[Note: We're headed out for Paris and Mali for two weeks. This will mean an almost certain two-week break in this column, with the next edition posted January 9. There's a slim chance of Jan. 2, but that's the day after we get off, and with jet lag and all, I wouldn't count on it.]
In the fine old tradition of journalists who recycle their holiday messages year after year, here's the 12th rerun of my Christmas message since Dec. 21, 1998 (with a few slight modifications).
Season's greetings to one and all. Apologies to those of you who feel oppressed by the season. I know Christians, atheists and Jews who feel the seasonal oppression in equal parts. Oppression and depression. I'm sorry. This message isn't going to cheer you up, much.
This is a time of year that has inspired some of the most brilliant writing in the English language. It ranges from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (which single-handedly revived the celebration of Christmas as a major holiday in the English-speaking world), to the sturdy newspaper editorial entitled Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. In more modern times, we have, among other things, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the unforgettable Bill Murray as Scrooge in the Dickens adaptation, Scrooged. (Not to mention Olive, The Other Reindeer. Never seen it. Love the pun).
Alas, like so many of us, the muse seems to have taken off early. I briefly considered, as I do every year, throwing in some of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas In Wales which Fr. Harrison West and I recited several times at Benson High School assemblies (long before he was Fr. West). But then I decided just to do a quick Christmas column.
What is Christmas about? It can be about the birth of Jesus, but for most of us it isn't. It's about many things.
Christmas is about singing (or listening to) Christmas carols. My favorite annual Christmas party, bar none, is the Christmas Caroling party held annually by our best friends. They're Jewish, and so are many of the party goers. Joyful voices raised together. Doesn't matter if they're not in tune. Doesn't matter if some of the lyrics are Christian claptrap. Jingle Bells, White Christmas and Jingle Bell Rock, along with the rest of the secular Christmas liturgy are just plain fun. I wince a little sometimes when we sing the later verses of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, or Good King Wenceslas" (Question: speaking of muses, why is it that the muse flees most lyricists somewhere between the first and second verses?) Besides, I get to do "Five Golden Rings" every year when we sing The 12 Days Of Christmas.
Christmas is about family and friends. It is about Egg Nog (or fat-free "Holiday Nog") and all the rest of the seasonal food. It is about the children.
It's about traveling, at the worst travel time of year, to be with your family. This year, we are headed to Mali via Paris, to visit Marlow at the village where she is volunteering for the Peace Corps, then back to Paris for five days (12 days for her). We leave on the 19th, and return on the 1st, just in time to go back to work (or school) on the 3rd).
Christmas is about family traditions when you're a kid, and
blending of family traditions when you marry. In childhood, my family
stayed at home on Christmas, my wife was always a Christmas runaway. My
lights went up the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year and came down
the Saturday after New Years. Vicki's went up on Christmas Eve and came
down on Boxing Day. There are fewer lights this year, because we didn't
the staff Christmas party and we knew we were going to be gone for the
heart of the season. There aren't as many lights as when the girls
were little. That's OK.
We've had artificial trees for years. Marlow asked for a big real tree her freshman year at college, so we put a 14-footer in the library in 1999; then Rae asked for one and got it in 2003. This year -- just a little tabletop tree with Chinese decorations. But it's a fancy artificial tree, with two kinds of lights and a remote control, modeled after a White Vermont Spruce. We bought it in January 2008, at an after-Christmas sale in an artificial tree store.
Christmas is about giving thanks. Thanksgiving is the official holiday to give thanks for our good fortune, but nothing says you can't do that at Christmas as well. Every Christmas morning when I wake up with my health, my wife, my children, my brother and my father as part of this world, I count my blessings. Mine are beyond counting. I hope yours are too. I have adult-onset diabetes, but there are lots of worse diseases in the world. Mine, at least, is under control. I almost died in a car crash in January 2007, but I'm still alive. My wacky ticker made me faint, and now I have a defibrillator / pacemaker. Beats the alternative.
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six...