Chasing The Wise Men

Fellow procrastinators (and you know who you are) may have had a reaction similar to mine when seeing an insert titled “Last Minute Coupon Book” accompanying the Daily Globe’s Dec. 13 edition.

December THIRTEEN? That’s at least 10 full days before last-minute Christmas panic begins, in my experience. This lack of urgency is reinforced by advertisers who have been trying to sell us on the idea (since about Nov. 24) that it’s the “last minute” to buy, order holiday photo cards or arrange for a special delivery before Dec. 25–only to be told the very next day, via another circular advertisement or yet one more email, that “It’s not too late,” or, better yet, “Sale extended 24 hours.”

We’re as vulnerable to conditioning as Pavlov’s dogs, and once we know “they” don’t really mean it when they say it’s too late if we wait, we will always expect, like Scarlett O’Hara, that tomorrow is, after all, another day on which we might in fact get our act together, we might finish (or begin?) our cards, shopping and baking, we might make plans for get-togethers or holiday meals.

“Are you ready for Christmas?” cheerfully inquire friendly folk of all types, in stores, schools, gyms, churches and restaurants. I can’t shake the feeling those who ask it are, sure enough, ready for Christmas, and I never know if sharing the truth (“No, I am nowhere NEAR ready for Christmas!”) will disappoint or disillusion them–or provide them with a sense of self-satisfaction that their ducks are all in a row when others’ are most definitely not.

A literary-minded friend, Katherine Hedeen, shared at a recent holiday luncheon a classic poem by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Phyllis McGinley. In “The Ballad of Befana,” Befana is working away at her household tasks when the three Wise Men, en route to visit the baby Jesus, pass her home and invite her to join them, or share a gift for the infant king. Befana, too obsessed with finishing the tasks to which she has set herself, declines, saying she’ll go later and arrange a gift soon, when she’s done with all that needs doing.

Her fate, sadly, is to lose track of the Wise Men and the star they follow. Thus, she misses the chance to greet baby Jesus and she is left to wander, telling others of her tardiness and regret.

The poem’s moral can be interpreted a couple of ways: either it’s that we procrastinators need to get on the stick and take care of Christmas preparations before the holiday passes us by–or, it’s ok to let things slide, to not worry if we don’t have 16 different types of Christmas cookies baked, the perfect presents bought (and artistically wrapped) and the house perfectly cleaned for company, because what’s more important is that we take time to enjoy the moment, the people around us and the true message of Christmas.

I’m opting to go with the latter. Even the book of Luke makes it clear that not everyone was primed for Christmas before it arrived. Consider this: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8).

Hey, Christmas wasn’t even on their radar! Note the word choices: “abiding,” “keeping watch.” That means they were just hanging out, holding still, chewing on bits of hardtack, dozing in the grass, listening to the occasional bleating of sheep. They certainly weren’t watching TV, or Facebook, or commercials exhorting them to the next big sale.

And neither were the Wise Men completely punctual; they arrived days, weeks or months (depending on your interpretation) after Jesus’s birthday–and yet, they were timely enough, their gifts still graciously received, their warning of King Herod’s evil intentions heeded.

I also appreciate the Grinch’s revelation: “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store; maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” While I don’t want to miss out entirely and, like Befana, wander the world cautioning others that procrastination and misplaced priorities can cause one to lose what is most meaningful, I’ll subscribe to the idea that, for Christmas, it’s not really about what we achieve–it’s about what we believe.


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