Humbug." This may be the year when there is no Christmas. But
to remain open-minded, let me sub-title this "...or the
Ghosts of Christmases Past"
Lately Scrooge seems to me pretty much of a regular guy, and by this I mean the man as he was before his transformation by the three ghosts. I can really empathize with the old gentleman. This may be the year that Christmas ceases to exist - ceases to have meaning for me. And, after all, meaning is the essence of ritual - of tradition. We make them up because we need them; we create them to serve some function in our lives, to fill some void, to make good some deficit. And when that stops, when the purpose seems to have become detached from the event, the whole infrastructure looses its imagined reality - the whole thing, destabilized by some erosive or explosive incident, comes crashing down, like the towers this year in New York City.
Well, if ever I am to be dissuaded of this feeling, of this loss of meaning, it will begin as it did with our hero, Ebeneezer Scrooge; it will begin with the Ghosts of Christmases Past. So that's where this little tale is going next.
My images of Christmases past are classics - something right out of Norman Rockwell and Washington Irving. My first and perhaps richest recollections are rooted in my early childhood - the late 1940s - the post-war years. We lived in a small, upstate New York village. A picture-book village. It is so now, and was even more so then. My grandmother, who lived with us, had come from Germany in her twenties, and brought with her, therefore, some of the traditions and the trappings of the "Old Country". Considering that 19th century Germany was in many ways the heartland of the classic Christmas, this was no small contribution to the holiday in our house - in my childhood.
That mix - the 1940s, a rural village, and European traditions - conspired to create a unique cultural experience for me. This was an experience that I, unfortunately, took as the norm. I say "unfortunately" because I have always since thought that every child, no matter where they lived nor when, even up to this day, must see this same glorious image when they think of "Christmas". And although this happy coincidence provided me with an unbeatable memory, the unfortunate fact is that it provided me with an unmatchable experience - and it was bound to be all downhill from there by comparison.
And downhill it has been. Sometime in the 1960s, what had come to be known as "Christmas" - a brief two-week period of snow, tree trimming, presents and egg nog - got redefined as "The Holidays". Perhaps this was meant to encompass New Year's, an occasion inextricably linked to Christmas as part of the old mid-winter festival it had come to displace, centuries before. Perhaps it was just meant to be inclusive - to make room for non-Christians in our increasingly diverse society - primarily those of Jewish conviction. It was not considered "appropriate" any more to wish one a "Merry Christmas" straight out and without guilt. "Happy Holidays" was now the greeting, and it did broaden - or perhaps dilute - the idea that had always been there. It was the beginning of the end.
It was the 1970s, I think, when "The Holidays" evolved into "The Holiday Season." I believe the motivation here was a bit more transparent. It used to be taboo to run Christmas ads or put up Christmas decorations or stock the shelves with Christmas merchandise until after Thanksgiving. It was mere hours after, but after nonetheless. These were different holidays, after all, and just as you do not eat dessert before your salad, you didn't start celebrating Christmas until the Thanksgiving turkey was at least partially digested.
But merchants were already recognizing the potential loss of profits that restricting sales to only the five weeks before "The Holidays" implied, and so the invention of "The Holiday Season", which some might imagine was meant to include the joy of the Thanksgiving feast, also gave license to putting up decorations, stocking the shelves and running endless commercials in the media enticing "Christmas" shoppers to the stores - not weeks, but even months before the sacred day.
Like a feeble last-ditch defense against an invading hoard, the society now seemed to continuously retreat; to fall back to temporarily defensible positions - like Halloween as the threshold for the "Holiday Season", But that too, eventually, fell to the relentless attack. Now it seems that there are no limits and no bounds. This year we saw, a full week before Christmas, when in "olden days" people still rushed about buying trimmings and cards and presents, the stores already having out the Valentine's Day merchandise - Valentine's day before Christmas! That is a 50 day incursion!
I expect that the "Holiday Season", like some sluggish racing car on the annual track of time, could be "lapped" by itself, and we could see the commercial push for next Christmas start even before this Christmas is over.
