Monday, December 24, 2007

How Christmas Feels

I don't really mind 80-degree weather in December. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I prefer it. I can sit on the deck and read the Sunday paper. I can take the dogs rambling wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I can get out of bed without gritting my teeth in preparation for the feel of cold tile on my bare feet.

The problem with 80-degree weather in December, however, is – as everyone was sighing last week – "It just doesn't feel like Christmas."

It was looking like Christmas, of course. Wreaths with red velvet bows. Twinkling lights. Holly and poinsettias. The ubiquitous Christmas sweater.

So it was that into the contradiction between sight and sense that I woke up last Saturday to the sound of rain hitting the windows like bird shot. On Sunday it was the wind that greeted my awakening. On Monday it was the silence of hard cold.

I stood at the door and looked outside at the frost wrapped over the landscape – in some places shiny and slick like aluminum foil, in others clear and wavy like Saran wrap. The whole world was white and pale gray and silver. Pulling my overcoat and gloves from the hall closet before rushing outside to warm up the car, I thought, "Now it feels like Christmas."

The funny thing is, of course, that most of the Christmases I've known have been nothing like iconic Currier and Ives prints. Only once can I remember snow anywhere near December 25 on the calendar. Old photographs of me and Keith and our cousins playing outside with our Christmas toys show us in nothing warmer than a sweatshirt and plenty of them show us with bare arms.

The difference between romance and reality isn't limited to weather issues. There's that whole magazine- and Food Network-encouraged delusion of the formal meal where the family dons its nicest clothes and gathers around a table set with Grandmother's china and silver and everyone comments on the deliciousness of the roasted brussels sprouts.

Does anyone arrive on the doorstep holding an armload of beautifully wrapped gifts none of which has a smooshed bow?

I think it would be lovely to have that kind of Christmas – elegant, unhurried, and draped in pristine snow – , but the truth is that I would have no place in such a Christmas. I am neither elegant nor unhurried (though I am working on being both by the time I reach my dotage). My place is in a Christmas where people shaped by a life that isn't always easy, hasn't always been fair and has forced on them grief they feel ill-prepared to carry pause long enough to realize that what matters isn't how Christmas looks, but how it feels.

And how should it feel? How did Mary and Joseph feel? How did George Washington and his army, crossing the Delaware River, feel? How did the World War I soldiers who sang with their enemies on the battlefields of Flanders during the Christmas Truce of 1914 feel? How did the crew of Apollo 8, the first humans to orbit the moon and the first to spend Christmas in space, feel? We can only imagine, but I think they may have all felt similar things. Fear. Anticipation. Uncertainty. Awe. Because whatever happened next, whatever the results of the next few hours or days, the world would be changed forever.

Christmas changed the world forever. May we embrace that feeling and go out and do the same.

Copyright 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sight and Sound

When I asked Daddy to plant a chinaberry tree in the yard at Sandhill, he looked at me, not for the first time, as though I’d lost my mind.

"What in the world do you want with a chinaberry tree? That’s the aggravatingest thing I’ve ever seen."

I explained to him that there is something quintessentially southern about a chinaberry tree, that it reminds me of old farmsteads and bare feet and Sunday afternoons. I tried to get him to understand that I didn’t care that the fallen berries tend to sprout into saplings almost overnight and that they stain anything with which they come in contact. I did my best to convince him that it was a good idea and, eventually, I got my tree.

In the summer, the delicate branches bloom first with long languid leaves and then hard green berries that droop from their stems with disproportionate weight and always remind me of a pawn shop sign. As the season fades, the berries themselves fade to gold and dry up light and leathery into miniature versions of deflated volleyballs.

In late fall, the berries fall to the ground and the leaves get blown away and the tree stands naked with its skinny arms stretched toward the clouds as though entreating some divine intercession to cover its embarrassment.

That’s what I noticed the other morning when I stepped out on the deck to check the temperature. Silhouetted against the dull early morning sky, the tree looked small and vulnerable and not the least best reminiscent of her summer self dancing in the warm breeze.
Behind her was the harrowed-over corn field and beyond that the dried out remnants of kudzu vine wrapped around the trees at the edge of the pond. The world was still and empty and colorless.

Just as I was about to go back in, I heard geese honking. From far away, probably across somebody’s else farm, they were flying and calling to each other in voices faint, but exquisitely clear and I realized that in the near-empty landscape of winter I could hear other things more clearly, too. Wind chimes and the call of a loon. Dogs barking and the blast of a shotgun. The scurry of an unidentified small animal through the underbrush.

I’ve often wondered at the reasoning behind the early Christian fathers’ decision to place Christmas in this darkest, coldest part of the year. The carol calls it "the bleak midwinter." It is said that they simply wanted to piggyback on or, even better, eclipse the existing pagan celebrations that already existed, celebrations rooted in the fear that with each setting of the sun there was the possibility that it might not ever reappear.

Whatever the reason, it occurs to me that maybe one of the reasons we are called to celebrate the birth of the Christ child in the time of hibernation is that we hear better in the darkness. Without the distraction of spring’s heady scents and summer’s fresh tastes and autumn’s riotous colors, we are left with only the sounds.

The gasp of a young girl at the sight of an angel and the angel’s whisper, "Fear not." The scuffling of pilgrims down rocky roads and the harried voices of the census takers in the tiny Palestinian towns. The whimpering of sheep, the lowing of cattle. And the first breathy cries of a newborn.

It is easy to see the stars out in the country. I can stand in my front yard, tilt my head back and feel all my self-importance drain away. At this time of year, in the bleak midwinter, I can hear them, too. They are singing. And their song is a familiar one, the very first Christmas carol – "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Copyright 2007