ImageWhen my children were younger, my friends called me "Scrooge."

I didn't share their giddy approach to the holidays. My lack of enthusiasm was a simple matter of timing. Christmas began earlier and lasted longer than when I was a child. It was, and is, easy to tire of seemingly never-ending festivities.

For example, when my sons were younger, yuletide began in our home on December 26th, when they composed their wish lists for NEXT year. Thus, I concluded it mattered little what the kids received for Christmas. Before Christmas Day was through, they inevitable claimed to "have nothing to play with," and became dangerously intrigued by the "closet stuffers," those well-intentioned gifts from folks inexperienced in kiddy shopping, like the board games with bite-size pieces, and the cast iron, train-shaped doorstop that doubled as a lethal weapon.

Old Tannenbaum, the ultimate symbol of the season, was the ultimate plaything. My kids stuffed themselves beneath its branches, chased one another around it (never mind that the tree was in the corner, close to the wall), and dueled with branches yanked from the artificial trunk. I disregarded all suggestions that I purchase a real tree; I didn't need any kindling.

In hopes of side-stepping holiday hassles, I tried the early-bird approach to Christmas. I shopped early; baked early, wrapped early, even took the kids for their holiday portraits early. That rarely worked in my favor. When I arrived promptly at the photo studio's opening, and was handed customer number 200, a quick calculation foretold impending doom. With a cooperative subject (most were not), each portrait sitting took approximately 15 minutes, followed by 15 more minutes for Mom to select her darling's best pose. My boys would surely shred their bow-ties long before they ever saw the camera. I snapped my own holiday portraits at home.

Frustrating? You bet, but not nearly as irritating as dashing out to the department store for a last-minute gift, and finding Santa sitting in the aisle, unannounced, between an amateur Batman and Cat Woman. My youngest son happily posed on Santa's knee. My older child, however, exclaimed for all to hear that Santa "didn't look right," and the spandex-clad Cat Woman "had a big, scary butt." His diplomacy may have been lacking, but his conclusion that Cat Woman and Santa were not the perfect holiday couple was right on target.

After dragging the boys to a company party where Santa's suit was torn, and my boys loudly proclaimed he wasn't the real Santa; after attending our church's tree-lighting ceremony where they lamented "it's a stupid tree, not like Rockefeller Center's"; after baking cookies they declared "yucky"; after picking stray ornament hooks and tinsel out of my carpet; after searching for impossible to find gifts, and being ripped off for the price; after all these so-called joys of Christmas, what did I learn?

That none of this is Christmas. These are merely the trappings of the season. Christmas isn't loud and giddy; it doesn't come in blaring. Christmas tiptoes in footed pajamas to add a carrot to Santa's plate of cookies in case Rudolph is hungry. Christmas whispers as the tree lights twinkle in the darkness. Christmas remembers as I carefully unwrap my mother's glass ornaments, a dime a dozen in the 1950s, but priceless to me now. Christmas is simple, like the Baby Jesus resting on a clamshell in the crude, yet beautiful, manger my boys made years ago in preschool. These are the true, tender joys of Christmas.

I didn't care when my friends called me Scrooge. Still don't.  I don't possess a hefty measure of traditional yuletide cheer, or "ho ho ho" as loudly as everyone else. You can keep the tinsel and the frivolity. I don't need it. I seek my Christmas far from the flashing lights and the seasonal hoopla. I look for it in my family, in my memory, in my heart. And you know what? I always find it. And if that makes me Scrooge, well...bah humbug!