And commercial it has increasingly become. What, in Victorian times, was a modest exchange of a few tiny gifts when visiting friends and family during Christmas Day, now has become an orgy of buying. Sometime in the 1990s, as I recall, "The Holiday Shopping Season" was born, in recognition of this fact. The equal billing given to "Holiday" and "Shopping" redefines the celebration and puts the emphasis indeed where it now belongs - on buying huge presents, enhancing the profits of merchants and malls, and this season underwriting the damaged American economy with what has become an act of patriotism and basic citizenship. And Christmas morning has become just an excuse for given all these gifts away. Even that event of mutual exchange has lost much of its definition, diluted by the new Christmas tradition of "returns and exchanges" days - new rituals that produce a new sort of celebration.
That pretty much brings us up to date. The 20th century did a lot of damage to Christmas and I am not even speaking about the substitution of Santa Claus for Christ and toy-making elves for the 12 apostles. That doesn't really bother me much. As far as I am concerned, the old Victorian festival, with its hefty dose of pagan ritual and symbolism - the evergreens, mistletoe, and wassail - is a much better and more satisfying holiday than the pale and shallow orgy of check writing and card swiping one sees today, as it is of the old, dry religious configuration. I much prefer the dark and woodsy sense of mid-winter mystery - a festival created in the cold short days to assuage the fear and displace the anxiety of the long nights, limited rations and lack of proof of the fertility of the land come spring. I prefer this with all its dark underside and hard edge, to the brightly lit, noisy, overheated and supposedly jubilant rush to church and mall. In fact, as an American in the 21st century, I am ambivalent about which to run to for my cultural comfort and validation - church or mall. Both places leave me unfulfilled and depressed.
I expect, in the coming years, and not too many at that I suspect, we will see "The Holiday Shopping Season" become "The Shopping Holiday Season", a mere word-order adjustment, and then, in a final burst of "truth in advertising" - "The Shopping Holiday". The circle will be completed. Evolution fulfills itself. Survival of the fittest. All worship our Holy Savior and Master(card).
Watching this inevitable redefinition of what was to me once so pure and special is what prompted me to consider Ebeneezer my new best friend. "Bah, Humbug." Was he perhaps also embittered by watching his glistening memories of an idyllic world of his youth tarnished and replaced by the disappointing and overly commercial urban reality of his declining years? We don't have to ask that question, because we know the answer. Recall the scenes presented again to him by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Joyous scenes. Happy memories. Good times. And contrast that with the grim, money grubbing realities of industrial London in the 1840s. A miserable exchange to be sure.
So I join him in the sentiment - "Humbug!"
But it wasn't always a humbug.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was snowing - always snowing, and a couple weeks (at most) before Christmas, we would drive over the forested hills to Oneonta - the closest place to shop for Christmas presents. This journey only took us from a village of 300 to a "city" of under 3,000. With our modest lists in hand, we would gather up the few things needed. I would go with my Mom to get my Dad's present, and go with my Dad or Grandmother to get my Mom's, and so on.
But the most spectacular part of the trip to Oneonta was the visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus. They were ensconced, for the Holiday - I mean, for "Christmas" - in the basement of Bresee's Department Store - down where all the toys were, appropriately. And this was the real Santa, not some store Santa hired off the unemployment line. It was 1948 or 49 and it would be years before I would see Santa look-alikes around the city, or hear the perfectly plausible explanation that they were "Santa's helpers."
But Santa and Mrs. Claus, for some unfathomable reason, chose to come only to Bresee's Department Store in Oneonta, New York, on Christmas, and I never questioned why. How do I know they were real? Because these were real people - he with a real white beard and flowing white hair, and she with real wavy white hair, and both in red clothes trimmed with fur.
