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Wednesday, December 25, 2002
The Christmas Miracle
We had our tree for several nights before decorating it (this was stalling on the part of Niles, who works late). We had to lop off a few large branches at the bottom, so that we had a fan-shaped bunch of foliage left over, about two by three feet. The other day I tied these all together, added some bows and ornaments, and hung it on the wall. We had a small string of white lights, and added those, and now we have a creditable...er..."arrangement", I suppose. (It's not round, so it can't be a wreath) This is the first time I've done something like this in about twenty years. It's the first time I've had the time.
We have enough ornaments for two or three trees. Every year we find some beautiful ornaments on sale after Christmas, and add them to our collection. We also get new Star Trek ornaments every year. We have ugly wooden ornaments I painted when I was ten, dough ornaments my niece gave me when she was about five, the cheap-but-shiny (oooh, shiny) ornaments I bought in Australia, various hand-crafted ornaments people have given me over the years, and a boxful of unicorn ornaments from the unicorn craze of the '80s.
But I also have a bunch of ornaments that look like the ones I had as a kid. There are shiny globes with glitter "snow" icecaps dripping down the sides. There are multicolored "Olde Worlde" teardrop-shaped ornaments with little puckered caves. And then there are the '60s ornaments. My mother gave some to my sister and me about a dozen years ago. They're something like the ones we had in the mid-'60s, when I was about five or six. These plastic ornaments have big holes cut in them, into which are placed tiny plastic scenes: a sprig of evergreen with a dove, or candles, or bells, or whatever. The interior surface behind the scenes is mirrored to give an illusion of depth. (The ones we had 35 years ago were yellow plastic in crystalline shapes, whereas these are multicolored in various shapes.)
(OK, this page has two plastic ornaments of the style I mean. The one on the right looks very like those we had when I was a kid. I have one like that on the left now, except that mine's gold rather than blue.)
Yes, this nostalgia has a point, sort of.
The other day Lileks talked about his nostalgia for the "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" TV special:
A big part of Christmas, for me, is the recreation of these Christmases Past. But it's not for nostalgia alone; it's to recapture a peculiar sort of miracle.
A couple of years ago I read someone waxing indignant that more kids believed in Santa Claus than believed in Jesus. This didn't surprise me one bit; I was more surprised that anyone was surprised. When I was a kid, it wasn't Jesus who watched us to be sure we were good. Jesus didn't come to our house---and for certain someone came to the house and left those presents. Our parents did not claim to have actually talked to Jesus. It was not Jesus's picture in the malls, on Christmas cards and wrap. It was not his "helpers" you got your picture taken with, and he was not the subject of TV specials. He did not eat the milk and cookies you put out on Christmas Eve.
Santa did all this.
I don't know whether that's true in all households. What I do know was that God and Christ were abstractions, sometimes talked about but never seen. But Santa Claus was real. And this, for me, was the true Christmas miracle: that there was a real man, living at the North Pole, who loved children and had been watching over them forever. The immortality of Santa Claus was very important. It provided a stability in the world that mere parents could not, and more concrete evidence of a creator than the nebulous Jesus.
So even today, Christmas Eve is a special time for me, a time when the time holds its breath, as a miracle hovers near the Earth. (I have to say, the same is true for New Years. On New Years Eve I always manage to believe that there is some real event happening. It's not just an arbitrary moment given undeserved significance by a human calendar; somewhere, a cosmic pendulum pauses in its swing, at the precise point where the past and future merge.) I know that this is just nostalgia, a hangover from my childhood. But it's such a happy hangover, full of the rare and precious sense of wonder, that I indulge in it each year. It gets harder and harder each year, too.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explains the symbolism of representations of Shiva, and remarks:
My idol is the Christmas tree. I always reflect on these things as I contemplate the tree. For me, the lights buried in the evergreen represent the stars, and therefore the universe. From any one perspective, some of the lights are hidden, showing that there are things we do not know. Other lights illuminate the glittery bits---the wonder and beauty of the universe. The strange '60s ornaments recall---powerfully---a time when I took all this a lot more literally than I do now (when I was a small child I wanted to live in the tree, and spend my days bathed in the pretty lights). The Star Trek ornaments represent my adult desire to explore said universe (but, you probably guessed that).
What the Wienermobile ornament symbolizes, I don't know.
UPDATE: Fred Pruitt says some of this stuff more briefly, and probably better.