Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Good King Wenceslas

December 9, 2011

My single favorite Christmas album is an old cassette tape given to me years ago by the friend who goes by “Marquee Movies” on this blog. Back during the years when I was attending Shirone Lutheran Church in Japan, I would often teach during the day on Christmas Eve (Christmas is just a plain old workday in Japan), then drive the twenty or so miles from the university to the little Lutheran church. Now, normally that drive wouldn’t take long; but Christmas Eve is a strangely special time in Japan. For whatever reasons, the Eve (not the day itself) has become, in Japanese pop culture, a time when two things happen: 1.) young couples go on hugely lavish dates to magnificent hotels or the upmost upscale restaurants they (usually the guy) can possibly afford; it’s the one night of the year when money is expected to pour out of wallets like Niagara Falls. And 2.) husbands come straight home from work so that the family can have a fancy dinner together (which is supposed to include Kentucky Fried Chicken among all the other feast items — expensive sushi platters, wine, cheese, caviar, etc. ) — and for dessert, there’s Christmas cake.

Stores take orders for Christmas cakes months in advance. If you haven’t ordered yours well ahead of time and try to search for one on Christmas Eve Day, you may be out of luck — the shelves in bakeries, department stores, and ice-cream shops are looking pretty barren. The cake can be of any flavor; it’s generally decorated beautifully. The point is, it’s CAKE — it’s what MUST be eaten on Christmas Eve, along with Kentucky Fried Chicken. (My students were always shocked and greatly amused to learn that these customs did not come from the U.S.A., since they firmly believed they were doing what all Americans do on Christmas Eve.)

Anyway, my point is that city streets and the roads to the suburbs are gridlocked with traffic starting in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Cars creep along, bumper to bumper. So my twenty-mile trip to Shirone Lutheran Church could easily take three or four hours on Christmas Eve. Enter that wonderful tape Marquee Movies gave me! I would settle in, thinking the joyful thoughts of Christmas (church service and trombone-playing ahead, followed by a Christmas cake party at church, followed by a late-night feast with friends, followed by presents — and all in celebration of the birth of the Savior, Who provides a point to everything). I would settle into this long, long car ride. The car was a little island of warmth in the cold and dark. Sometimes snow would be falling outside, drifting large and soft and feathery into the bare rice fields. Sometimes the moon would be glimmering on the Shinano River, which paralleled my road. I would inch my way to church, immersed in the best Christmas music that Marquee Movies could assemble. And my favorite among the selections was a carol that had fascinated me since childhood:

“Good King Wenceslas.”

The funny thing about it is that it’s become a good, solid carol, firmly entrenched in the canon, but it doesn’t mention the Nativity. It seems to be associated with Christmas because the song’s story takes place on the feast day of St. Stephen, December 26th. If you’re willing to trust my Internet research, the tune is of Finnish origin, from the mid-1500s, and the text was written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853.

Wenceslas was King of Bohemia in the 10th century — a martyred Catholic king, assassinated by his brother Boleslaw (whose name, I can’t help noticing, is just like “Coleslaw,” but with a “B”–it definitely sounds like Monty Python material). Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic, and his saint’s day is September 28th.

Bear with me, and I’ll include the words for you here. I hope they’ll carry you back to your childhood, as they always do for me:

 

Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight

Gath’ring winter fuel.

 

“Hither, page, and stand by me,

If thou know’st it, telling

Yonder peasant, who is he?

Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence,

Underneath the mountain,

Right against the forest fence,

By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

 

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine;

Bring me pine logs hither.

Thou and I will see him dine

When we bear them thither.”

Page and monarch forth they went,

Forth they went together

Through the rude wind’s wild lament

And the bitter weather.

 

“Sire, the night is darker now

And the wind blows stronger;

Fails my heart, I know not how,

I can go no longer.”

“Mark my footsteps, good my page;

Tread thou in them boldly;

Thou shalt find the winter’s rage

Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

 

In his master’s steps he trod

Where the snow lay dinted;

Heat was in the very sod

Which the Saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure

Wealth or rank possessing:

Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing.”

 

That gives me gooseflesh even now! Christmas carols just don’t get any better than that. I love it for the way it gives us a glimpse beyond the walls of this world. In the ancient stories and songs, Saints are essentially magical people. They can perform miraculous feats . . . banish dragons (Saint Columba sent the Loch Ness Monster packing!) . . . and in this case, melt the snow underfoot and warm up the ground for us poor little pages who stumble after them in awe. I know that sort of happening appears in many tales. It reminds me most recently of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke; in that film, the Shishigami, the most sacred Wild creature/god of the forest, leaves hoof-prints in which flowers sprout up.

Back in our carol, I love the pure impulsive charity of this king who spies a wretched peasant and leaps out of the castle to go and help him. Sure, there’s a lot outside the borders of the song that cynics will be quick to note: what about all the other peasants out in the cold? And what about all the other cold nights of the year? Does the saintly king have a plan for improving the lot of his people, or is he just full of self-indulgent good cheer because it’s the feast of Stephen, and tomorrow it will be business as usual? “Pay your taxes, poor man!”

Clearly, the carol is focused elsewhere, showing us something better, something beyond our winter’s cold. It may not reference the Nativity, but there is Gospel here. I’m sure scholars have written about it more eloquently in the going-on two centuries that this carol has been around, but Wenceslas displays some Christ-like qualities here. He doesn’t send the army. He goes himself; the King becomes the bringer of help, down in the snow, out in the cold. He ministers to the one in need; he “fills the hungry with good things” by preparing a banquet, the best that there is. And more, he blesses and comforts those who serve him. “Walk in my footprints. I’ll press down the snow and I’ll heat the ground for you.” Why does Wenceslas choose to take only that page along on the mission? If they’re carrying food and firewood, wouldn’t a team of servants be in order? How about a carriage? How about all the king’s horses and all the king’s men? But Wenceslas chooses to make the trek with one faithful page. Interesting, huh? He doesn’t fault the page for his limitations, either — doesn’t mind that the page points out he’s about to collapse. Wenceslas simply says, “Come on. I’ll enable you to do this.”

My other favorite part of this carol is the explanation of where the peasant lives: a good league hence, underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain. That is evocative and atmospheric. It’s a Breughel or a Bosch painting. The peasant doesn’t live up on Route 8 across from the McDonald’s. This is a quieter, greener, greyer land, a country of shadows, dappled light, scudding clouds, and mystery.

I doubt it’s a very good thing in this kingdom to live “right against the forest fence” — on the doorstep of wolves, robbers, and evil spirits. The peasant lives there because he’s poor. (I had a discussion with a local friend about this on Monday: my interpretation is that there’s no man-made fence; “forest fence” means “the edge of the forest; the barrier that is the forest.” Do you agree with me? I grew up looking across the field at a “forest fence,” which seemed a green cliff, the boundary of another world.) The landscape is marked with such wondrous things as the fountains of saints — crosses and cairns, stones, pools, and boscages, each with its own legend.

What remains in this world of Wenceslas of Bohemia, in addition to a handful of facts in dusty tomes, is a song that is still played each year as the winter solstice approaches. The portrait that carol gives us is most likely anything but an accurate historical account; nevertheless, it preserves some enduring truths. Compassion is a quality to be sought after and practiced. We are empowered with a light and warmth that radiate from beyond this world; and in the best of our actions, we are in turn blessed.

That, and there’s a fantastically cool landscape of the imagination out there, hinted at in our old legends and songs, always ready to be tapped by the storytellers and celebrated by those who love them!

So that’s my Christmas carol story. A good discussion this month might be: What are your favorite Christmas songs, and why? Do you have any memories to share with appreciative listeners? — memories, perhaps, of great times spent listening to them, and/or what they meant to you? Any Christmas thoughts/stories/memories in general are most welcome!

Everything I Know

December 22, 2010

[I know this is awfully quick for a new entry. If you haven't yet read the previous posting, "The Reality of Dreams," I urge you not to miss it!]

One of the movies I enjoyed most in recent months was The Last Station, about Tolstoy in the twilight of his life. The film begins with a quotation from his book War and Peace:

“Everything I know, I know because I love.”

I recommend this quotation as a springboard for discussion here. What do you make of it? Do you like it? Do you agree? Thoughts? Feelings?

I was trying to discuss the quotation earlier this evening with someone here, and even though I’m sure my Japanese translation of it was perfect, it just wasn’t making sense in a literal rendering to the Japanese mind. I’ve often encountered that barrier: people are people, to be sure, and I believe that we all think more or less the same thoughts, although the vehicles for expressing them are vastly different. But sometimes there’s just a Wall, and a thought that makes sense to westerners doesn’t make any sort of sense in Japan . . . and vice-versa. Who wrote, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”? I’m guessing Kipling.

The last writing class before the holidays went well today. We studied parentheses, quotation marks, and conclusions of essays. When we come back after the break, rough drafts of the five-paragraph essay are due. Then I’ll be checking/correcting day and night in order to get them back to the students by the following week. Hard work, but fun. Today a student sought me out in the part-time teachers’ room with some excellent questions. When you’re able to answer exactly what someone wants to know, you’re very glad to be a teacher. It was a great final note before the holidays.

Anyway, I have this eccentric custom of, when I write in my journal each night, reading the entry from a year ago and the entry from ten years ago on the same day. It’s interesting to see what I was doing then — the ways that life has changed, and the ways it’s stayed the same. Tonight I came across this entry from ten years ago — December 23, 2000 — that had me laughing so hard my eyes were streaming. See what you make of it. In this excerpt, I’m describing the Christmas caroling event at Shirone Lutheran Christ Church (the church at which I was most recently a volunteer before I retired from OVYM). Here’s the (partial) entry:

“Mr. Kobayashi wore a Santa Claus suit, complete with a white beard. We drove in 3 cars to a nursing home. Sang first on a stage, with Mrs. Yosai playing a piano & Ms. Takeda playing ocarina; then we sang in two different rooms (4 beds per room) of people who were bedridden and couldn’t come to the common room. Then we caroled inside the main entrance of Jusco. [Jusco is like a Japanese Wal-Mart.] Finally, we sang outside, on the sidewalk in front of a strange little health-food store. The owner seems to have some kind of connection with the church, but I didn’t ask what. Rachel pointed out that it was like a store in a dream — not quite focused or logical — a rack of used clothes, stacks of unlabeled cans, weird pictures on the walls of people with exotic illnesses — and a few other items like omochi and soy sauce. Rachel & I had fun talking & laughing; we rode in the Nakanos’ car. I’m really going to miss her when she goes back to the States.”

[Rachel was the OVYM volunteer, two generations after me, at Shirone.] I do not at all remember those pictures on the walls, but isn’t that something? I’ve got to use that store description in a story someday! I do remember that caroling event as if it were yesterday. The organizer of it was so deadly serious about it that we started rehearsals in the spring. Throughout the summer and fall, we moved outdoors for practices, so we could get used to singing in the open air. That was the best-rehearsed caroling I’ve ever been a part of!

Okay: at the request of Marquee Movies, seconded by Mr. Snowflake and Scott, I tried taking a self-portrait of myself wearing the Christmas tie mentioned in the last posting. Here you go:

Fa la la la la -- la la la la!

Yes, there are more paintings coming soon to a blog near you! (And yes, the picture is totally staged. I don’t really paint while kneeling on my bed, and I don’t paint while wearing a necktie.)

Again: a merry and blessed Christmas to all! The world is dark and cold, but we can laugh and sing; we can rejoice. Because of the baby born in Bethlehem, there can be a happy ending to every story, no matter how dark the journey.

The Reality of Dreams

December 20, 2010

We’re starting into the last week of classes before the Christmas holidays. This week, I always wear my Christmas necktie. Years ago, a former volunteer in the program through which I came to Japan made these neckties for all the guys in the program. It’s a long, large necktie made from cloth patterned with holly leaves and berries — very bright, vivid greens and reds. Some would call it hideous; I think it’s fun and festive, because it’s so obviously Christmas. It’s Christmas shouted from the rooftops — it’s Scrooge after his reawakening running around buying geese for people — it’s the main character at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life — it’s the Grinch swooping down the mountainside, bringing everything back. It’s the exuberance of Christmas in a necktie! Most every year, some students smile at it. A few comment that they like it. A fellow teacher smirked at it last year (in a friendly way).

Anyway, at this holy time of year, the walls of the worlds grow thin, and it’s a good time for storytellers to think.

I was thinking this week about the reality of dreams. Let’s see if I can explain what I mean. In the movie Inception, the main character has that intriguing line about how the most powerful virus is an idea. Once a person gets an idea fixed in his/her head, there’s no unseating it. I’ve experienced this phenomenon time and again in life. Someone gets a mistaken impression, some misinformation, etc., and believes it. You can correct it any number of times, and you come back in six months, and the person still believes the mistake — corrections are often meaningless. I’m sure I’m often that person, too, with some of the “solid facts” in my head being solidly non-factual. (Correct me if you can, please, but I’m warning you . . .)

