Nativity scene from the 14th Century
During the 1960s, TV pundits started the practice of assembling on talk shows to grade the year just ending—good, bad, or in between—as though the calendar were a student taking a pass/fail exam.
I remember they gave a grade of fail to 1968 as being especially awful—the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the Chicago riots; the ongoing Vietnam bloodbath; and the rise of a dark groundling, Richard Nixon, a brilliant but desperately and deeply unqualified man to be occupying the Oval Office.
I don’t listen to pundits much anymore—even the ones I supposedly agree with—but I know they still gather, like flies on old meat.
This year, 2012, isn’t looking too good in my memory banks, either. I could review my experience of it here and now—Best Surgery, Best Long Mysterious Illness--but most of you who have been coming here know enough of it. Moreover, next to what the people in places like Newton, Connecticut, and Karachi, Pakistan are going through, it really wasn’t much. I remain more fortunate, more blessed than many, maybe most.
I’m trying to get in the Christmas Spirit as I understand it. But it’s hard. (And what do we mean by the Christmas Spirit, anyway?) It’s hard after what’s happened, but certain changes that have been taking place in me over the years have led me to see things differently.
Nowadays, I prefer Christmas in its old meaning as opposed to the one that I grew up with in a strict secular household. As I grow older, I find material things are losing their “thinginess.” Like a good dutiful Baby Boomer, I’ve accumulated my share of “stuff” these past Certain Number of Years. “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins!” is a motto of our age.
I now simply feel stuffed. The sharp edges of my toys cut into my inner stomach lining. Even my most valued books, my ridiculously large collection of Ennio Morricone scores, among the only things I cherish, seem trivial. I can only hope they wind up in the caring hands of someone who cares about them as much as I once did.
Nowadays, I’m more concerned about accumulating experiences: of events and happenings, whether it’s watching horse race, or a hike to a high mountain meadow or standing in a soft Autumn rainstorm in Vermont, inhaling the loamy air, feeling like I was home again.
What I really remember most about my childhood Christmases is not the toys, but being home.
In the last year and a half, I’ve taken to spending Sunday mornings at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland. I could say I just go there for it’s fabulous music program (in the way we used to say we bought Playboy for the interviews and Hustler to defend Larry Flynt’s free speech rights) . . . but that would be a mite disingenuous, wouldn’t it?
The why of this is too large a matter to explain deeply in this space. As a writer, I’m always made sorely aware of the limits of language to explain the ultimate truth of anything. Words attach well to things, less so to the world beyond things.
Likely, my Sundays at St. Paul’s—“getting your God on,” as a friend of mine put it the other night--did not cure me per se, but they brought solace to both Elizabeth and I at a time when we badly needed it. And someday, maybe tomorrow, we’ll need it again.
I will say this and leave it there: I do not want to live in a Cold, Dead Meaningless Universe. If that makes me a sniveling coward, well then . . . whaaaa . . . I want my teddy!
As many of you might know, Christmas history is a tale of tangled roots, a weave of Roman Saturnalia and Christian folk tales about the birth of Jesus Christ. (Christ’s exact birthdate remains a mystery, though there is an interesting astronomical theory, using the Star of Bethlehem as a marker, that estimates He may been born in the Spring, possibly in March or April.)
To the literal-minded, the lack of a precise birthdate means Christmas is a fake, tinsel through and through. But despite the historical inaccuracy, its placement seems poetically, spiritually right—in the bleak midwinter (one of my favorite hymns), at the turning of the Solstice, when all seems darkest, three wandering strangers find a small light of hope: in a bug-infested, shit-strewn manger, surrounded by gamy, rutting animal life, a bastard is born, a bastard who changes the world in a way not seen before and seldom since. Whose light is somehow still with us.
To my fellow Christians, a Merry Christmas. To the rest of my friends, from across the spectrum of belief, however you see Life, Happy Holidays and be safe!
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield