This is the week in which I erect the monumental Rudolph in my yard as my answer to the neighbors’ overwhelming cheer. It is fifteen feet high and inflatable, implacable. It moves its head as if to say I’m overcompensating for my lack of spirit, but also as if to say: I am thinking about you. Typically I don’t have the Christmas spirit: the season fills me with a vague sense of dread. The gifts I offer will just showcase my failure. But last year I bought my giant Rudolph and set him up and his presence—if it’s not too weird to say his—changed my approach to the season. I inflate him in the late afternoon and let him run until my neighbors have shut down their displays for the night. I take a weird amount of pleasure in my Rudolph being the last thing shining on my block, and in the little ritual of coming out after my family is asleep to unplug him and hold him as he deflates in such a way that he doesn’t pitch into the thorned ocotillo or the sharp agaves.
We began the Essay Daily advent calendar a few years back as a way to actually enact the daily implicit in our name. Going fully daily is still beyond us, but every December we offer this advent, an essay a day, counting down until the 25th as a way of saying thanks. And, too, of offering a daily devotional to the essay. It is a daily pilgrimage we make here, religious skeptics as some of us are, and believers in one thing or another as others of us are, to this museum of the contemporary self.
The essay is a museum of the contemporary self. That’s what it is: a register of one consciousness moving sentence by sentence through time. One thing about the self is that it’s always contemporary: being in an essay is being in the present tense of the mind, so that inhabiting Sei Shonagon or Pliny the Elder doesn’t feel so far removed from how we felt—how we thought—yesterday as we contemplated our neighbors mania for decoration from the depths of our collective hangovers.
Sure, our Is do shift a little. Maybe we’re all getting stupider—or faster—on account of electricity and interconnectivity and blah blah the Kindle end of the book kids these days. And, sure, not all essay-Is are created equal. But what makes the good ones good is how they can still captivate us even now in our diminished mental states. Let’s be clear, though, when we’re talking about I we’re talking also about artificiality and performance: an essay I is always artificial and performing, even—or especially—when it claims it’s not. The Is we present are a tiny subset (at most) of our capacious selves, performances that we sharpen each time we reread and revise the version that shows up in our drafts. They’re what we choose to show you, how we pruned ourselves for you.
Allowing myself to be possessed by an essay-I (if possessed isn’t making too much of it: and I don’t think it is when we’re talking about some of the stronger personalities we’re presented with, how they occupy us, how they rewire us and continue resonating in our mind even after the essay is done and gone) is an exercise in humility. How surprising and invigorating the essay I can be! How good it can feel to be someone else for a little while! We spend so much time being ourselves (whatever that means to each of us). Perhaps it’s worthwhile to try being someone else every day this December. At the least I bet that exercise in selflessness will improve the gifts you give.
To that end, we offer two features this year: first, we’ll run our featured posts—each on an essay, an essayist, or some aspect of the essay, as usual—each morning leading up to Christmas.
Second, it’s been a good year for the essay. We have a lot of suggestions for books or essayists that you should be reading and thinking about gifting to others. So we asked essayists we like to suggest their favorite Essays to Gift This Year. We’ll run these (usually brief) lists each afternoon.
Check back with us as we go. See what each new day has to offer in the calendar. We can’t promise chocolates, but we can promise a new exhibit each day in the museum of the contemporary self. Maybe some will involve chocolate.
So join us as we read an essay a day as a devotional this December. Maybe it’ll become a habit for you too.
Allow us to suggest Philip Graham's "The Man Behind the Santa Beard Confesses" or perhaps David Sedaris's "The Santaland Diaries" (pdf: the essay starts on page 2), the season being what it is...