A Marriage Of Traditions
After spending more Christmases abroad than at home, I have made a happy discovery: All I need on Dec. 25 is one element of the traditional holiday, one crystal to act as a catalyst, and I can construct the experience for myself.
Twenty years ago, I found myself at Christmas in the Ecuadoran town of Baos, a spa high in the Andes Mountains, and spent the day wallowing in open-air hot springs. This was not the way I had been accustomed to celebrating Christmas during my English boyhood. But the restaurant at the hotel where I stayed the night served ham and eggs - a breakfast that, by tradition, my family eats only on Christmas morning.
That was all I needed.
It is hopeless, when you find yourself in exotic circumstances, to try to recreate "Christmas at home." That is obvious if you are on a coral beach in the Caribbean, where I once spent Christmas while taking a break from Nicaragua's civil war. But it is equally true when the climate lends verisimilitude to the view.
This is the case in Russia, where snowbound forests, children skating on frozen ponds, and even reindeer (in the right latitudes) leap straight out of the kitschiest Christmas cards. But they are real enough, and delightful, too. For the past two years, my family has spent Christmas Day enjoying a quintessentially Russian pleasure: cross-country skiing on the frozen Volga River, alone in the empty, sunlit white space and the vastness of the sky turned a particular shade of frozen blue.
In our household, it is especially impossible to recreate Christmas as we remember it because my wife is French and remembers it differently. So we patch together bits of both traditions. We catch the Festival of Lessons and Carols from King's College chapel in Cambridge on the BBC World Service on Christmas Eve (I spare my republican wife the queen's speech the next day), and a few hours later we can sit down to a midnight French meal.
One year, in Jerusalem, we took this principle as far as we could stretch it. We invited 20 friends and relatives to Christmas lunch, on the condition that each contribute his or her national speciality. An American couple roasted a turkey, the French cooked snails, my mother steamed a Christmas pudding, an Italian warmed up stuffed pig's feet (which our kosher Jewish friends at the table politely ignored), and a Spaniard handed around turrones, those sticky, sugary, nutty confections that define Christmas in the Hispanic world.
We may all have been far from home, but at that table that day, we didn't feel it.
What We Re-Shared
It was years later that I discovered that not everyone in the world went about the Unwrapping of the Christmas Presents the way we did. I had assumed this procedure was laid down in some rule book along with the basting of the turkey, the preparation of the Brussels sprouts, the decorating of the tree. Surely all these aspects were universal?
Our unwrapping of presents was very ordered. In rotation, indeed. We did not, like some delightful but irregular families I came to know later, descend on the pile of parcels like vultures, tearing them open simultaneously. No. Our presents were properly set out the night before, each person's on a chair or sofa. And we each opened ours in turn, watched, present by present, by everyone else. Someone scrupulously wrote down on a pad exactly which present had been sent by which uncle, aunt, or friend of the family.
Mum, except when she was opening hers, oversaw the Saving of the Paper: the brown paper outside, the decorative paper inside, and sometimes the tissue paper inside that. Not just the paper, but the string, the ribbon, the labels, the string on the labels - everything was scrupulously gathered, folded, and placed in a box. This wasn't some sort of ecological concern for rain forests. It was simple frugality, a distaste for waste. The war had only stimulated such tendencies by its brutal shortages.
What reminded me of this was receiving from a great friend a recycled Christmas card. She told us last Christmas that she liked it so much she was going to save it and send it to us, and I'm glad she did. Not because she saved paper, but because she felt, quite rightly, that some good things are worth re-sharing.
I stand with my wide-eyed children at one of a long line of street stalls selling brightly painted figurines for Mexico's version of the manger scene. As we look over the rows and rows of human figures and every animal that entered Noah's ark - most of plaster, some of plastic, all hand-painted but none exactly a work of art - the word that comes to my mind is "innocence."
There's Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, of course, and the wise men, plus the regular sheep, donkey, and cattle. But also arrayed before us are parrots and snakes, lizards, tigers, fish, seated Indian ladies patting out tortillas, old men carrying jugs of water.
We discuss what to add to our own nacimiento, or manger scene. The boy votes parrot, the girl, swan. As we negotiate, a patient, smiling stall keeper awaits our decision. The rows of angelic, swaddled babes await some other buyer, and it is innocence, more than merriment, joy, or Christmas cheer that I detect.
