My wife remembers the days after Christmas as the best part of the season. From the time school let out until December 25th, she and her sisters were too busy to savor the holiday; they had to help their mother prepare the big day's meal. And once New Year's came around, it was time again to start thinking about school, and vacation homework assignments still undone. But the week in between -- that was bliss. That was when adults left children to themselves, to play with their toys and eat the special pastries their mother had baked.
My own childhood in a suburb of Washington, D.C. was far less disciplined and demanding than my wife's in southern Italy, so this period stands out less in my memory as an island of repose. Yet I, too, am fond of these dark, restful days.
The week is "dead" in the best sense, the sense we mean when we speak of someone going to a better place or to his final reward. I associate these days with new clothes, smoothly flowing traffic, sparse phone calls, hushed offices, leisurely dinners and evenings at the movies. It's a time of reflection and inspiration, when it actually seems possible to reorganize your life in accordance with your highest hopes. It's a time for formulating New Year's resolutions.
I read somewhere that it's also a good time to hunt for a job, because those who happen to be at work have relatively little to do, so it's easier to make appointments with them. Who knows, they might even feel some seasonal "goodwill to men."
Among my most cherished dead weeks is the one during my sophomore year in college, when I went to the Bahamas with two friends. It wasn't as hedonistic as it sounds. I don't think any of us brought a bathing suit, and no one found the courage to talk to any girls. The highlight of the trip was getting drunk on New Year's Eve with a man from Dublin who claimed to be a grandson of William Butler Yeats. (Of course we completely believed him.)
Another precious memory is of the dead week a few years back that I spent alone in Madrid, sitting in front of an electric heater and reading Hugh Thomas's history of the Spanish Civil War. If that sounds depressing, then you've never had an intimate, intense relationship with a big book -- which is really something to be depressed about.
Now that I live in another southern European country where everything shuts down after Christmas, I would love to hole up with another such book, but this time there are people -- two in particular, one of them too young to read for himself -- with claims on my time. At least I'll be able to render that time without feeling that there are other, more practical things I should or could be doing. To that extent dead week still comes as a mercy.