Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Ghost of Christmases Past

Break, Oh dawning morning light,
and you Shepard folk, do not fright
while the angels say to you
this hapless boy will be our comfort and joy,
here to conquer Satan
and to bring us peace at last!
      --anonymous, from J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio (loose transl.)
The fourth Sunday of Advent has passed. The goose has gotten fat. We are putting pennies in the Christmas kettles on our way to last minute shopping. In the northern hemisphere--which is all I've ever known--it's stormy. Even in San Francisco it's raining this year. The spirits of the solstice, revels, and Saturnalia are in the air: we are ready to celebrate Christmas 2015... or in my case, to remember the ghosts of Christmases past. 

As a boy in Switzerland, Christmas was four weeks of heightening anticipation ending in a crescendo of unrestrained joy. Blue and red ribbons, decorative table cloths, Christmas figurines, and candles appeared from their hiding places in late November.  A large wreath with the four advent candles, muddy boots, and wet clothes ushered in the season's smells. The house filled with the aroma of cookies baking, Laeckerli, the raisins, nuts, rum and powdered sugar of Wheinachtsstollen, tangerines, nuts and cloves in Christmas stockings. 

Joy to the world, the Christ has come. There was the long cycle of waiting for Christmas eve and its presents. There was the short cycle of waiting to open our advent-calender window in our pajamas every night. Would this be the night a special star appeared in my window? There was the in-between cycle of the four Advent Sundays. There was the anticipation of Samichlaustag on December 6. Perhaps an encounter with the bearded one in town; fruits and nuts in our stockings; stories. One month every year in this altered state of consciousness for much of our childhood.

There is, of course, no evidence that Christ was born on December 25, or even in December. The celebration was fixed by the Romans. Perhaps the church chose that date to coincide with several extant Roman traditions: the birthday of Sol Invictus, of Mithra, the feast of Saturnalia. Intentionally or not, Dec. 25 offered a date with a good theological basis that also would counter several pagan holidays.

We count our years from ano domini, the year that Dionisus Exiguus (a Roman monk 470-544 AD) erroneously calculated as the birth year of Christ. Exiguus used his calculation to publish a comprehensive table of Easter relative to what he fancied as the date of Christ's conception. Modern scholars, however, believe he got the date wrong by several years. The best evidence, according to Pope Benedict XVI, indicates Christ must have been born several years earlier than ano domini

The Jewish tradition I married into is not so comfortable with this ano domini terminology. Jews refer to our Gregorian calendar post ano domini as "the current era," or, when  in a generous mood, as the "common era." Unless it's our object of worship, claims of divinity make people nervous. 

By the time the Christmas tree appeared, anticipation reached fever pitch. The tree was purchased late, just one or two days before Christmas Eve so the needles would be fresh and safe for lighting 50 candles in its branches.  The creche with Mary, Joseph, the manger, baby Jesus, and the three Wise Men sat on the fireplace mantle, even if by now attention wandered to the enticingly sized and colorfully wrapped packages under the tree. 

In short, Christmas was the best holiday of the year. Family, a festive meal, we kids happy, grateful, and on our best behavior, on the receiving end of boundless love. Every outing and last minute chore a celebration and a joy; participation without obligation, without thought, yet, of those awkward thank you notes to grandparents, aunts, and uncles we would be nagged about for weeks to come. And the golden glow of 50 candles; shadows dancing in the branches and on the ceiling, a miracle indeed. 

As an adult, I've managed to capture a spark of this Christmas miracle just a few times, with a tree, a circle of friends to sing songs, play tunes, drink Prosecco, and above all, to  light those 50 candles. I've not kept it up. We haven't had a tree in years. There is the lack of belief in Christ as the savior from Satan, a savior to bring us peace at last. There is the association in my wife's family of those lights with Kristallnacht. Kristallnacht, of course, preceded Advent by a couple of weeks that year (1938) and it is not their words, but that's how I think of the discomfort the tree causes. But mainly, there is my benign neglect of the tradition.

It is surely harder to maintain that tradition as an adult than to be enraptured by it as a child. It is also harder, I'm guessing, to keep it up in San Francisco than in Thun. The "Christmas Season" hereabouts, in our empty nest, is kicked off by football and Black Friday, not by Advent and childish anticipation. The Embarcadero office towers downtown are wrapped like Christmas packages, although less than they used to be. There is a large lighted tree in Union Square, the better to shop by. Some of the stores are decorated, and there is the odd residential block that makes a spectacle, but you have to drive for miles. It's all too upbeat and over the top: more Halloween than "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" for the most part. 

We've fallen out of the habit of wishing "Merry Christmas" lest we offend. We've worked hard to ween our friends off annual gift exchanges. Christmas has become too crass, too slavish to consumption, too freighted for us adults to recapture childish rapture. It's not so much that there is a War on Christmas, as Christmas has been hollowed out and is collapsing under its own weight; hollowed out by Christ's fallen standard bearers (televangelists, hypocritical politicians, the mean-spiritedness and corruption of the Catholic Church, the irrationality of Evangelicals) and collapsing under the weight of hype and expectations of the market. 

But when I recall my childhood memories, I say "It's a Wonderful Life" and Christmas is a tradition worth saving. Its salvation must start in the home.  With our children and grandchildren. Peace, love, and understanding... from a manger... and 50 candles on a tree.  But keep that water spritzer handy. 

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