December 23, 2013
IN THE QUIET JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS
MONTPELIER, VT – Mother and I got back home an hour or so before dark. I picked the least icy line up the driveway and slipped and spun up through the spruces. Straight ahead of us, at the corner of the barn, about half a dozen wild turkeys looked up from their gleaning in the last of the cracked corn – they can clean that frozen spot absolutely free of even a single half-kernel – with what seemed more like irritation than alarm. We stopped outside the back door. They watched to see if we’d get out; when we did, they stalked stiffly, almost comically, into the concealment of the brush between us and the old beaver pond. They’d shortly begin to look for a sheltered spot to roost for the night. I wished them well and spread a couple more coffee cans of corn.
Even without our haunting the shopping centers and big boxes, December’s still been a madhouse of activity around here. From Boston to Durham to Burlington to Fairfield, Vermont (I didn’t make that one because of the ice storm), and finally to Hanover, I’ve piled up more mileage than a college president. But after last evening’s A Christmas Carol performance and a good night’s sleep, a very pleasant, solstice-induced, melatonin-enhanced narcosis has settled in. I’m ready to wrap a present or two, visit the bank and post office in my Santa Claus tuque, and read again the improbable, but majestic and familiar King James version of the old story of two unsheltered travelers, a birth in a stable, shepherds, angels, and Oriental astrologers. I’ll follow that with Martin Luther’s 1522 translation from the Koiné in the Neues Testament und Psalmen that Grampa Lange gave me many years ago.
North of us, according to the media, ice-encased branches and toppling trees are pulling down power lines. Headed south toward Hanover yesterday, we passed convoys of orange boom trucks headed toward the front like military vehicles. The East Coast is being hammered by the same storm that lately ravaged the Midwest. Living here is like living at the wrong end of a bowling alley: We never know till a storm gets here whether it’s a strike, a spare, or a split.
At the moment here in the capital of Vermont, it’s a split, which has – to torture the metaphor, spared us. The wind is almost still, the air pregnant with incipient fog, and a light rain drips from the eaves, augmented by melting snow. If you’ve ever camped in the winter woods, you know what’s coming next: a hard subzero freeze. My creeper-studded boots are parked by the back door for my occasional forays to the barn; but the sandman has just come by, and for the moment the yard is a beach. Time to get out and get going. Christmas is less than 40 hours away.
We hear a lot, during these days of deep divisions in our republic, about a “War on Christmas.” Large businesses that depend upon the good will of clients and customers of faiths other than Christianity, have taken to using “Happy Holidays” as their greeting, and decorating “Holiday Trees.” This has inspired many Christians – almost all of them from denominations that favor or require uniformity of confession – to decry the disappearance of the good old-fashioned celebration that made America great and unique.
The problem is, I think, that we hear too much these days. I can recall pre-radio days in our house, and my parents’ shock to read in the paper of FDR’s death. Good old-fashioned America wasn’t wired and connected as it is today; and before we became able to share anonymously our most outrageous opinions, we did perhaps derogate each other (Remember Norman Mclean’s Presbyterian father’s remark, in A River Runs Through It, about Methodists? – ”Baptists who can read.”), but at least we left each other alone. Now a lot of us are at one another like ferrets in a bag.
It probably would surprise many of the “traditional Christmas” proponents to learn that the supposedly Biblical holiday is no more a tradition in the United States than monogamy in the Old Testament. Our immigrant Puritans, who quit Great Britain because of real or imagined popish influences in the Church of England, forbade Christmas celebrations in their colonies, observing the day as a solemn fast in commemoration of the birth of Christ. The Christmas tree and Yule log came over (in my grandmother’s phrase) “from the other side” with the Scandinavians and Teutons. Historian Ronald Hutton has argued that religious observations of Christmas were fading by the turn of the 19th century, and the “modern” celebration as “a family-centered festival of generosity” is a result of the immense popularity of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
We’ve come a long way from the happy scenes of the Cratchit family’s six kids in a four-roomed house; from the Christmas feast at the genteel town house of Scrooge’s nephew Fred; and the paintings of Norman Rockwell, which I can attest from experience depict family dinners as they really used to be. Families’ apples roll farther from the trees these days. Over the river and through the woods in a horse-drawn sleigh gives way to Delta and Southwest. Fewer than ever of us follow our parents’ vocations and, having reached maturity, share their values. Christmas for perhaps most Americans – if news items are to be believed – is a fast-paced big-box shopping spree punctuated with traffic jams in crowded parking lots and high-stress efforts to make everything perfect. If there’s a war on Christmas, that’s where it’s being waged.
Consider how it started: with one of our simplest and most beautiful stories, of a tiny, tremulous light kindled in the darkness of a deeply troubled world. Look around and consider what we’ve done with that story since then. Google a YouTube video of Christmas shopping and follow it by listening to “Silent Night” – in the original German, if you can understand it. In just a few brief sentences it says beautifully all you need to know and feel about Christmas.