I’ve always believed in the redemptive power of Christmas. I’ve had some bad Christmases, but I never stopped believing that some star would shine out of whatever bad sky hung over me.
It’s a cliché to say that Christmas was magical to me as a child. But it wasn’t the gifts or Nutcracker spectacles that captured my imagination. I did wish for the dark fascination of a Drosselmeyer sorcerer-uncle in my life. Instead, I had my Uncles Jack and Bob, a Madison Avenue ad man and a school principal, respectively. Drosselmeyer they most emphatically were not.
It was the metaphor that engaged me. Light in darkness.
Religion was at the center of my metaphor. Midnight Mass was the apogee of Christmas for me. The candle-lit church and high mass with incense. And above all, the music – the glory of the organ breaking out with “O Come All Ye Faithful” — and the carols that alluded to hidden mystery: “In the Bleak Mid Winter,” “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” “Lo, How a Rose Tree Blooming.”
As a child, I was told that Easter was a more important holiday than Christmas. But my gut told me something different. Part of it was the hidden-ness of the exact process by which babies arrived in the world – even un-virginal births. It was such a mystery to me that, by comparison, the Resurrection didn’t seem exceptional.
But at a deeper level it seemed to me that bringing back to life what had once been alive wasn’t as extraordinary as creating life where there had been none. Later, when my own son was born, I felt the same sense of marvel that here was life where there had been nothing.
The Christmas Tree is a sacrament in my personal theology of metaphor. Like Charles Dickens, I believe in the Christmas Tree as the Tree of Life and hung on it are the ornaments of life lived.
Because life is an uncharted geography, my Christmas Tree has a random and unpredictable look, excessive and unbalanced. Like a drawer full of mis-matched socks, there are icons of events in my life, memories of trips taken long ago, connections with people who are now gone.
Intricately painted pottery ornaments from a trip to New Mexico ten years ago. An icon of the Virgin from an upstate New York Ukrainian festival I visited in college. Nutcrackers that dance from the ballet I took my son to when he was six.
A tiny Radio Flyer sleigh that decorated a long forgotten gift. An angel from a friend dying of AIDS. Grade school ornaments of cardboard and poster paint made by my son. A lucky paper lantern from Japan. A delicate pink glass sand dollar from last summer’s visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium with my son – now 20 – and his girlfriend.
But this year, seeing the Tree overwhelmed me with melancholy for all the years past, all the time gone. Each of my cherished ornaments seemed radioactive with memories of happy times lost to me forever.
Last night, I turned on the tree lights and sat in the dark to watch them sparkle. One old-fashioned fragile ornament was slipping off its branch. When I reached up to adjust it, it shook loose and hit the floor, where it bounced once, and then shattered.
For a moment, it became a hundred mirrors, each reflecting a miniature Christmas tree. And then it was just a scatter of broken glass.
I said a requiem for its shimmering shards, oddly at peace with their demise. After breathing in the quiet, I got the broom and swept them up.
As I pushed the shards into the dustpan, it seemed like I was sweeping away a cloud and a new thought came to me: And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
And I wondered what new ornaments of life lived the coming year would bring me.