Don’t we see this force of ideas on display in many great works of literature? Captain Ahab has this bee in his bonnet and can’t let that whale alone, no matter what the cost. Shakespeare — isn’t there the thing in Othello where the bad guy convinces him his wife is unfaithful, and even though she’s innocent, Othello can’t get the idea out of his mind, and he ends up destroying everything he loves, all because of that one planted idea? The Silmarillion — Feanor wants those silmarils back, and he will take on anyone — Man, Elf, or Valawho stands in his way.

Those are cases where things don’t work out well. But there’s a very positive side to this, too. Take an idea that’s good — a noble theme, a beautiful picture — plant that in the mind, and you’ve done something of service and value.

Take Middle-earth. It’s a place familiar to nearly all of us on this blog. We could fill pages writing the things we know about its peoples, its geography, its history . . . yet it’s “only” an idea — “only” a dream. Where is it? It exists in words printed on pages, enclosed between the covers of books. It exists in paintings and sketches done by artists. It exists in musical compositions, plays, and puppet theater. It exists on records, cassette tapes, CDs . . . and yes, thanks to filmmakers, a version of it exists on celluloid and DVDs.

We cannot get onto a plane or ship and go there. Yet it is a real land, is it not? It’s far more real to me than Norway, or Brazil, or the state of South Dakota — about those places I know next to nothing. But I know Middle-earth. I’ve spent hours and hours . . . I’ve spent years there! And so have countless other readers, viewers, listeners, and dreamers, both in this generation and in the generations of the past.

Yet Middle-earth began as a dream in the mind of one man . . .

The dreams I have at night seem to be forged of memory, emotion, the machinations of my subconscious, and perhaps at times an element from outside, the hints and utterances of the Divine — but I don’t think I want to go there in this post.

The dreams I have in the daytime — my writerly dreams — are forged of much the same things, with a bit more conscious shaping and/or interference, which is both a good and a bad thing.

I was thinking of the storm cellar in our side yard back at the house where I grew up. It was a brick dome, covered with concrete, half-covered with dirt, and overgrown by grass, weeds, and trees-of-Heaven. Nothing at all — a simple, rustic construction of mundane materials. Yet for my cousin and me, playing with our dinosaur sets, it became a mountain of cliffs and jungles, a place of infinite tiny, secret places for dinosaurs to hide. Later, for my neighbors and me, it became the Orca, or a similar shark-fishing boat. These notions exist only in our own heads, and (as Chris noted in a comment on the previous posting) they will vanish with us at no loss to the world. But the memories of those imagined things are more important to us than the bricks and the concrete, or any intent of the original builders of the place — our dreams, I would argue, are for us more real than the physical place. They survive, bright and vivid now, though the old cellar is falling to ruin. The barn of our childhood is gone, but it lives in my story “Star,” about the ghost horse, and in our memories.

The storm cellar -- cliff of dinosaurs, shark boat, fortress, ski slope, movie location, cave.

It seems to me that memory is an enormous tool in the storyteller’s kit — memory, that major component of dream. Is it not memory that gives the major fire, the truest authenticity, to the worlds we sub-create? When we can lay hold of the merest fragment of something we absorbed as children, and when we can get that into an expressed form, we have something alive and powerful. (This relates directly to what Mr. Brown Snowflake and Nick were saying in the comments on the previous post just now!)

And does it not seem that memories can be better and more solid even than the realities they’re based on? We take a memory, and we preserve, amplify, and focus it through art (whatever our particular art form may be). Then it has a life far beyond its original instance.

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck famously says:

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this (and all is mended),

That you have but slumber’d here,

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend.”

I think Matthew Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables said to Puck: “Could you maybe apologize and not really mean it?” Heh, heh, heh. Dreams not real? — Pshaw, I say! Few things are as substantial and fruitful as a dream. The power of dream is beautiful and devastating. It can wreak ruin or create sanctuary for untold millions.

Three cheers for art in its various forms! Three cheers for art, which captures the shining moments as they flow past and makes them come-backable! . . . which finds their meanings, near-eternal as the belt of Orion, true as the light in leaves!

And may I take this opportunity to say: a merry and blessed Christmas to all!

The Memory of Trees

December 19, 2009

Yes, I stole that title from an Enya song. It’s on her album The Best of Enya, which is great, but my favorite CD of hers is still The Celts. Anyway, it makes an appropriate title for this post.

