Jane Ahlin, Published December 24 2011
It’s a time of cosmic hope and the tenderness of loveFor my birthday a good friend gave me a coaster that reads, “All I want is PEACE on EARTH…& a really cute pair of shoes.”
Doggoned if that isn’t a pretty good Christmas wish, too.
On the one hand, we’re all about the big picture (“Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men”), because in our heart of hearts, we want to be people deserving of hope and kindness, the kind of people who pass them on to change the world for the better. At the very least, we’d like some of our efforts to resonate in a cause greater than ourselves.
On the other hand, we are fixated on our own Christmas celebrations–obsessed, really, and absolutely determined: Our gifts will be perfect, our traditions will be interesting; our food will be fabulous. What we set out to do may not be as daunting as establishing “Peace on Earth,” but it, too, is pretty much impossible.
Maybe that’s why we love Christmas stories, not only the Christmas story of manger, and mystery, but all the stories celebrating life-changing Christmas spirit, stories of compassion and unbounded love. If Scrooge and the Grinch can turn exuberantly caring overnight and George Bailey can see the importance of a good ordinary life and the U.S. Postal Service can keep Kris Kringle out of the psych ward and young Jim can sell his watch to buy tortoise shell combs for his wife Della’s beautiful hair at the same time that she’s selling her hair to buy a shiny fob for his watch … surely that Christmas state of mind can stay with us, too.
To that end, we like things cheery. No need to be presumptuous by attempting to engineer life-altering moments for those near and dear; all we expect from Christmas is a little happiness – simple and shared – with family and friends. (For that matter, contentment is just fine. Delight and joy? Well, those are frosting on the Christmas cake.) Especially as we age, we like things light and merry and no longer expect to plumb this particular year’s Christmas experiences for deeper meaning or a sense of the profound. The truth is, the older we get, the more our jumbled pileup of Christmas memories takes us to that realm whether we like it or not.
In fact Christmas-past won’t leave us alone. For some, smells or tastes are the triggers; however, in our family most Christmas memories are tied to music. I’m driving along and happen onto a radio station playing, “O Tannenbaum” (“Oh Christmas Tree”) and I’m eight years old on the floor by a heavily-tinseled tree near where my grandmother sits on our old brown couch and only a few feet from the console radio/record player that’s playing the song. I’m startled because she’s singing along with German lyrics in a deep, husky voice. She, who never sang, a thoroughly modern woman with classy clothes who tossed out valuable antiques because they were old, a woman who never spoke a German word – even though her only schooling was in a German-speaking elementary school – could not resist “O Tannenbaum.” In that Christmas moment I want to know everything about her. But the moment passes.
At a concert days later when “Deck the Halls” is sung with gusto, I’m back in a Christmas when our children are still growing up. My father and my husband’s father (two very sensible men) are performing “Deck the Halls,” but they keep singing “tra-la-la-la-la” instead of “fa-la-la-la-la” and we’re all laughing so hard you’d think they were vaudevillians.
A few years ago I read an essay by author Colin McCann about his grandfather. In it he quoted the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov saying that storytelling’s purpose is “to portray objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right. …”
Christmas comes in the cosmic hope of “Peace on Earth,” but it shimmers across generations in the fragrant tenderness of human love.
Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email email@example.com