Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Christmas List

1. My new favorite Christmas memory this year so far: singing the 12 Days of Christmas with the Bass Player to warm up as we walked to the Middle East show last Saturday night. "Eleven... uhhhh...." All told, he had a harder time counting backwards than remembering the pipers piping, etc.

2. I have neither seen nor tasted a sugar plum, but isn't "visions of sugar plums" completely tantalizing?

3. One Christmas Eve my sister and I stayed up really late eating dry Cheerios from the box and watching The Sound of Music. It was epically awesome, but I'm still not sure exactly why. Was it Grandma coming down every half hour or so tell us to shush and go to sleep - and our promises to do so followed by muffled giggles every time she left the room? Was it simply the rare glory of peace and even comradery between my sister and I, the discovery that it could exist quite easily when there were no witnesses? Whatever it was, every year since then we have declared our intention to recreate the Cheerios & Sound of Music magic, but have yet to follow through.

4. I am determined to build a blanket fort this Christmas Eve.

5. I just happened upon Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales the other day, via some blog or other. I scanned a bit, and then came to these last lines:

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

I have been thinking a lot this season about light and darkness. About the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. About how Christmas fits in with all the ancient midwinter festivals and holidays of religions and cultures around the world - all dedicated to celebrating light and birth and mothers right smack in the middle of the darkest time of the year. About twinkly lights and candlelight services, moonlight on snow and clear black skies. About the gifts of darkness. Darkness as a womb. Darkness as the curtain from which creative ideas mysteriously emerge. Darkness as an opportunity for inner lights to shine, unveiled. About the light we make, the color, the life and warmth that comes from all this bustling around. And in the midst of all these swirling thoughts, Thomas' phrase, "the close and holy darkness" is such a perfect gift. The presence of darkness to a child trying to sleep on Christmas Eve. It is so close. It is so full. I of course got right on iTunes and bought the recording of Thomas reading the story.

6. On the walk to the Middle East with BP, after we trumpeted our final "in a pear tree!" - after our last puffs of laughter had disappeared into the cold air, I told him about learning that song over several years of practice with my sisters and cousin. Every year my mom and aunt would take us on a drive around town to see the neighborhoods where families competed to smother their homes and yards (front and back) in countless strings of lights, dancing snowmen, glittering nativity scenes, plastic roof Santas with all the reindeer.... And we kids, piled into the minivan for this journey, would get drunk on our own giddiness as we bellowed and cackled our way through various mangled versions of Christmas carols. For the 12 days, until we finally finally learned the words (the dawn of maturity, I suppose), we would coast through the first 5 days okay - well 6 because I always thought of "6 geese a-laying 5 golden rings" as one image. So we'd come to 7. "On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, seven!!!" ...and it would go on like that in repeated (and often increasingly frail) "sevens" until someone remembered (often wrongly) seven whats and then we'd tumble back down the days.

7. Swans a-swimming.

8. Christmastime now also stands spine-to-spine with death, in my mind. In the last several years, two pillars of light in the worlds I inhabit were lost at Christmastime. I both fear and mourn loss this time of year. In my desire to honor the role of darkness, I try to sway this awareness of loss toward a greater mindfulness of what I have. I want so much to make sure that the people I love know that I love them. I don't want to lose any opportunity to draw nearer to them. And yet there is always so much To Do. How do we keep the aim of all that to-do at the heart of the doing?

9. My grandmother made the best Christmas cookies in the entire world. The softest sugar cookies ever, shaped like gingerbread men with green homemade frosting for pants, red hots for buttons, raisins for eyes. Every last bit was delicious. My aunt and uncles have been trying to recreate them since she died, but I think she left some ingredients off the recipe - three pinches of Demanding and at least 200 cups of Love.

My parents met as teens and Mom worried for so many years over whether she would ever gain my dad's mother's approval. My parents split after 14 years of marriage, but from then on Grandma always sent Mom a dozen red roses at Christmastime.

10. Somewhere west of here, wrapped in tissue paper, there is a little wooden doll ornament with a yellow dress, two brown braids, an armful of books, and a red lunch pail that says Kenzie.

11. Little compares to my dad reading aloud. I only have one faint memory of him reading The Night Before Christmas, but it is layered over all my memories of his mellow melodic cadence and when I read that poem, I hear it in his voice. One year he wrote his own version of it and I realized for the first time that my physician father was also a poet.

12. I know I sound every bit as wholesome as one Norfolk journalist called my band. And then some. Would it make any difference if I told you The Red Book is on my Christmas list this year? What if I told you that our Jewish drummist told his three-year-old that Santa Claus doesn't exist and that (while I would lie my face off to my own hypothetical kids) I have to support him in that bit of honesty? This is, after all, a special child. Ahem:

Drummist's child (DC): Papa did you know that monsters and goblins don't exist?

Drummist: DC, do you know what 'exist' means?

DC: Well, things that don't exist are not real, Papa. They are make believe and made up.

At this point, I think Drummist felt like his work with his daughter was finished and that her intellect had surpassed his in some fundamental way.

Anyway. As a self-proclaimed existentialist, I will tell you that - just as I had to re-understand Christmas when I finally learned that Santa didn't exist (Drummist's Child told me last week) - what I'm writing about here is my way of saying what this monumental holiday means. To me. When on the one hand, I am deeply sorrowful because of the way our consumer culture drives the generosity and thoughtfulness out of gift giving, supplanting it with greed and obligation. And when, on the other hand, I am no longer the faithful Christian I was at one time raised to be. All I can tell you about the existence of God is that I cannot know whether or not he is make believe.

13. That said, my very favorite Christmas song by far and away is "O Holy Night." Even a half-hearted attempt at this song has been known to bring me to tears.

I love it for the poetry in its rendering of the darkness and light of midwinter, for the profundity of "the soul felt its worth," and most of all for the awe and surrender of "fall on your knees."

I love that in the nineteenth century, a French poet (commissioned by his parish priest) wrote these words and then handed them to a friend. A Jewish composer friend. To write this melody that so perfectly expresses the words he wrote. I love imagining how he must have felt when he first heard it. I love that the song was denounced when the poet left the church and it got out that the composer was Jewish -- but that the French people went on singing it anyway.

I love the legend of the French soldier who, in the midst of a Christmas Eve battle against German soldiers, stepped out into the open and sang this song, prompting a German soldier to step forward and sing a German Christmas song, leading to a 24-hour peace in honor of the holiday.

I love that the song was translated into English by an American abolitionist who loved "chains shall he break for the slave is our brother" in the third verse.

I love that one Christmas Eve, its melody was the very first to be broadcast by radio - when Thomas Edison's chemist played it on his violin after his reading from Luke (of Linus Van Pelt fame) became the first human voice to be transmitted by radio. I love imagining the sailors at sea who unexpectedly received this mysterious broadcast.

I love that last Christmas Eve, my mom and I sat in a pew with little white candles in our hands and listened to that song. Even though the singer shied off that high "divine" at the end.

I love that high "divine".

14. Holy crap I haven't had any York peppermint patties yet this season.


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