I’ve heard many of my fellow Lutherans claim that Dr. Martin Luther invented the Christmas tree. That would seem a difficult assertion to “prove,” as I suspect the practice of dragging green, branchy things indoors to use as decorations and/or symbols has been around since we had an “indoors.” But what is probably true is that Dr. Luther popularized the custom of bringing in an evergreen tree and tying lit candles to the branches, thus delighting every child and worrying every adult who saw it.

When everybody started doing it, Dr. Luther had to go into hiding in the Wartburg (a big, drafty castle well-stocked with pens, ink, and paper), where he wasn’t allowed to play with hatchets, saws, or matches, and where he settled down at last and translated the Bible into a vernacular that clued the common people in to what those priests were going on about in Latin, and to what those stories encoded in the stained-glass windows were all about.

So all was well that ended well: Germany didn’t burn down in the late Middle Ages, and Luther’s writings survived, and so did the custom of Christmas trees.

Dr. Luther wasn’t really bent on deforesting the countryside. His focus was on how, since evergreen trees maintain their life in a barren, wintry land (until you hew them down, of course), they make good symbols for Christian truth: that in Christ, God sent a Savior into the world; that through faith in Christ, even though we must pass once through the gate of mortality, we can have eternal life. (Hmm . . . I guess hewing down the tree once is part of the symbolism, after all!) At the top of the tree is the Christmas star, which leads the way to Bethlehem.

That star has always been one of my favorite parts of the Christmas accounts. Think of the wonder of it: an event so significant that it was marked by the appearance of a new star in the sky . . . a celestial light that moved ahead of the wise men, and stopped above the house where the child was. I don’t know whether the wise men simply headed in the direction of a distant star to the west of them, or whether it was a close and large enough light source that they physically followed it and saw it stop and hover above a particular house. The point is, it was something that had never happened before; they recognized its significance, and it led them to what they were seeking.

I love the fact that those called to Bethlehem, those afforded a glimpse of the newborn King, were the truly humble and the truly wise. Shepherds — the bluest of blue-collar workers, the simplest of folk who “knew nothing” and “had nothing,” responding to a host of angels . . . and then the far-off scholars with no other agenda — the pure scientists, with their noses in books and their eyes on the sky, earnestly poring over the sum of previous knowledge and watching the world to see what happened.

Isn’t it interesting that the paths of shepherds and scholars converged on the same house, the “House of Bread”? We who know nothing, and simply labor to survive . . . we who know what can be known . . . we are all beggars.

The one who feared and hated the star and what it meant was King Herod, who if he’d been king during the Second Age of Middle-earth, would almost certainly have become one of the ring-wraiths — the nine kings of Men who, “above all else, desire power.”

But anyway, back to the point!

(Sorry, one more quick story first, speaking of Luther: years ago in Taylorville, I knew a very old Pentecostal lady, who for a long time had lived across the street from my Grandma Emma. One day I happened to tell the lady, “We’re doing a play at our church. I’m playing the part of Dr. Martin Luther!” She blinked a few times and said, “You’re going to play a black man?”)

Now to the point! I was intending to talk here about memories of Christmas trees. (This may spark some good discussion — but whatever you do, keep those candles away from the curtains!)

First, one of my earliest memories of a Christmas tree is a memory of fear. (Why are so many of the things I love rooted in abject horror? Hmm. . . . Hallowe’en, Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, books, pens, office supplies — the fear is there, if only one looks for it.) It was in some department store. In my dim recollection, rounded and polished by the sands of time, I was temporarily separated from my mom, but that’s probably an embellishment — maybe she was looking in another direction or something. Anyway, I found myself “alone” with a towering Christmas tree all of white plastic — glaring white plastic branches, white needles — it was more like a thing of dead coral than a tree — or like some huge formation of frost. And smack in the center of the tree was a face: bulging eyes, maybe a nose, and for sure, a red, red mouth. It was like a clown’s mouth [shudder!] — thick-lipped and pliable. The mouth twisted and moved, and the eyes moved, and a voice (probably tape-recorded) emanated from inside the tree. I screamed and ran back to my mom. Even now, I shiver to recall the redness of that mouth in the midst of the pristine white tree . . . the staring eyes . . . the voice, laughing and beckoning me closer. . . . That tree put the fear of Christmas into me, for sure.

Whew! On to happier memories: Grandma Emma had a tree that everyone laughed at, everyone agreed was pretty pathetic, but we all loved it. My Uncle Art said it best: it looked like Charlie Brown’s scraggly little Christmas tree.

