There is a most magical hour every Christmas season, and it is not the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, when the darkened church glows with candles in anticipation of a child's birth.
It is not dawn on Christmas morning, when excited children wake their parents so they can see what Santa has left under the tree.
And it is not that moment on Christmas night, as in "A Christmas Story," when parents tuck the exhausted children into bed and then sip a quiet glass of wine by a dying fire.
No. For me, the magic moment every Christmas comes at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve when the stores — most of them, anyway — close for the night.
I am sure there is a big box store out there somewhere open until 9 p.m. The Wawas and 7-Elevens will probably be open late, too. And I expect some grocery stores will have hours even on Christmas Day for that essential ingredient the cook forgot to purchase.
But the malls close at 6 p.m., and they set the hours for all the stores under their roof. So, by and large, Christmas shopping is over then.
At a time when Black Friday now begins on Thanksgiving Day, I find that immensely comforting. Not only for the employees; Christmas is hell in the world of retail, and they deserve this small window of time to be with their families.
But it is comforting to me as well to know that after weeks of list-making and errand-running and decorating, the finish line has been crossed, and what's done is done — and what isn't done won't get done.
I think women — especially women — need this kind of Rubicon when it comes to the holidays. We need somebody to pull the plug on us, to give us permission to stop, to quit, and perhaps, to relax.
No doubt we still have a bike or a doll house to assemble and gifts to wrap before we can put our feet up in front of the fire and wrap our fingers around egg nog. And we will be up early to begin preparations for guests and the holiday meal.
But 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve is a kind of coda. Sort of like a snow day, when you wake to a foot of fresh snow and realize that whatever you had planned for the day, school or work, isn't going to happen. It is that same kind of letting go of expectations.
I never check my lists on Christmas Eve at 6 p.m. I don't want to know (or fret over) what I failed to accomplish. There is nothing to be done about it, and I give up caring.
When I was younger, I used to dread the approach of 6 p.m. Christmas Eve. It was a deadline I was racing against, and I was certain something important would not get done.
Like a present for me!
My husband used to drag his feet through the holidays, never shopping until the afternoon of the very last day, leaving the house without a list or a clue.
I would weep tears of frustration and tell him, "Fine. Don't shop. I don't care. You can always buy me something at the 7-Eleven! It will still be open!"
He still doesn't shop until it is almost too late, but I have never been disappointed on Christmas morning. So I have let go of that, too.
Grab your lists and go, my friends. You have only a few hours left to shop for Christmas. I will see you at 6 p.m. sharp by the fire. I'll be the lady with the egg nog.