Clearly now, I have gradually come to accept that perhaps this was just an old couple who looked that part, naturally, and who, while life clung to their existence, chose to provide this unsurpassable service to the children of this piece of the world every year. I wish I knew the whole story - but probably I prefer that no-one tell me. For as a kid, in these years after World War II and before Korea, I had the inestimable privilege of meeting Santa and his wife, if ever there was such a pair in the universe. No amount of stand-in Clauses wearing fake beards and off-the-rack red suits can dim that recollection, or replace it.
Then there was the tree - the wonderful tree. A couple days before Christmas, my Dad and I would get in the old car and head off to some farmhouse he had heard about - literally over the mountain and through the woods. And there, from among a half dozen trees the man had cut and stacked for sale beside his driveway, we would pick out one and home we would go - with the treasure tied to the roof. I remember one tree cost us $1.25, and that was a prime tree. Of course in those days my Dad made $75 a week, so in today's terms, that tree cost the equivalent of $15 - still a bargain in today's market.
The next day it would go into the old iron tree stand and up it would be set in the parlor - what we called the "front room". We had an old house and this room was separate from the regular living room. It was a room used rarely, except on special occasions. The most special occasion of all was Christmas, when the room became, by virtue of holding the tree, an integral part of the living space for the duration of the Holidays.
My father's job, before any of us could hang a single ornament, was to string the lights. And such lights have not been seen - or probably been legal - for 50 years. These were the old sets of big bulbs - heavy green wires and giant Bakelite sockets with metal clips to hold each socket to a branch. The weight of them was enormous! None of these puny twinkle sets for us in the 40s. The bulbs were screwed into each socket through a concave shiny metal reflector - some round and some in petal shapes. These threw the light from the big blue, green and red lights out into the room, and created more surfaces to glisten and glimmer. And at the top, as part of the last heavy string, a multi-armed metal star-shaped contraption, that held a half dozen white lights, got crammed onto the spike at the top to crown the effect.
And when they were plugged in - what a glorious sight. I don't know if we all went "Oooh and Aaah" but I think it must have been like the scene in Tiny Tim's house when the Christmas Pudding was brought flaming to the table. It was the most anticipated of the Christmas rituals, and once the lights were lit, we all knew the trimming of the tree could now begin in earnest.
Of course there could be complications. These were the old light sets - the ones where if one bulb burned out, they all went out, and the process of clambering over the tree screwing and unscrewing bulbs to find the bad one could take what seemed like hours. But it was part of the adventure, and anyone who lived through a Christmas with these old lights will know what I mean.
And then the whole family would pitch in to trim the great tree, as my Dad would bring down from the attic the ancient, weathered cardboard boxes of heirloom ornaments. Each had been carefully wrapped the year before in left-over tissue paper, and slowly unwrapping each treasure was like Christmas morning in itself - a hundred mysteries, nearly forgotten, to rediscover - dozens of stories embedded in each ornament as it was remembered and examined and carefully hung on the branches.
Oh to have that box today, full and intact. For I recall, in the late 1940s, it contained wonders that today would merit preservation in a museum. Some were German hand-bown glass that my Grandmother had carefully brought from the old country. Some were "new" (for the 1930s and early 40s) handmade glass ornaments from eastern Europe - perhaps purchased during the war years, or even before. Frosted glass fruits, tiny bells of glass that actually rang, round glistening balls of all sizes and descriptions.
The most precious of all was the little hand-blown house - Santa's house, we were told, and believed it. The positioning of this was most carefully considered.
And when the last ornament was hung and all the empty clutches of tissue were pushed back into the boxes to be used again, & again, then came the ultimate act of transformation - the tinsel. Yes, we were dedicated tinsel hangers. And not just hangers, we were precision hangers. Each strand was carefully separated, often by hanging the compacted package of tinsel over the back of a chair and carefully separating the mass into what seemed endless subdivisions of strands. And then each individual strand was carefully hung - positioned over each branch at intervals of about a inch apart and hanging straight down. So we had to get it right. No tossers or clumpers in this family.
