Friday, February 19, 2010
Come Christmas, I would feign surprise, exclaiming "This is just what I wanted", as if he didn't know.
Our tradition was to open our gifts on Christmas Eve, as my mother's Swedish family did. Santa never squeezed his jolly behind and beer gut down our chimney; Mom guarded our Christmas fiercely from commercialism by keeping our fireplace stoked and burning, lest Santa believe he was welcome at 22 Salisbury Road.
Occasionally, Dad would sign a gift tag "From Santa", but that was all the fantasy we were allowed on this holy night. He didn't seem to have a problem with the fantasy and the Reality coming to terms with each other, but our mother's scruples ruled the Holiday. I didn't care if Santa wasn't real, but it would have been fun to pretend that someone beyond ourselves knew our secret wishes, and I never understood the harm of writing a letter addressed to the North Pole, which would have wound up in a drawer in the east bedroom instead. She may have been guarding her children from The World, but I'm more inclined to believe that she was protecting the Infant Jesus.
Such was the religious fervor my mother approached Christmas with.
Nonetheless, the ghosts of Christmas Past continue to visit me with beautiful memories of joyous times with my parents and siblings. The scenes are vivid and indelible, backlit by warm candlelight.
My mother's liturgical background artfully enhanced the spirit of worship at the Baptist church Dad pastored. And there was no greater expression of this art than in our Christmas Eve service, behind which she was a driving force.
In anticipation of Christmas, our church celebrated Advent, foreign to most Baptists, something that those lost Catholics do. This was my mother's influence; she understood that Christmas was best celebrated as a climactic moment which comes but once a year. So, leading up to Christmas, we sang "Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel" but waited until Christmas Eve to sing "Joy to the World, The Lord is Come". I'm sure many folks thought, 'what's the difference', but all these years later, my Southern Born Woman and I quite agree that Christmas can only be Christmas for a few beautiful moments.
Between all the shopping, baking, preparing for guests, getting the house decorated (which my mother did exceedingly well), the focus for my parents truly was the Christmas Eve service. There were choir rehearsals, a sermon for Dad to write, a sanctuary to decorate, and music to be chosen. When I became an adult, one of my great joys was my father's annual request that I write a song for the service.
One year, the Muse gave me a new understanding of the Incarnation:
As if the sculptor could be come the scultpure
As if the writer could be come the book
As if the painter could become the painting
the Creator has become part of what He's created!
(from Some Kind of Love ©1981)
As a child, I just wanted to get the service over with, and get home and open presents, but as I matured, the Incarnation became central to everything I believed, and the Christmas Eve service at Barrington Baptist became a warm comforter that I wrapped around my faith on the coziest night of the year.
Amazingly enough, with all the preparation for the service, my mother would have our traditional Swedish meal prepared, and we would enjoy this before heading to the church. Our meal consisted of Swedish meatballs, korv (potato sausage), and lingonberries, and to this day, I carry on that tradition, even to the point of buying sausage casings and making my own korv. For one day of the year, my house smells like the cafeteria at IKEA.
With little time to appreciate the wonderful meal we'd just enjoyed, we would drive through the snow, up Salisbury Road, north on Washington, East on County, and so on, until we got to the church, a mile away from home.
The sanctuary was nearly pitch black when the service started, no light apart from the smallest glow from an illuminated manger scene. The first sound you'd hear was my father's beautiful baritone voice humbly singing "He shall be called wonderful...", from Isaiah's prophecy of the Messiah. Then my mother joined in with her tenor- she had a low but lovely voice. Then the choir, and then the congregation, until the room was fulfilled with the words "Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace". I am moved by this memory even as I write.
My father's sermons were gracious and moving, naturally geared to the "Christmas and Easter" visitor who perhaps didn't believe. (All these years later, I'm somewhat of a "Christmas and Easter" visitor who still believes). Dad always spoke of Jesus as a lover of the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden, and the loner, reminding Christ's followers that believing the Gospel meant doing the Gospel.
The service would eventually come to a beautiful close, and we would be the last to leave, laden with gifts of cookies, fruitcakes, and other such fare from members of the congregation.
And finally, home.
Opening our gifts on Christmas Eve gave us the jump on all our friends, so we quite enjoyed it. As a boy, I wanted what any boy would want- to cut to the chase and open my gifts. Of course, before those gifts were torn into, we had a family prayer time. My mother's fixation on the waiting game ofAdvent was excruciatingly drawn out until the last possible second.
We would drink a punch made of that Evangelical staple- ginger ale, with vanilla ice cream and egg nog, accompanied many of the baked goods we'd received from the parishioners, chief of which were the spinster Mabel Matthews' chocolate chip walnut cookies. Finally we'd settle in to opening gifts. My brother or I would be designated the "Santa", truly the only time the old saint's name came up in our household.
One year, I happily unwrapped a copy of "Buddy Miles: Them Changes", a recording which I love to this day. I went through my tired but effective "how did you know?!" act, and David returned the performance upon opening whatever recording I gave him.
Buddy Miles was a drummer, as was I, and on the cover of this 12" vinyl disc, he sat his obese yet hip visage behind a set of Rogers drums, psychedelically painted in red, white and blue, like our nation's flag on acid. The music was soulful and bluesy, and Buddy ably kept time while singing in his beautiful black voice, squeezing thick tenor notes through a grinder, the way Santa wanted to squeeze his unwelcome ass through our chimney.
Christmas morning, while the rest of the world's children were discovering what Santa had brought them, we had a leisurely breakfast, opened our stockings, and played with our presents. On this particular morning, I put Buddy Miles on the Zenith stereo, and sat in our living room, transfixed and air-drumming.
Mormor, which means "mother's mother" in Swedish, sat across from me glowering, upset that the Lord's birthday would be ridiculed by the Devils' music. In her immigrant accent, she finally hissed, "What do you think Yeesuss thinks of that music?!", as if the Lord's taste in music was identical to hers. I hissed back, "I think He's in heaven tapping along!".
I had no love for this woman, who had none for me, and I recoiled from her lame faith which happily celebrated a neutered Christ who gazed incoherently and unemotionally from the pictures of pastures and maelstroms that hung on her apartment walls. She was dismissive of anything secular; her compartmentalization of faith and life made her dreary to be around. I hoped that Jesus wasn't anything like her image of Him, and I imagined Him being bored to tears by her religion.
I believed in a Jesus I liked, and I credited my father for presenting an earthy Lord to me, a Jesus who wasn't constantly policing my mind, and shoving himself into the middle of every celebration or situation. Jesus might be God, but He's no narcissist.
For all I know, Emmanuel, "God is with us", was indeed tapping along to Buddy Miles' music that Christmas morning in our living room. Isn't that what Christmas is all about? The Divine intersection with our profane, fallen lives, Jesus coming down from heaven and dipping his bare foot in the muddy water of the deluge, swimming with us, pulling us by the scruff of our necks over the crest of a wave, his strong body ferrying weary souls to an eternal shore?
That alone makes my feet tap.