12/23/2011 10:40 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2012

Recreating Christmas

It's just before Christmas. Sugar plums, not emails and deadlines, should be dancing through my head. But of course, before heading out for their respective holidays, two publishers dumped client manuscripts on me for one last review with the ubiquitous "Happy Holidays" sign-off. One of them wants corrections back by Dec. 27. (God bless you, Mr. Scrooge... )

Thanks to point, click, pay and ship, my shopping is done. A marathon of paper and tape got it wrapped and under the tree or shipped to my sisters in New York state. (And yes, some purchases were shipped twice: retailer to me, me to recipient. I am expecting a thank you note from FedEx any day now. Maybe a poinsettia.) Why, oh why, do we do all this? Yes, I know: commercialism and buying into the myth that stuff makes us happy. I got all that. But really, why do we do all this?

As far as I can figure, we are trying to recreate what once was -- or what could/should have been. We go all out in order to bask in memories of simpler times when Christmas meant something. Beyond the (insert your personal/religious meaning here... ) Christmas was a time to feel special. It wasn't just the stuff. (Take a look at your childhood photos; there probably wasn't much under the tree... ) It was the ritual.

My mother sewed dresses for my two sisters, me and herself each Christmas, even though we weren't going farther than the relatives who lived within a four-mile radius. When the last button was in place, it was time to start cooking, and Mother always put on a spread for Christmas Day. No matter that the same people we saw every few weeks (and in some cases, every few days) were coming to dinner, we dressed up ourselves and our table because this was a special time for us -- for everyone.

The ritual of preparation distinguished the 24th and 25th of December from any ordinary day, beyond the fact that the average 8-year-old spent 3.6 minutes unwrapping gifts. We made it special; we made it exciting.

By the 24th the anticipation would reach a crescendo, and I, as the youngest, would have broken the sound barrier by sheer force of noise and excitement. My mother would banish me and at least one of my sisters to the outdoors for awhile. That's when we started the tradition of caroling to the animals and birds in the woods around the house. No wonder those creatures hibernate. We'd come back, cold and in want of hot chocolate. By then it was 1:30 in the afternoon and about 46 hours until bedtime.

So Mother would call for reinforcements: her father. Grandpa Long drove his Bonneville 11 mph, so it would take him about a half hour to make it the quarter mile to our driveway. The excursion was to get the newspaper, which my grandfather did every day. Yes, he could have had it delivered, but drove to town instead. On the 24th, that 25-minute errand took two hours, as we looked at Christmas lights, watched the waves crash over the breakwater on Lake Ontario, sat in the parking lot and gazed up at the smokestacks of the power plant, and, yes, bought the newspaper.

By the time we came back, supper was on the stove and night was upon us. These may have been the shortest days of the year, but to any self-respecting kid they were the longest.

Looking back, that's what we remember, the excitement so intense it hurt. We crossed our fingers, said our prayers, and wished on stars for what we wanted under the tree. There is no phone app that can replicate this.

So while you're dazed and confused over where you're going and what you need to do between now and Christmas, try to remember how you felt those many years ago when you were little and holidays seemed so big and magical, and not one iota of a burden.