The end result was an array of cascading silver that my father called "icicles". This was not to be confused with the twisted glass icicles we also hung on the tree, along with the little glass clip-on birds with the fiber tails, that kept coming loose, or the multitude of red berries, in pairs of two on wires that were folded over branches to complete the effect. And the effect was magnificent. I never considered the tree was truly finished until the last strand was hung. Even decades later, when I would visit a house where they did not tinsel their tree, it made me uneasy - like it wasn't really a Christmas tree. Such bland trees looked rustic and barren - and carelessly done. The millions of silvery reflections produced the magic I remember. Perhaps it was the loss of that shimmering illusion, so unlike anything in nature, that upset me when I saw these "naked" trees.
And this was not the modern tinsel - mylar and plastic. This was the old lead tinsel. Do doubt poisonous to handle, heavy and more of a pewtery shine than true silver. But anyone my age, who got an electric train set for Christmas back then, knows that nothing gives as much pleasure on Christmas Day as laying strands of real lead tinsel across the tracks and watching it sizzle and burn when you turn on the juice.
And then there were the chains - fragile hand blown long glass beads strung on string to produce wonderful designs and patterns. These all were German or at least European, I am sure. In the end most of these old ornaments all succumbed to the very use that made them precious - the chains through attrition, having lost so many of the thin beads that they ceased to resemble their intended forms; the balls crashed to their doom, a few each year. Even the little carved wooden German animals that were set up in the folds of the white sheet around the base of the tree - to me great snow covered hills and valleys to be inhabited by the tiny wooden houses of the Christmas village - even these wonderful little cows and sheep and horses lost legs, ears and horns in the war against time - and the grandkids. But when it was done, in the quiet and dark of the first evening - after dinner - I would go into the parlor and gaze up into the worlds within that tree. The caves and alcoves of green, illuminated with the colors of those huge bulbs, splashed with the reflections bouncing from ornament to ornament, shimmering with the thousand strands of tinsel that fluttered slightly in the air. It seemed to have reached to the sky, and I could sit there lost inside it for hours. This represented more than any other of the rituals the true essence of Christmas.
Now, many, many years later, I am told our trees were little things, often put up on a wooden box to give them height. They maybe were less than five feet tall. It can't be. There is no way what I recall - those endless expanses of color and mystery - could have existed in such a small reality.
The decorations did not end there. Red cloth poinsettias on wires, with yellow berries, were hung from thumbtacks in every window; garlands of evergreen graced tables and sideboards; and the Christmas log came out - a section of white birch with holes drilled in it for candles and some sparkles pasted on. This was set within the greens and long red candles stuck into it for the crowning treatment for the sideboard, or in earlier years the main table. And in later years, the two carved German candles I brought back from my mis-adventures in Germany in 1962 were always carefully set out - un-lit - next to the telephone. And on the TV, a sculpture my little brother made in clay. He said it was supposed to be a bear, but my mother insisted it was a madonna and child, and you cannot look at it now and see anything else in it. So it also has become an icon of Christmas.
And days before, my Dad had strung the outdoor lights - strands of the same big bulbs around the porch posts. It was most satisfying on a cold wintry night, to be coming down the street from Uptown and see the blue, red and green lights outlining our porch and knowing good times and great feelings were awaiting inside. And with the tree done and all in order within the house, it was time to look outward - to engage with the rest of our tiny village of 350 souls in the community celebration that made small town life special back then.
At some point before Christmas Eve, we would all go to the church to hear, and sing, the carols. These were the real, traditional carols - none of that "Rock Around the Christmas Tree" jazz, or even "Rudolph". And there was the pageant of the manger scene during the Bible readings. The religious core of the festival was thus carried forth.