First of all, it was kept in an unused front bedroom, the newest part of the house, that was separate from the rest. Grandma kept the registers in that room closed and rugs tucked under the door, so that no heat was wasted on an unoccupied room. That room always scared me — fear again — partly because of the fierce coldness of it, partly because it had a big bed that was always made, with sheets and blankets and covers and pillows, but never used — a room eternally waiting for someone. But mostly it was scary because of the three-paned mirror on the dresser. Boy, did that mirror terrify me! When I’d venture into that room, the icy cold taking hold of me, I could see three images of myself at once, each from a slightly different angle, and I’d hear myself think “Three Freddys,” which phrase somehow scared me even more.

The little tree was kept in a white cardboard box in a big closet at the very extremity of that room. I think it was my Uncle Art who described the annual tree-getting ritual as “going to the Cold Clothes Closet to Get the Creepy Christmas Tree.”

Back in the warmth of the main house, the tree seemed normal-sized to me as a small child, but I think it must have only been about as big as a bush. But Grandma had it up on a little table, so it was tall enough. It was green and shaggy, with needles sort of like green fur. I’m sure whoever designed it was proud of him/herself for the innovation of convenience: you didn’t have to assemble anything. The branches were attached to the trunk and folded up against it. When you took it out of its box, you just had to pull each branch down to the angle you wanted, and twist them a little into the shapes you wanted. I suppose this had been done so many times that they were all bent and crooked and tired. There were certain areas on the tree where there were too few branches, no matter how you rearranged them. You could spend all the time you wanted, but the tree always came out looking like a green, lopsided tumbleweed. And the biggie: it could never, ever stand up by  itself. We always had to tie strings to it like guy wires. One ran from the trunk to the window-latch. One ran to a bookcase. There were at least three strings, so now it was like a green tumbleweed caught in a web. And you didn’t want to get too rambunctious around it, because it was all very precarious.

Then Grandma would open the boxes of decorations and lights. As I look back, I think she probably had lights on there that were designed for all-weather outdoor use. They seriously overburdened that tree — and probably the wiring of the house. Now and then a bulb would explode with a pop and a sizzle, and we’d usually blow a fuse before the day was done. But out of the boxes came ornaments like treasures — delicate bulbs and figurines of glass — angels and wise men, spikes, snowmen, and colorful Father Christmases that were far older than Santa Claus — definitely old-world, with their fur-lined robes of blue and gold and green. The most wondrous of these ornaments were from Germany: I’m not clear on whether Mom brought them back when she was there, or whether my great-grandparents had brought them over on the boat. (I’m guessing Mom.) To set on the piano were straw-basket figurines of Saint Nicholas and his diabolic counterpart, the long-tongued, red-skinned Krampus, who accompanied St. Nick and left lumps of coal in the stockings of children who Hadn’t Been Good.

In all its finery, tinsel and lights and several lifetimes’ accumulation of ornaments — decorated over several hours by Grandma and me — the tree was no longer pathetic. Well, it was, but it wasn’t. It was like us, like the shepherds, like the wise men — beggars from the dark depths of the Cold Clothes Closet, now Clothed in Christ. It became the center of many a loving, joyous Christmas celebration. For my cousins and me, I’m sure that will always be The tree — the one Christmas tree that stands out in our memories as having been the most magical.

Oh, there were good ones at our house, too. I remember plenty of three different kinds of tree options. We had an artificial one, too, that came up from the basement in a box. It was also green, and the branches for it had little splashes of different-colored paint at their bases which corresponded to little splashes of paint on the trunk. So, for example, brown-coded branches were the longest, followed by black, etc. There was always a dead, mummified mouse somewhere in the box — invariably. I don’t remember a time when we opened that box that there wasn’t exactly one dead mouse included. (It wasn’t the same mouse; we removed it each time.) I suppose the mice in our house had a council each summer to choose the volunteer from among their sick and elderly.

But then, we also had quite a few real trees, selected from Christmas tree sales lots run by the Boy Scouts.

And then later in my childhood, my parents discovered the best option of all: getting a live, potted tree which could be planted outdoors after the holidays. We did this for enough years that there’s now an evergreen hedgerow along one edge of the yard.

Our trees, too, had lots of colored lights of different sizes that popped and smelled hot and blew fuses; and we also had some of the German ornaments. What I remember most about our trees was that I loved to crawl into the space behind them, hidden between the tree, the wall, and the bookcase, as if I were hidden in a real forest, and I would gaze into the glowing caverns among the branches. Those spaces, viewed up close, became magical worlds, illuminated by the winking lights and the glinting bulbs, angels, and tin soldiers. The worlds were green and aromatic, populated by fairies, saints, living snowmen. . . .

