Happy New Year!
Watch this space: a new post will be coming soon!
Happy New Year!
Watch this space: a new post will be coming soon!
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!
Where to begin telling this story? I suppose it begins when I noticed a line in the literature for this year’s World Fantasy Convention to the effect of, “Some of you will certainly be interested in visiting the Winchester Mystery House.” I just about jumped out of my chair! Some years ago I’d read about the Winchester House, and it sounded delightfully bizarre. It was on my list of Places I’d Love to Visit; but I’d always thought of it with the wistful conclusion: “But when will I ever be in California? Sigh. . . .” Out of the blue, here was the chance! Here it was, just across town from the site of WFC 2009!
Coming from Japan, I’ve discovered that the thing to do is schedule my arrival at the con for Wednesday. Things on the program don’t usually start happening until Thursday afternoon or evening, so there’s a little cushion of time there which allows for delays, and if all goes well, for a leisurely trip from the airport to the hotel (this year I found my way by free bus and the Light Rail train system) — and I really like having Wednesday night to settle in and explore the hotel and the neighborhood — to watch people arrive . . . to find where different events will be held . . . to find the gift shop where I can buy postcards . . . to let the excitement build. . . .
Anyway, it occurred to me that if I was going to try to see the Winchester House (and I knew I’d forever regret it if I didn’t), the best time would be Thursday morning, so that I could enjoy being a tourist without having to miss any of the convention itself. So I asked at the Fairmont’s desk, and the night clerk got right onto her computer and figured out the very best way for me to get there at the time I wanted. She also confirmed that the place was open then. She printed out a map with instructions for me, and drew friendly circles and lines on it for emphasis.
Early the next morning, I made the brisk walk to the bus stop and got confused from square one: I wasn’t sure which side of the street to be on. When I thought I had it straightened out, I was disoriented all over again by the fact that a bus pulled up about ten minutes ahead of when it was supposed to. That never, ever happens in Niigata (unless it’s the previous bus arriving way late), so I was suspicious — but everything written above the windshield indicated that it was the bus I wanted. Still, I asked the driver. His face showed no reaction when I said I was trying to go to the Winchester Mystery House, and I thought, “Oh, boy. It’s not that well known, even to the locals.” But when I finished my question that included the number and destination of the bus, he nodded and said this was the right bus.
My next challenge was trying to figure out how to pay and where to get off. When I realized I didn’t have the right change, I asked the driver if there was a change machine. (Is that a dumb question in America? In Japan, buses have change-making machines that are separate from the hopper that takes your fare money.) He said there wasn’t, and if I didn’t have the right change, then I could ride for free. He turned out to be a lot friendlier than his stony countenance suggested. “Stop doubting yourself,” he told me. “This is the right bus. I’ll tell you exactly where to get off.” And to my surprise, he actually chatted with me for most of the way there — something that I think would be illegal in Japan. He talked about the geography and economy and culture of San Jose, and how he’d lived there all his life. Finally, he announced he was going to make a special stop for me which was very close to the Winchester House. He told me to cross the intersection just ahead, to walk straight about 500 yards, and I’d be there.
I didn’t have the $2 for the fare; I offered to give him $5 for all his help, but he wouldn’t take that. I realized I had two hundred-yen coins (about $2), which I thought he might like as a novelty, but he wouldn’t take those, either. He was just a very nice native of San Jose who wanted a visitor to have a good experience in his city.
So I got off the bus, crossed the intersection, and walked for what seemed like a good deal more than 500 yards. I was starting to worry. I didn’t see anything that looked like a Winchester Mystery House. I was expecting some stark, imposing, Dracula’s-castle-type structure dominating the horizon, but all I saw were homes, modest buildings, and a shopping mall (which the driver had also pointed out to me). A part of my mind had a pang of fear: was this some gag local bus drivers liked to play on unsuspecting tourists?–Let them off in the middle of nowhere, or in the midst of a gang war zone? But then the more philanthropic part of my mind took over and said, “No, I must be right on top of it.” I was in front of an inviting-looking diner. It was 8:30 a.m., and I knew the Winchester House opened at 9:00, so I thought the best plan was to stop in at the diner for breakfast and ask for further directions.