With that out of the way, and this is not to imply it was not considered one of the grander aspects of the whole holiday experience, we turned to the more secular enjoyments of Christmas Eve. On the evening before Christmas, around 7 o'clock as I recall, everyone in the village, or at least those with children, were summoned "Uptown", often dragging the youngest on sleds if the weather had cooperated, to the community celebration at the tree. And such a tree it was - a huge evergreen that was actually growing in the park at the Overlook - a late 19th century crescent of walks and walls that defined the top of the town. I can't say if the tree had been planted there on purpose once, in the interests of this annual event, or if it just happened to be there by nature. But there it was, covered in lights - a truly glorious thing to behold, in the darkness of Christmas Eve.
And there was the village Santa. I say "Village Santa" because I think I knew he was not the real one - the one in the toy section of the basement of Bresee's Department Store. We children all lined up to greet this Santa, while his assistants dug down into a great cardboard box and brought out for each of us a red mesh stocking filled with goodies - an orange at the bottom, candy canes and, I think, a small toy or Christmas comic book. This was the first of the gifts and the beginning of the excitement of getting surprises - anticipated but unknown surprises. There was not a hint of commerce in it - no one hawking photographs with Santa for $6.99. I think the volunteer fire department put the thing on and it reaped in memories and sense of community many times the investment of time and donations that went into it.
Then it was off to home, and the young ones were given cookies and milk and tucked off to bed so Santa could come. In our later years, my brother and I, if particularly excited and demanding, would get permission to select and open just one present on Christmas Eve. I guess in spite of Santa bringing the bulk of the presents in the night, the ones marked "From Aunt Lottie and Uncle Eggert" or "From Cousin Doris", had come by a different means, and were already arranged around the base of the tree. I always imagined this violation of the sanctity of Christmas Morning would put in my possession some marvelous toy and endless hours of entertainment. But the selected present was invariably a box of handkerchiefs or a set of underwear. On a good year, it might be a flannel shirt with cowboys and Indians on it. On the influence of that disappointment, we were often glad to be off to bed and hasten the arrival of the good presents expected in the morning.
Our first clue, next morning, that Santa had come, as the tree and gifts were in the parlor and not immediately visible from the bottom of the stairs, was that the offering of cookies and milk we had set out for him the night before had been accepted. Only a few crumbs would be left as evidence, and in later years I took some pride in crafting a completely convincing post-Santa Christmas cookie plate, with just the right scatter of crumbs and fragments. Of course I had been initiated along the way into the secrets of the cookie plate, and having eaten them myself the night before, I felt I had participated in a sort of pagan communion with the Spirit of St. Nicholas. But I always felt a little twinge of guilt, eating the cookies left for Santa, as if perhaps he was real, and I was violating that reality and depriving him of his snack.
Christmas morning was a grand event. Once all the treasures had been revealed, and the wrapping papers had all been bagged and removed from the parlor, we carefully placed each and every gift, the underwear included, around the base of the tree. And during the day, and into the evening, each in turn would be selected, explored, played with and admired, creating little mini-events - each with its moment of discovery, its period of enjoyment, and the inevitable aftermath of "what else is under the tree".
And the food. That is a whole story in itself. My Mother and Grandmother cooked and baked for weeks, it seemed. There were tins of cookies all over the house - of all descriptions. Each box was filled with layers on layers, each separated with sheets of waxed paper. The cut-out sugar cookies in all shapes and colors, the German pfeffernuise, that tasted of pepper and spice, and had to be eaten in moderation. The wonderful Christmas stollen my grandmother baked, tins of dates, sweet and sugary in themselves, and others split and stuffed with almonds and dusted in coconut. And fruit cake. I never understood the public aversion to fruitcake. It was always rich and wonderful.
And then there was the year my Mom made those rum balls - brown and tasty, using rum extract. I am sure the alcohol had no effect, but it was nearly scandalous, in a strict Baptist household, to even have a confection with the word "rum" in it inside the walls. And we had great fun pretending each one made us tipsy, and that these were our favorite Christmas treat. I think they were kept in my favorite tin - the box covered all over with pictures of ships from World War One - strange battleships and cruisers with those snouty bows, big guns, and each identified by name. That box was an entertainment in itself.
