Charles Dickens knew how to keep Christmas, at least in fiction. How are we doing in real life? The news is enough to make us run to fantasy. We could start by going to a video of English choirboys singing “Once in Royal David’s City” on YouTube of Kings College, Cambridge and see that some people somewhere are keeping up traditions. I like to remember Pee Wee Herman, of all people, who said, “Christmas is the time when people act different.” or something to that effect. But with the long history of the news blowing up our belief in mankind, it is hard to watch any angelic boys caroling in a cathedral and not imagine how they really are when not in cassocks. It is hard, almost impossible, not to be cynical today. Still, I cannot help but wonder what happened when we were not all connected to the news and the reality of clashing cultures and those who invade our relative peace with guns and knives. I wonder…It is a time for wondering….in the midst of a bleak winter can our hearts be scoured of bitterness?.
Is there some little hovel somewhere with a young mother and her new baby and a loving father who will never leave his responsibilities? Is there a little cottage in the mountains with children sitting around a fragrant spruce tree lit with colored lights and presents waiting to be opened along with the giggles and hot chocolate with marshmallows? What fantasy, unlike today with news of innocent bystanders being blown away by gunshot and prisoners in basements losing their lives day by day to some pervert. No, the news has a way of ruining fantasy. It gets harder to wonder anymore. How, I ask the ghost of Dickens’ Christmas Past, are we to celebrate Christmas for what it really is, and not feel “less-than” because we didn’t scramble through crowds in time to get some little piece of junk for someone we know will give us some little piece of junk and then we can all feel as though we accomplished the tasks that TV tells us are important.
Dickens knew that memories of past Christmases can be a respite, an escape from the terrors of our time. I awoke this morning thinking of long ago when my boarding school, St. Anne’s in Arlington Heights, Massachusetts, put on the annual Christmas show that never changed year to year. We rehearsed for what seemed months before. Sister Ruth would keep us quiet and at attention while Sister Julian directed us in carols printed on long paper scrolls to be sung behind the curtain of the tableau. It took lots of patience to corral us all into something resembling a Christmas pageant where every one of us had a part. I remember, since it was a girls’ school, Joseph’s fake beard, a big handmade quilted donkey for Mary to sit on with her baby, and a glorious Angel Gabriel with huge gauze wings and a golden halo. Only seniors had the honor of playing those parts. After our tableau that ran through the major points of the Christmas story with full choral accompaniment, there was the traditional procession of Christians down through the ages beginning with King Alfred (Sister Ruth was from England) and ending with a nun holding the hand of a little student wearing the red-hooded cape we all wore to church until we were big enough to get a blue cape. I remember I learned about poets when I was nine and I was Caedmon, the first Christian poet, and once I was St. Agnes holding a little lamb made of cotton balls. I was in that procession to the music of Schubert’s unfinished symphony (like Christian history) for seven Christmas pageants, and in my senior year I had the honor of being Mary on the donkey. Well, I did become a poet, but nothing approaching sainthood.
I can also drum up memories of Christmas brief vacations at “home” in rented rooms, like the one in Mrs. Burroughs boarding house where my mother finally had a bathroom en suite. I remember the painful wait for Christmas morning to open my one small present– a little ballerina pin with enamel and rhinestones. What would a little girl today think of one tiny present in a little white box and not a Barbie with a wardrobe, car and dollhouse?
Children do not know they are poor unless somebody tells them about children who are rich, and today we have television to not only tell, but show. All the time when kids aren’t playing video games and the news or ET are on, they are reminded of how the movie stars live dragging their children off to shop or their villas in Europe. Even in commercials mothers are washing enormous kitchen floors or feeding their pets in houses most kids have never seen in their lives. Was it Buddha who said “Comparison is the beginning of all sorrow”? Is it any wonder our youth are full of anger turning into rage? Is it strange that there is a TV show called “The Haves and the Have Nots”? Can it be any more obvious even to the most ignorant of persons that everything is more and more about money?
So let’s numb ourselves a bit today and tomorrow with a bit of the old days, old traditions, old wishes. Do you think if we try hard enough it may just be a little bit real? Do you think we are maybe poisoning our kids by forgetting the past? Shall I cling with all my might to Christmas as it is in story books? As it was when I was growing up in Massachusetts where every year our English teacher, “Missy,” would take out A Bird’s Christmas Carol and The Other Wise Man and read to us in class?
Remember what the Ghost of Christmas Present says to Scrooge about the two distressed urchins hiding under his robe? One is Poverty and one is Ignorance. The poor child is one thing, but, the ghost, (Dickens) says be most careful of this one–ignorance! Poverty can be helped, but Ignorance will destroy the peace in the world we all want so desperately…And now we have the “dumbing down” or the “numbing down” phase of history in America. Do you feel it? What to do as one among many? Why do we allow TV to regulate our wisdom?
Give books for Christmas. Real ones. Paper and ink books. With hard covers. Paperbacks. Poetry. Classics. Something small enough to hold on to! Or paint a picture for a child and frame it. Something they can keep near and dear to their hearts. Spread the joy of art and inspiration and, yes, even wishing for things to be ideal. Turn off the TV and escape into the world you make for yourselves for a day or two…or better yet for the twelve days of Christmas. When I was quite young, I remember clearly when my mother taught me “the secret of life, ” the one thing that everyone wants more than anything else, the pearl of great price: peace of mind. At Christmas we have a little respite where we can “act different” and make some happy memories that can last a lifetime. Surprisingly, mine have.
May God bless us everyone!