As I took a seat at the counter, the waitress warned me that the stool I’d chosen was kind of weird, but it was okay if I didn’t mind it. It was indeed wobbly and weird. (But I didn’t mind it.) Finding a nice-looking, reasonably-priced breakfast special, I asked for the “bacon, eggs, and toast.”
“Egg,” the waitress said. “Not ‘eggs’: egg. I just want to be clear about that.”
I said that was fine. It was a good breakfast, enlivened by the waitress’s singing, which she did (she loudly announced) because she knew it annoyed one of the waiters. I enjoyed basking in the experience of America — all these things you never see in Japan. Waitresses singing? Wobbly seats?! It may have been a singular egg, but they were generous with the coffee (another thing you don’t normally see in Japan: refills). And finally I asked where the Winchester Mystery House was.
“Right there,” the waitress said, pointing out the window. “Where those yellow flags are.”
Sure enough . . . I still didn’t see anything that looked like the Bates mansion in Psycho, but there was a ticket booth, and there were lots of signboards explaining the various available tours. The most basic Mansion Tour is $26 and takes about an hour. That was about right, I thought, for the time I had. So I looked around the gift shop until tour time, 9:15, Tour One of the day.
Our tour left from the courtyard outside the gift shop. There were three of us. You already know me; the other two were a mother and a daughter in her late twenties (I’m guessing). Our guide was a small, rotund, white-haired man who dashed ahead of us, cajoling us to keep up; whose stream of facts and anecdotes was fascinating and at times incoherent; and who frequently paused to bray with laughter at his own jokes — which often we hadn’t heard clearly enough to appreciate. I generally just grinned and nodded, which made him laugh all over again.
The house was nothing at all like I’d expected. I’ve been in homes of some very rich people, but this was nothing like any of them. I’d expected high ceilings, chandeliers, wide corridors, balconies, etc. But no — this was more like a hobbit-hole adjoining a stable adjoining an attic. . . . No one space seemed very big or grand, but the odd little rooms, passages, and stairways went on and on, round and round. Our guide floated ahead up shadowy flights and around dusky corners like a will-o’-the-wisp, his voice echoing among the boards and panes. I quickly began to see how it would be very easy to get lost in the Winchester House. There was no clear sense of direction . . . nor of particular level. We were always ascending, descending, circling around.
I suppose the story is best told in pictures, though I’ll intersperse comments as necessary. . . .
Oh! That picture above is The Door To Nowhere. On the second floor level, it opens onto a sheer drop to the ground below.
And this concludes our tour. In conclusion, a note about the floor of Mrs. Winchester’s bedroom, the one in which she died, the one at which the boxwood crescent points. (One craftsman worked for 33 years doing nothing but building, installing, and tearing up the parquet floors!) In the bedroom, the floor is laid so that the sunlight streaming through the windows appears to change the dark strips to light, and then back again, when viewed from opposite ends of the room. So, too, I think the discoveries at the Winchester House would be endless, if one had the time and inclination to observe it carefully, to watch the play of its shadows, and to listen to its whispers.
Yes, the rumors are true: most buildings in Japan do not have central heating. No basements, no furnaces, no warm-air registers, no real insulation. . . . The one winter I was halfway warm was when I lived on the north island, Hokkaido, where the structures are built for cold: the windows had double panes of glass, and a truck brought kerosene right to my door. A friend and co-worker of mine once wrote of Niigata: “Here, there are about two sweltering weeks of the year, and the rest of the time it’s freezing. But all the houses are built for those two weeks. . . .” Perish the thought that we should get too hot!
So in an effort to save on heating costs this winter, I invested in a low-end model of Japan’s traditional method of keeping warm: the kotatsu.
Most kotatsus aren’t placed halfway under a conventional desk like mine is in the above photo. I just do that to save space. I moved my computer down from the desk to the kotatsu. I sit on a legless chair called a zaisu. Your legs and feet go under the kotatsu, and the blanket fits around your waist. There’s a dial to adjust the heat up or down.
And here’s a recently-discovered glimpse of the past, courtesy of our friend Chris:
Okay, that’s quite enough of that. I don’t think there’s anything more to be said for right now. I’ll just leave quietly. Back to business next time!