Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Little Touch of Christmas

            Everyone’s writing about Christmas now.  Stories, impressions, even sayings for Christmas cards. 
            But any Christmas-related narrative is difficult for a writer.  It’s hard to say anything new.  Not only is the Christmas Carol redone endlessly, but its basic lesson and story-arc are copied, then disguised, to make other commercial stories. The miracle transformation, the grump who finds love, the “spirit of Christmas” working out complications like a theatric fate maneuvering behind the curtains—such clich├ęs, and their preachiness and inevitable cuteness, are just too easy to imitate.
            Usually my favorite Christmas stories are ironic and often ambiguous, like the Donald Duck tales penned by Carl Barks, “A Christmas for Shacktown” or “You Can’t Guess,” which are justly famous among comics fans.  They depict a time of late 40s/early 50s simplicity, but the materialism doesn’t vanish even when tempered by kindness.  And this mix of greed with Christmas cheer made the stories surprisingly humane and often timeless.  (Indeed, the Barks Uncle Scrooge stories I knew as a kid seemed a lot more understanding of human behavior—even though the characters were supposed to be ducks—than the superhero comics of that time.) 
            Outdoing Barks is hard, though, and even writing Christmas sayings for greeting cards, which seems easy at first, is also demanding—card companies know how clipped, precise, and audience-focused the writing needs to be.  These are the same requirements for all good writing, so we should not be too quick to say it’s simple. 
            The most prevalent statements, however, whether in editorials, sound-bites, on-camera interviews, contemporary sermons catering to crowds, and blogs, are on “What Christmas Means to Me.”  This portentous title could breed instant dismay and pain (in some of us, anyhow), so let me say immediately I’ll try to avoid all things religious, cute, moral, ethical, commercial, nostalgic (well, some of that creeps in), or the supposed ponderings of three wise men, puppy-like reindeer pulling a 19th century Grandpa, or even family good-cheer togetherness around a filling if fattening meal—though this last I really do enjoy. 
            Instead, my comments will be strictly sensory.  No emotion, no intellect, except perhaps in your own reaction.  (If anyone says, “Aww, that’s so sweet,” remember that’s your response, not mine.)  And before all this qualifying goes too far, let’s get to the point: 
            What I most associate with Christmas is darkness. 
            That’s no surprise.  It’s the middle of winter, after all, when nights are longest.  If you step outside, the chances are greater it will be at night than in the day.  And it’s usually cold.  Not always, of course, and we seem to carry memories of childhood or past winters that—we claim—were so much colder or deeper in snow than the ones now.  But we make into “story” even our memories, so I don’t trust such impressions, and global warming shouldn’t be working that fast.  Still, images of cold and darkness predominate.  For all the supposed festivity of the holiday, the first associations that surface seem grim:  night, darkness, cold, stillness (the last predictable—everyone’s indoors trying to keep warm and stay near the lamplight). 
           But along with the darkness comes the relief of little gleams centered in it all, lights in the night, small glows in a big dark. 
            You can see this easily in all the mythology/legendry/theology of Christmas:  the Christmas star (indicating hope at the darkest time of year), holly as one thing that grows in winter, the lone candle in a snow-touched window, the aurora above the night-shrouded toyshops at the North Pole, the red-and-green of Christmas-train signal lights, the star on top of the tree, and all Christmas lights themselves—not big spotlights to remove the darkness, not stadium lighting to bomb out the night, but just small gleams meant to shine and call attention to light itself, not to illuminate.  Like stars.  Never mind your nextdoor neighbor who’s a Christmas fanatic and makes his house into a circus—all those multi-colored twinklers still don’t shed much overall light.  I’m sure there are houses where if you stand in the yard and don’t get electrocuted you’ll find enough light to read by.  But Christmas trees are still not the best reading lamps.  It’s a kinder light, a decorative light, yet still restoring.  You can look into it without being blinded.  Your retinas are caressed instead of burned.  Even when floodlights are used (as in illuminating housefronts with that not-very-subtle “look at me” tone), they’re soft, muted, often colored, as much intensifying the darkness as breaking it.  And the North Pole aurora reminds us of wonder, not kilowatts. 
            My personal favorite is a night-time forest or wooded area, touched with snow so that the grounds aren’t too dark and threatening, where the trunks and limbs are defined in glow-worm sheaths of colored lights.  These accentuate the dark, make it glisten without eliminating it, make it comfy while retaining its depth.  Like all the “drive-thru” Christmas areas we have now, whether carefully engineered estate or park grounds (as in the Pittsburgh favorites of Oglebay Park, Hartwood Acres, and Overly’s “Country Christmas”), we get fields and woods with illuminated trees, artificial if lone displays, all sitting in darkness where, when you drive, the caretakers ask you—so appropriately—to turn off your headlights.  Talk about an alien landscape that is yet attractive, an “illuminated forest,” a “crystal world,” a winter realization of an Avatar-like luminescent night, a frozen marine depth where the coral branches flash and glitter. 
             And I like these places best when you can walk through them and not have to drive.  The car is too insulating, too enclosing (and I pity you if you have to sit in back where the windows are tinted).  When you walk you can get closer to the sources of illumination, sense them more deeply, enter and not just pass the jeweled darkness. 
            So a word to all you entrepreneurs out there.  Though the cold might be bitter, we need more places where we can walk through the Christmas lights instead of just drive by them. 
            I grant these impressions wouldn’t work in warm Florida or other tropics.  I admit this imagery is classic New England.  But Christmas has always had a northern European feel, where the winters are long and the dark thick.  The clouds might be heavy, the stars fugitive, the snow abundant (at least in our memories), and if you took away all those artificial lights the landscape would be grim indeed.  But this is one time when artifice, in strings of lights, adds to the mystery instead of defiling it. 
            For all the traps of commercialism, entertainment, forced happiness, hysterical expectations, money and materialism, family entanglements, and lessons on loving so passed-down they’ve become archaic (and Christmas probably was always this tacky—I’m sure even the Victorians knew how to shop), for all the standard emotions and heavy lessons we get each year, this simple sensory experience, of little lights in a really big darkness, is a large chunk of what “Christmas Means to Me.” 
            And, you know, writing all that (even with its inevitable upbeat sentimentality) wasn’t too painful after all.
            And I hope your reading of it was the same. 
            Merry Christmas, everyone!

            This photo, taken in the Clinton Light Up Celebration west of Pittsburgh, is a visual example of all that was said here.