This column was published Dec. 24, 2013:
The story goes that J.J. Abrams, the guy who co-created “Lost” and directed the new “Star Trek” movies, bought a box of tricks at a magic store when he was a kid. It was labeled a Mystery Box – the store didn’t tell you what tricks were included. The kicker is that Abrams has never opened the box. He decided the mystery is better than anything that could be inside. Unopened, he says, “It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential.”
That’s also a good way to describe the perfection of Christmas Eve.
If you celebrate Christmas, there’s probably something under the tree for you right now. Go over and give it a look. Maybe pick it up and shake it a little. It might be shaped like a book, or a sweater box, or one of those envelopes a gift card comes in. But you don’t know what’s in there yet. And as long as you don’t know, it could be anything.
Imagination is at the core of our Christmas traditions. How does Santa know what we want? How does he get to all those houses in one night? How does a fat old man make it down the chimney? What if you don’t even have a chimney? You have to imagine to believe.
In the original Christmas story, the mysteries go even deeper. Mary and Joseph have an impossible child. They’ve been told he will be special. But at the moment of birth, he’s ... just a baby. Like all parents, they have to imagine what he’ll become. They have to wait for the package to open.
Some of the best times of our lives are those breathless moments of waiting. The lights go down just before the concert starts. The pace car pulls off the track. The ping-pong balls bounce inside the lottery machine as you hold your ticket in sweaty hands. In that little pocket of time, all your dreams are still alive.
Anticipation, of course, does not fly with children at Christmas. Kids wish they had eight arms so they could open all their presents at once. This is natural. Kids haven’t experienced much yet, so they want each new thing NOW. As an adult who has experienced many things, you can wonder what this new experience might be, and savor the wondering.
Our world these days allows us to remove mystery as thoroughly as possible. You can do a full background check on your Friday night date. You can read 100 reviews of the new restaurant in town. You can plot a vacation halfway around the world in 15-minute segments. There is a certain relief in knowing exactly what you’re getting into. It minimizes the risk. But life without risk is just an insurance company spreadsheet.
The moments of not knowing are the ones that often end up the most memorable. It’s always a better story when you don’t know how it’s going to end.
Thinking about it this way might make you feel that Christmas Day is bound to be a disappointment. It needn’t be. The release of opening a gift should match the tension of waiting for it. You should know this by now: The gift itself doesn’t matter. If it’s especially thoughtful, or hits your sweet spot, well, bonus points. But the people who care about you have given you gifts of one sort or another all year long. And you’ve done the same for the people you care about. Christmas is the dessert of love, not the main course. Which is why it’s so much more delicious when you wait.
Christmas is not easy for everybody. People overshop, overcook, overanalyze the family dynamics. We sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem, “ and maybe we don’t think about the words:
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
That describes the night Christ was born, of course, but it also describes Christmas in a lot of homes. You start thinking about results – will everybody get here in time, will the turkey turn out all right, will everybody like their gifts. The hopes and fears of all the years.
Our lives are the biggest Mystery Boxes of all. You hear people say “every day is a gift, “ and that’s a little too much spun sugar for most of us – the fact is, some days are buckets of slop, no matter how pretty the bow. It’s fair, though, to believe we’re better off looking to the future with hope instead of dread. And Christmas Eve, more than any other day of the year, gives us the time to hope.
You might not have the willpower of J.J. Abrams. And if you leave your gifts unopened on Christmas Day, that might not go over well with the givers. But take some time today and embrace the mystery of Christmas Eve. Pick up a box. Give it a little shake. Imagine.
Tommy Tomlinson was a longtime local columnist for the Observer.