I remember, too, times when we’d turn off all the lights except those on the Christmas tree, and we’d admire it for a long while, that radiant tree in the warm, dark hush of the house.

Finally, there was the great tree in the chapel at Concordia College. As a chapel assistant, I always got in on helping to put it up, on an evening at the start of Advent. I think the call was open to the entire campus — anyone interested could come and help set it up, and it was a major task. The tree was about 20 feet tall in my memory (which probably means it was about 15), and its trunk came in two sections which fit together none too snugly — there was some wobble and play, which again made the operation precarious.

It also had branches which fit into holes. Consider the physics of such a tree: branches at the top of an evergreen are shorter, right? And you can’t assemble such a tree if it’s lying down, because one side would come out squashed. And if you start putting in branches at the bottom, you can’t get a ladder close enough to put in the ones at the top. So the only way to do it is to stand up the entire trunk, get it firmly fixed in the holder, and then start putting in branches from the top down.

I remember one year in particular — probably the first year I helped with it, because Pastor Tom Acton was still there as campus pastor. A dozen or so of us were helping — organizing branches into piles, untangling light strings, etc. Pastor Acton didn’t like heights, and I loved them, so he let me be the ladder man. (In Japan, there’s an old saying: “Monkeys and fools like high places.”) We’d stick in branches as the trunk wobbled dangerously, bending in the middle. People were sent to the back of the chapel to assess the overall shape, to tell us where the holes were. I remember the tree toppling over when we had it about half done, and one side got squashed flat, and we had to take most of the branches out and start over.

And while we could still get the ladder in close, before the bigger branches were in, we also had to start stringing on the tiny white lights. From the very top of the ladder, I still couldn’t reach the top of the tree to hang the lights, until Pastor Acton came up with a solution: “Bring him a taper,” he said. (A taper is that instrument acolytes use for lighting candles. It has a wooden handle, and the brass top of it forks like a capital upsilon: one branch has a cup for extinguishing candles, and the other has a thin candle housed in a tube — the candle can be paid out like a pencil lead as it burns down, and it’s used for lighting other candles. Anyway, it also works well for lifting a string of Christmas lights to tree branches over one’s head.)

The morning after we set up that enormous, hardly-stable tree, the college president was scheduled to give the homily in chapel, and when he wasn’t in the pulpit, he was sitting right at the base of the trunk; every so often he’d brush against one of the branches. All we who’d been there to help erect it kept eyeing the tree nervously, watching the subtle quivering of its needles, wondering if President Krentz were about to be buried under a ton of artificial greenery. (His guardian angels were on duty, and he lived to serve out his entire presidency in good health.)

And those are my memories of Christmas trees. Do you have any good Christmas tree stories to tell? Were there trees that horrified or delighted you? Trees that were particularly problematic or particularly wonderful? What are your memories of trees?

If I don’t get another chance to say it before the 25th: to all of you, a very merry and blessed Christmas!

Thin Walls

December 23, 2008

“And by faith [Abel] still speaks, even though he is dead.” –Hebrews 11:4b

Listen a moment with me in the dark hours of this holy night, as the strange new star blazes in the sky. Give ear with me to the whispers of the past. The blessed dead are speaking again, at this time of the year when — as surely as at Midsummer — the walls between the worlds grow thin.

My father once compared the separation of life and death to a holiday family gathering in a house. People gravitate to different rooms. Often it’s the women in the kitchen, the men in the living room. The point is, inconsequential walls separate the family for a little while, but the gathering takes place throughout the house. Voices and laughter spill back and forth from room to room. Not everyone can see one another at every moment, but all are together in the house, and sooner or later, all will meet up again. So it is with our families: some members have gone on ahead, beyond the veil; some remain here for a while.

Another time, someone said to my parents, “You must miss Fred when he’s in Japan on the far side of the world.” My dad answered, touching his forehead and his heart: “He’s only as far away as the distance from here to here.” (I heard about it from that friend’s daughter later, because the answer impressed them both so much.)

Listen with me: my parents, dead now to this world of snow and cold, are speaking of Christmas.

Here’s a poem my mom wrote maybe 20 or 30 years ago:

As a child I thought of gifts and things,

And all the joy that Christmas brings,

And all the happiness Christmas brings.

