I'm beginning to believe in the Ho Ho Hump – that point in the preholiday hype when one gives in and embraces the festive season.
I'm convinced that there is such a thing. It's just that some canny retailer has yet to devise an annoying ad campaign about it. (There's always time – just under four weeks to be exact – so don't feel too relieved. Yet.)
You succumb to the tinsel brigade. You can hear the jingles in Canadian Tire and not want to head directly for the exit. You can look at those SUVs with the wreath strapped to the front grill and the perky soccer mom at the wheel, and not wearily sigh at the in-your-face (and in your rearview mirror) gung-ho-ness of mirth. You smile in gentle acceptance – and even genuine happiness.
You have acclimatized to the ubiquity of fake Santa Clauses. You find yourself thinking about the stuffing for the turkey without resentment.
Oh, I know that the world seems to divide at this time of year between those who eagerly jump into the preholiday run-up, like a golden retriever into a lake, and those who are dragged into it, paws firmly planted in the sand. (There's a reason there are all-year-round stores specializing in Christmas decorations, after all.)
But for many, it's about getting in the mood. And just like sex, sometimes it takes a little bit more than a point-blank demand.
Some years – depending on one's circumstances – the transition into holiday joy comes in the same way a parent of a teenager gives in to an incessant request. It's just easier to say yes at some point, despite what parenting experts advise. But other times, it's because, well, you begin to feel the spirit. You are ready to feel it. You want to.
To test out my Ho Ho Hump theory, I checked in with someone who would know – scientifically speaking. And what did I find? "There's research support for the way people are feeling when Christmas is marketed immediately after Halloween," says Adam Anderson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and Canada research chair in cognitive neuroscience. "It's bad for the brain. There's no breathing room. In the laboratory, when you ask people to do different tasks, one right after the other, it's very hard … The brain wants to reject that. And it can create stress instead of being welcomed. But if you allow a period of rest in between, it's easier."
There you go. Feel better now? You have scientific reason for feeling a little humbug-ish about the prospect of stringing up those twinkly lights and listening to an old recording of Bing Crosby singing White Christmas. It's not because you have lost your capacity for joy. You're just giving it time to find its feet.
Dr. Anderson notes that there's debate in the scientific community about why humans find it hard to switch tasks in quick succession. Some say it's because the brain likes to get good at one task before it moves on to the next. "You get up to speed doing one thing and you become good at it, and then you're asking the brain to switch and start something else," he says. (Holiday translation: You just figured out how to sew a bumblebee costume for little Zack and now you're being asked to design and construct a gingerbread mansion.)
The abrupt transition from one holiday to the next not only makes it hard to focus on the one coming but it prevents you from fully enjoying the one that just passed, which contributes to our reluctance to move on. "You're getting cheated," points out David Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who is an expert on multitasking. "You're being deprived of the pleasure of lingering over the pleasures of the previous holiday."
But even though there's science to suggest that the back-to-back marketing of command-performance holidays doesn't sit well with our grey matter, I also think the Christmas spirit is best ignited by authentic displays of cheer and mirth, which are harder to find than the canned ones.
Even when I was a child, being in the spirit of the season didn't come automatically. Sure, there was the present-filled excitement of Christmas morning to anticipate. But the feeling of real joy – not the kind associated with presents – was something that dawned of its own accord. It would come like a revelation arrives or the realization of being in love – unsolicited and surprising. One year, when I was 12, it came when my elder sister and I lay down on our backs under the boughs of the Christmas tree at night, when our parents were out. The lights of tree were all that illuminated the living room, and we talked – I can't even remember about what – as we looked up in to the shiny, dangling ornaments.
The other night, I walked out to a local convenience store and on an inauspicious street corner, there was a man playing his saxophone. His song list wasn't exclusively holiday tunes. Several pedestrians stopped to listen and throw some change into his case. It was spontaneous, or so it seemed: a desire to reach out into the darkness of a city's lonely anonymity with a string of perfect, clear notes – an act of generosity.
I'm not yet in an eggnog frame of mind, mind you. But I am warming up to the idea of pine needles on my floor.