I’m not going to sit here in my late sixties and pretend that November and December are the safe, magical months that they were when I was a child. On that subject I’ll stand with Brenda Lee – too many rivers have been crossed . . .
When I was a child and at home, the hours of Christmas were completely full-up with tradition. My thoroughly agnostic family went into a kind of rigid, 24-hour dance on Christmas Eve that went something like this: Oyster Stew at 5 pm, caroling with friends at 7, home to listen to a scratchy recording of Dylan Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales;” everyone to their previously staked-out corners of the house for final present preparation; the burning of the note to Santa Claus (even after my sister was in college and I was in boarding school, both of us a thousand miles from home for nine months of the year); the hanging of the stockings (my sister’s had more jingle bells because she was older, and I’m still mad about it): and then, to bed. Christmas morning: the emptying of the stockings; breakfast of stollen and bacon; parade to the tree (I did get to go first because I was the youngest); the opening of presents, and then, the walk.
The walk. My sister and I would set off around the neighborhood, stepping out briskly because we wanted to be able to eat tremendous amounts of rich food throughout the day. Christmas Day in North Carolina was almost always grey. There would be an occasional child about in the neighborhood, wobbling along on a new bicycle or pushing a sled around on a snow-less front lawn, but mainly, it would just be quiet. There would be two cars in every driveway and smoke rising from every chimney. It was always very, very peaceful. As though everybody, everywhere was cutting everyone else some slack.
As I’ve grown older, I believe more and more in the devil — a formless creature who yaps at my heels and tempts me to indulge in fear – the great limiting, dark side of experience. For me — even as a non-religious person — Christmas is still the best defense I know against the devil. Christmas always bids me to find the Light and face it.
There’s a line in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that says “the holy tide of Christmas doth bring redeeming grace.” Growing up, I had my Beach Boy records stacked right alongside old Dylan Thomas. When I sing that line, to this day I always have the same vision, and this is what I see:
We are all out there together , on the vast Ocean of Life, sitting on our surfboards and scared out of our minds – which is, don’t you think, the general human condition. Then, someone yells, “Surf’s up!” We turn toward the horizon and there it is: the holy tide of Christmas.
Suddenly, we’re up on our boards, catching that giant wave and riding it, full of joy, all the way to the beach.