas had become so commercialized that he didn’t feel like celebrating it anymore? The only things his friends cared about were the fancy trees and the bright lights and all the gifts they knew they were going to get.

It wasn’t until his friend Linus recounted the Biblical tale of the first Christmas to remind Charlie and the others that there is a deeper meaning to the holiday than just the trees and lights and presents. 

Every year that old cartoon is rebroadcast. Every year Linus retells the Christmas story one more time. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” And every year all their other little friends are so moved by Linus’ story that they mend their ways in time to sing a little carol around Charlie Brown’s scrawny little tree and wish him a Merry Chirstmas.

But every year, here in the real world, there seems to be fewer people listening to Linus. They hear the words, but they don’t grasp the meaning. Or maybe they do, and just don’t care.

And so you ask: isn’t there anything you want for Christmas, John? Well of course there is… but it’s not anything you’ll be able to get for me by writing a check or whipping out a little plastic card.

I want my kids to be able to grow up strong and healthy, and I want my family to always be safe from harm.

I want my friends and neighbors to never have to worry about making sure their kids are fed, or worry about keeping a roof over their heads.

I want future generations to remember the horrible lessons we’ve learned in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and any other war or "police action" over the past century that's slipped my mind, and to work toward a time when nobody’s child anywhere in the world need worry about living through yet another War To End All Wars.

I want to see people start taking better care of this worn down old planet that God’s been nice enough to loan to us these past few millenia.

I want people to remember, in the midst of their gift-giving and merry-making and whatever else, why we have a holiday called Christmas in the first place.

Yeah, well, maybe I want too much.

I don’t mean to make it sound as if I will no longer be celebrating Christmas along with the rest of you. I still find myself looking forward to this time of year, even if the anticipation doesn’t quite equal that which I felt as a child.

So, yes, I’ll visit with family and sing songs and exchange gifts. I’ll sit down in front of the television and watch a few holiday-themed movies and specials. And I’ll do my best to remember that there’s more to the holiday than all this.

But I have to be truthful: If anybody complains that they didn’t like what I got them, or if anyone suggests watching a rerun of The Simpsons’ Christmas Special, I may just go  spread a little Christmas cheer of my own.

With a baseball bat…