And I recall the carols sung in our house were often as not sung in German - at least in the background as my Grandmother's frail voice paralleled with her own German lyrics the songs on the old records we played. There was the winter I got an album called "Christmas in Germany" - carols recorded in Berlin in German with the church bells of that city in the background between tracks. Grandma would sit and listen to that and sometimes sing along. One can only wonder the memories of Christmases past that brought to her mind - in the Old Country.
On Christmas Day evening, we were invited to carol singing in the home of the village doctor, just up the street. This was a somewhat formal affair, by comparison, as the Doctor's family represented a sort of upper-crust in the village. He actually listened to opera and classical music on Sunday afternoons on his "Hi-Fi", one of the few in town, while the rest of us were lucky to have a decent radio. But it was an event that in later years came to symbolize the best of the concept of sharing and community.
The house was always decorated, with tables of greenery and red candles, trays of cookies, a punch bowl filled with egg nog, fruitcakes, and of course, carol singing around the piano. They had a grand piano in the living room, which in itself set them apart from the rest of the town, and it was around this that the eight or ten of us invited, stood and sang our hearts out.
I cannot hear the carol "Good King Wenceslaus" without being swept back to those evenings, when the doctor's wife played, the doctor took the part of the King, his daughter the part of the Page, and the rest of us chiming in on the chorus. It was only for a few of us adjacent neighbors, but it represented an effort and a commitment to what they thought was important - a commitment to friends, to neighbors, and to the season. And in this effort they captured and preserved, in my memories, the essence of the Victorian Christmas, in an age before the glitz of the post war era, with its electronics, and "batteries required", TVs, PCs and the "Holiday Shopping Season" had yet gotten much of a foothold. I value this memory, as much as most from that time, and as role models, the doctor and his family have more than done their part.
Well, that about sums up the Ghosts of Christmases Past. It was a story that I have told and retold in my head for decades, and to have finally set it all down feels like a weight of responsibility is lifted - kind of like Scrooge felt the morning after his ghostly revelations.
I guess carrying this story around in my head was a burden in an age when oral history - the retelling of traditions in order to preserve them - is not thought of much. Having set it down, I now feel like I have passed it on, and the burden can be lifted.
Maybe that is what lies at the core of Christmas in the end - traditions, sharing, family and friends, and preservation. It isn't all "Humbug" after all. I still say "Bah" to the commercialism, and this year to that obnoxious overlay of rampant and shallow patriotism, that has substituted the colors red white and blue for the traditional lights of the season. But for the rest, I guess, like Scrooge, I am now looking for a boy in the street to go running to fetch me the Christmas goose for a shilling. And if he hurries back, I'll give him "Half a Crown".
Time is valuable, after all. And now, in my 60th year, I find it is suddenly all about time, and time is the enemy. We can't hold onto it, the past that is, but we can bring forward the past and preserve it as part of the present, and that is the best that we can do.
It occurs to me, now, that in the latter part of our lives, Christmas is mostly about the memories we created in the former part of our lives. It is about reliving the rituals of mid-winter festivals - Christmases past - that were significant benchmarks of how we got to where we are now. That Christmas Present is like the unwrapping of all those antique ornaments in the old cardboard box my father brought down from the attic - each a treasure and each with its own special story attached to it - just waiting to be retold - to be preserved by being remembered.
And it occurs to me that I have already known this, for at least the past twenty-two years, for what else has it been about when I crafted Christmas ornaments all these years since our daughter was born; each carved out of the butt of the previous year's Christmas tree. Each ornament is indicative of some special aspect of that year past, of that year's occurrences, of that 12 months of our history as a family.
And so, recounting the rich experiences of each past Christmas, lived in our youth, becomes the purpose of brightening and transforming the all too gray reality that seems to have become our approaching older years.
Was not that, after all, the purpose that Dickens assigned to the Ghost of Christmas Past, and was not the recollection and vicarious re-living of these past Christmas experiences the essential first step in Scrooge's enlightenment?