But now it’s changed, and now I’m grown,

And I think of God’s great gift, His son.

So now I think of gifts and things,

And all the joy that Christmas brings,

And all the happiness Christmas brings.

 As for Dad, I’m going to paraphrase / summarize him. From before he was married and I was born, Dad worked for the highway department, patrolling for dead animals, setting out flares and barricades for road construction, and plowing snow in the winter. He often spoke of one of his most memorable Christmases, which was one he spent alone.

In the afternoon of Christmas Eve that year (this was when he was still single), there came a fearsome blizzard which shut down pretty much everything. He was called out for emergency snow-plowing, so he couldn’t join in the family gathering at his mom’s place that evening. But as he went to work, he dropped off his apartment key with Grandma, so that she could swing by and pick up the presents he had for everyone. (I’m not sure why he didn’t drop off the presents themselves instead of the key. We can only assume there was some reason. . . .)

So he went out and battled snow all night. Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, they finally got the roads cleared, and he was able to wend his way home, frozen to the core and exhausted. He had parked at his place before he realized Grandma still had his key. He didn’t want to disturb her at that hour of the morning, so he jimmied open a window, crawled in through it, and tumbled down inside in a tangle of curtains, furniture, and stuff from a shelf.

He got some hot coffee going, played some Christmas carols on his record player (so he said; I’m kind of skeptical about that point — he’s frozen, worn out, wanting to get to bed. . . . but it’s his story, and he says he listened to Christmas carols), and sank at last into his warm bed, feeling somehow that it was one of his best Christmas Eves, although he’d missed everything he normally did, the church service and the family gathering, the food and the presents. Instead, it had been a night of tedium, deep chill, raw winds, and lonely labor — and getting locked out of his own house. But, yes, I can understand why he felt good about that night.

I can very distinctly remember the wild joy of lying in my dark bedroom late on Christmas Eve as a child, the electric thrill running through me at the thought of the wrapped presents under the tree in the living room . . . at the thought of the immortal “jolly old elf” who would visit my house sometime before dawn, negotiating the pitch blackness, depositing wondrous things under the tree, into my hanging stocking — eating the cookies I’d left for him, drinking the milk, and writing me a thank-you note in his spiky, illegible hand. I remember that excitement — the fierce joy of all those toys and plastic models that would make my life so much better.

I remember how the joy gradually shifted to the warm lights of the church — two services on Christmas Eve, and singing with the choir and playing my trombone at both, with a long visit at Grandma’s house in between, since she lived just a few blocks from the church.

I remember how the happiness eventually started to come from counting blessings — from the time spent with family and friends, from the good health and peace and happy gatherings; from having good writing to do and the gifts to do it with. As we age, it starts to be about our interactions with others and the use of our gifts.

It’s another kind of trembling joy I feel now in this winter dark, as the dead whisper — the dead who are not dead, but feasting just on the other side of the wall — the heroes in Valhalla, drinking the milk of the einhejar. It’s the joy of having a calling: students to teach, stories to write, and the ability to do both. The experience, the ideas . . . the chance to be here and now. Friends — the best array of friends anyone could possibly have. A past that has shaped me. Good things to do, and the passionate desire to do them. Senses. The thankfulness of being alive and stable and where God has put me.

The key to it all is found here, on this holy night, in the event we celebrate — the coming of that Child in the manger. The peace and the joy come from the knowledge of Him. There is warmth and light at the end of the winter. The paths of the living and the dead do reconverge in a good, good place.

Here’s one more dead voice that still speaks loudly: the voice of the poet Thomas Hardy, 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 fire in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek, mild creatures where

They knelt 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.

–Thomas Hardy, “The Oxen” 

It’s a magical time, this night of thin walls, when we ask “Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear?”

So let us give ear to the voices of the blessed dead, and the song of the angels. Let us use what we have, and strive to sound our own notes in the great Song, and make the world better if we can, and know that they are all waiting for us ahead, beside the fire, where the shadows and the tears are gone.

“Now I think of gifts and things,

And all the joy that Christmas brings,

And all the happiness Christmas brings.”

“For unto you is born this day . . . a Savior.”

Finally, here’s an announcement. Our own tandemcat, a good friend of many years and frequent commenter on this blog, has started up his own. He’s off to a great start at:

mileposter.wordpress.com

I can vouch for his writing skill and his astute observations. You’re all invited to drop in there on your way home.

A blessed and merry Christmas to all!


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