Say what you will about Christianity – analyze its fundamental flaws, restrictions on creatively freethinking – its scandals and indiscretions – and its discriminations and prejudices – most importantly, its false assimilation to God – you’ll get no quarrel from me now.
But, it did mark me and leave me with a gladdened trove of pricelessness. Unless you have experienced Christmas as a child, you will never understand what I am about to tell you…..
When the terrible smog of the years-since and the billions of words gone spoken clears just a little, a precious detail is left. My childhood was moulded around this detail that was a stunning sensation – but, even more-so a way of simply
I am forever sculpted around it, with it…from it. A beautiful memory – an experience which is as integral to me as my beating heart……..
Christmas!! At long last it was Christmas!!
The community, coalesced comes alive. Neighbours opened their homes and their hearts to one another. Every house owns its own speciality, aromatic claim to this splendid holiday. The carols, the snow, the warm pumpkin pies, the red and green twinkle lights, the smell of pine and frankincense – the gentle story of the night Mary and Joseph sought shelter.
Now, I know that story has been told and retold, written and rewritten thousands of times and may not even bare any truth at all – but, its telling gave a warm sense of belonging and comfort – and that made all else good. Nothing was more important than the anticipation of family gathering for a celebration of the birth of a Prophet – a gentle soul who was in reality a great Changer and a Rebel – a gritty Revolutionary.
It was cold outside. Snow had piled up everywhere. A twine of aromatic holiday foods filled our senses. The windows, frosty around the edges on the outside and foggy on the inside – just enough to eek-out a smiley face or two. And the side walks still needed shoveling but nowhere was a place left to put the heavy loads. Father had already carved out a neat meandering walkway out front but, the walls on either side of it were growing taller with each new snow….impossible for little-me to breach the top one more time.
Back indoors, the house was snugly and toasty from the oven which has been worked like a toiler for several weeks now. Many spicy recipes, many late nights of baking and frying and kielbasa making and pans of Bopka and those fried balls of dough with a single cherry inside, kraut with Polish dried mushrooms whose pungent whiff would momentarily overpower the sugariness of the room….all were jiving for my affections…and not least of all were the Kruschiki!!
Made on the family assembly line – grandmother created, kneaded and rolled out the dough. Mother cut the readied stuff into wide strips. I got to fold them into the traditional “bow tie” shape. Father’s cameo was to drop each one into the deep fryer. They plunged to the bottom but would almost immediately rise to the top blistered and golden. A few seconds to drain and I lovingly sifted powered sweetness all over them pretending it was snowing.
Nonpareils filled the candy dishes to the brim and chocolate covered cherries from Jacques Torres in New York City beckoned me from clear hobnail bowls – strategically placed about the living room to entice the guests…..and the imp in me. And how could I ever forget those hard candy ribbons and pillows….fine striped confectionery delicacies that were afforded only for this holiday of holidays.
Mixed with the savory smells from the kitchen, it always proved too much of a provocation – I easily found ways to sneak just one piece of chocolate before dinner was officially on the table.
Killing time I sit at the window, doodling in the condensation. I see incandescent street lanterns spotlighting the falling snow on this Christmas Eve – as it silently cascades against the inky blackness of a glorious night sky. No one out and about – everyone is home easeful and content behind loving walls – all waiting patiently for Santa to arrive.
In town the thoroughfare is empty. Traffic lights change dutifully and make a shutter sound ordinarily not heard above the music of a bustling day. A stray dog lingers at the cross walk wondering which way is best. The bakery lights are still on in hopes of guaranteeing a tasty desert or hearty loaves for those who forgot or didn’t find the time to make them at home. Mrs. Capardi watches the dog from her storefront. She opens the door slowly and holds the bell so it doesn’t frighten him away. The perfume of baked food takes but a moment to reach his hungry nose. He turns. Their eyes meet. She smiles and beckons him forward. Hunger is more powerful than fear and he is easily coaxed in for a warm, dry place, a saucer of milk and a hearty portion of sausage bread. She is sure he has come to stay. He will be her Christmas present to herself.
The seasonal warnings to mind “because Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good” somehow made me feel connected. Knowing I was being watched over I felt safe.
And Santa it seemed had “Helpers”….little people Mother lovingly called Pooies. Cute little fellows clothes of red and green felt who would peek in the windows armed with photographic memories and a ridged devotion to their Boss. They seemed to have no conscience or sympathies at all when it came to reporting my missteps to the wonderful Bringer Of Gifts. So, I had to be good for an entire year with no cheating or surely I would earn the dreaded “coal in your stocking” bluff.
I have since grown to understand, to spite my indoctrination that “being good” didn’t necessarily mean a willingness to follow the rules or stay inside the lines or remain passive and not make a ripple or working selflessly for a lifetime…ending too old to enjoy the sport of living.
No, being good means something very different to me now all these years later…but, that is a long chat for another day. But, rather than leave it dangling I will say that being good is far simpler than they would have me believe. There are no cementing rules to guide me through it. It isn’t a burden or something I must constantly ponder. Its just that twinge from my core and all I have to do is follow it…never confusing me, never forsaking me.
So, to summarize…a reward of toys and candy for being “good” was as it turns out the Grand Untruth – the First Lie…for being good needs no dispensed reward….being good is in itself the reward.
The family finally gathers around the splendidly decked table….each member buzzing about the food or the Holly centerpiece or the pot on the stove that is boiling over or about who gets to pass around the Bread (the Body of Christ) and in what order it should go. Mario Lanza sings his heart out for the 10th consecutive time for me…’O Silent Night, O Holy Night.’
With the clink of grandmother’s cut glassware and the unison cheer of Nosdrovia! there is testimony that all the reparation and care, all the shopping and attention to the smallest details, all the painstaking measurement of ingredients and all the love that was needed to make it fitting has finally culminated in this pinpoint of time.
In tradition Father thanks God for our bounty and wishes Jesus a very Happy Birthday….and as we eat and laugh and prattle away we are unaware of the jolly St. Nick as he streaks overhead. Under the brilliant Christmas Tree in the next room,
The baby Jesus lay nestled, cooing in his manger
And for this brief luscious moment the world is right
And completely and divinely out of danger