Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Past

So often, through the years, my Christmas Spirit arrives too late. I'm all set for the Big Day, or so it seems, but whatever it is I'm supposed to feel - that I'm ready to feel - doesn't arrive on time. Days later, as if my internal clock or calendar is slow, I will hear a particularly wistful Christmas carol or some cable network repeats a Christmas movie, and I will find myself wishing I could bring it all back. 

But I can't. And then there is the last week of the year to be faced, the strange limbo between Merry Christmas and Happy New Year that someone has aptly named Twixtmas. And I'm made painfully aware that I will have to wait for next year's holidays to try again to align myself with the prevailing spirit of the time.

There is an especially harsh story by Hans Christian Andersen called "The Fir Tree" in which a tree is enjoying his young life in the forest when he is suddenly cut down and taken into a big house where he is propped up and decorated with cakes and candles and a golden tinsel star. He is now a Christmas tree, and he is delighted and amazed at the people dancing around him on Christmas Eve. But afterward he is taken up into a dark loft and thrown in a corner. There he entertains some rats with the story - the only story he knows - of Humpy-Dumpy. But then the rats leave him there and never return. He waits there in the dark for what seems to him a long while.

'"I will take good care to enjoy myself when I am brought out again." But when was that to be? Why, one morning there came a quantity of people and set to work in the loft. The trunks were moved, the tree was  pulled out and thrown — rather hard, it is true — down on the floor, but  a man drew him towards the stairs, where the daylight shone. "Now a merry life will begin again," thought the Tree. He felt the fresh air, the first sunbeam — and now he was out in the courtyard. All passed so  quickly, there was so much going on around him, the Tree quite forgot to  look to himself. The court adjoined a garden, and all was in flower; the  roses hung so fresh and odorous over the balustrade, the lindens were  in blossom, the Swallows flew by, and said, "Quirre-vit! My husband is come!" but it was not the Fir Tree that they meant. "Now, then, I shall really enjoy life," said he exultingly, and spread out his branches; but, alas, they were all withered and yellow! It was in a corner that he lay, among weeds and nettles. The golden star of tinsel was still on the  top of the Tree, and glittered in the sunshine. In the court-yard some of the merry children were playing who had danced at Christmas round the  Fir Tree, and were so glad at the sight of him. One of the youngest ran and tore off the golden star. "Only look what is still on the ugly old Christmas tree!" said he, trampling on the branches, so that they all cracked beneath his feet. And the Tree beheld all the beauty of the flowers, and the freshness in the garden; he beheld himself, and wished he had remained in his dark corner in the loft; he thought of his first youth in the wood, of the merry Christmas-eve, and of the little Mice who had listened with so much pleasure to the story of Humpy-Dumpy. "'Tis over — ’tis past!" said the poor Tree. "Had I but rejoiced when I had reason to do so! But now ‘tis past, ‘tis past!" And the gardener’s boy chopped the Tree into small pieces; there was a whole heap lying there. The wood flamed up splendidly under the large brewing copper, and  it sighed so deeply! Each sigh was like a shot. The boys played about in  the court, and the youngest wore the gold star on his breast which the Tree had had on the happiest evening of his life. However, that was over now — the Tree gone, the story at an end. All, all was over — every tale must end at last.'

The tree, torn from the forest, has known the happiness of Christmas Eve, only to expire in flames when Christmas is past. The sorrow of the end is contained within the happiness of the beginning. It is a cycle that pagans celebrated with their winter festival, the cycle of life, death, and re-birth - an idea that Christianity borrowed from them and which is celebrated, though altered and muddled, at Christmas.   

Nature is so abstracted in us today that, although we harvest forests of trees to be dragged into our cities and into our homes at Christmas, we no longer understand what they mean.

Robert Frost knew:

CHRISTMAS TREES
(A Christmas Circular Letter)

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods––the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine,
I said, “There aren’t enough to be worth while.”
“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”

“You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north.

He said, “A thousand.”

“A thousand Christmas trees!––at what apiece?”

He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.




I am an atheist, but I am not so bigoted that I would deprive others of what religion obviously gives them. As the one-time longshoreman and philosopher Eric Hoffer put it, "Belief passes. Having once believed never passes." Although I can't say I ever actually believed (I simply went along with what my parents wanted), I can recollect something that I felt when I prayed, and when I sang hymns along with others in church, or when I simply sat quietly (how else does one sit in a church?), while my mother lit candles and prayed or went to confession. The last time I attended a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was with my mother and sister in 1996. I was in Korea for Christmas in '97, and my mother died in '98.

I watched a recent interview on the BBC with the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín , who also lost his religion somewhere along the way. He claimed that he finds it impossible to listen to Bach without feeling something other than his reaction to the beautiful notes, something that, he said, can only be called "spiritual." 

This is funny to me, because what I hear when I listen to Bach is math - a wondrously beautiful mathematical equation swirling around me. Since I was not much good at math, Bach - and every other baroque composer - isn't one of my favorites. Perhaps when I listen to Mahler or to John Coltrane I get closer to the feeling Tóibín mentioned. But isn't he talking about aesthetic "beauty"? Certainly the symmetry of a great work of art, of a great poem, can put one in mind of the divine - but the divine what? 

Whatever spirituality may be or from wherever it may come, I think that it has something to do with a desire for some kind of self-transcendence, for belonging to something more, something greater than ourselves or greater than the sum of all our separate selves. Christmas seems (or used to seem) like an immense communal celebration. But there were always people who felt left out of the festivities, either because they weren't married or had no family. Just think of poor Charlie, the elevator operator in John Cheever's story "Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor." After telling all of the tenants whom he meets in the elevator on Christmas Day "I think Christmas is a very sad season of the year," he explains:

"It isn't that people around here ain't generous - I mean, I got plenty of tips - but, you see, I live alone in a furnished room and I don't have any family or anything, and Christmas isn't much of a holiday for me."

The tenants in Charlie's Manhattan apartment building feel so sorry for him that, one by one all that morning, they ring for him to come by and get some of their food and drink - every conceivable food and alcohol. And Charlie takes all the dishes and glasses and bottles downstairs to the locker room and eats and drinks so much on his breaks that, by that afternoon, he is so drunk that he terrifies one of his elevator passengers ("Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We're going to make a loop-the-loop!") and she complains to the superintendent and gets Charlie fired on Christmas Day.

A hundred years ago, Thomas Hardy, a deeply pessimistic poet and novelist, expressed the strange longing that I sometimes feel at Christmas in his poem "The Oxen":


Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.


Faith was something that Hardy probably once felt, but in 1915, and for a long time, it was missing from his life. Yet, in this poem, Hardy feels that, especially at Christmas, something is lacking in him, something he once felt, if only when he was a child. 

In the first verse in chapter 11 of Hebrews, Saint Paul writes that "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." For many, faith is all the evidence they need. For others, it's the hope that inspires it that falsifies faith. Ah, if only wanting and having were the same thing! Then I would be home with my sister in snowy Alaska, instead of where I am - an uprooted fir tree, lost among the tinkling palms for yet another tropical Christmas.

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