I think back to our first Christmas in France. My wife and I, then childless, were invited to a Christmas Eve celebration. We had known the family for many years. Perhaps with too much Dickens and not enough Camus in mind, my wife wore a long, green-velvet Laura Ashley dress with a white collar, only to encounter a roomful of French women in sleek, low-cut black. "They're ahead of themselves, this looks like New Year's," she whispered. No manger scene - not even a Saint Nick, for that matter - was in sight. To this day, I can draw a cringeful groan from my wife just by mentioning that night.
To be fair, Christmas in France was not all secular. We knew families who sang carols together, whose children knew about the baby Jesus. And of course France has the distinctive manger scenes of the santons, village figures from Provence. But unlike their Mexican counterparts, they are beautiful, finely finished - and expensive.
As the stall keeper wraps one parrot and one swan in scraps of newsprint for us, I think Mexico is a good place to celebrate Christmas. It is a season about the birth of a babe and the new idea he heralded. The modest market is a place that can leave one reflecting on childlike innocence.
Make a Joyful ... Racket
GRANDPA Lowell's gift to Spencer was a tape recorder with built-in electronic drum pad and microphone, batteries very much included. A Christmas gift only a grandparent (who would be safely home soon) could love. It was fire-engine red and could be worn over the shoulder. Spencer caught on immediately: He could play a tape while singing into the microphone and beating the buttons on the drum pad - cymbal crash, snare drum, bass drum.
A switch on the side swapped drum sounds for animal noises: dog barking; goat, cat, lion. To top it off, Grandpa had included a tape of "The Complete Marches of John Phillips Sousa, Vol. 2."
After Christmas dinner, Spencer and his sister Hilary jumped down to begin the customary laps of the dining and living rooms. On the ninth lap an idea occurred to Spencer, and he went upstairs.
When Spencer goes upstairs and is quiet for more than a minute, we start to expect water dripping through the kitchen ceiling, an outlandish costume, or a new wave of music. We got music: He came back with a spring in his step and an instant parade with his new contraption.
I love a parade. After the initial guffaws over his new toy from the assembled aunts, uncles, and grandparents, we all rose to join in. I grabbed my bagpipe and fell into step. Hilary followed with her tambourine. Grandpa Rob went to the kitchen for an oatmeal box and a pan to beat with a wooden spoon. Gramps got the plunger and incorporated the trombone section. Someone juggled grapefruit. My wife jumped in to cheerlead. "Left, right, left, right!" through the den, around the kitchen, and into the dining room. My mother, sitting in the reviewing stand at the head of the table, announced with each lap the name of the soloist and his nation of origin.
Grandpa Rob shifted into high gear and hopped on Hilary's tricycle. Gramps picked up a broom to sweep up "after the elephants." Now it was a circus parade; Spencer flicked the switch to give us lions, dogs, goats, and kitty cats to the tune of "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine."
I'm a little worried about the after-dinner entertainment this Christmas. The kids are older and much larger; the instruments are louder and much more electric. If the spirit moves Spencer and he brings his full drum set into the living room, and Hilary gets out her electric guitar, and Ariel grabs her synthesizer, we may have a Lollapalooza parade with stage-diving off the sofas. We may long for the simpler days of Sousa. We will not miss those elephants, however.
Todd R. Nelson
O Little Town of Bethune
After a childhood of "over the river and through the woods" holidays, my first Christmas away from home was looking bleak.
I had just moved to a small town in northern France, and I had few friends. I thought I could manage without presents and a turkey - family and the smell of a good fir tree were tougher losses - but I didn't want Christmas to pass without marking it in some way.
What I wanted was to sing a familiar hymn with others who loved it. There was a church of my denomination in a mining town 30 miles away, but it might as well have been 300. I had no car, and the nearest bus stop was farther than I had ever walked. Even so, I had studied the schedules and there seemed no way to make connections on a Sunday.
Some people love to head off on uncharted paths. I had never been one of them. Still, I couldn't shake the idea that my celebration of the Christmas season included finding that church.
My plan was to wake up early (unlikely, as I had no alarm), hike into town, and take whatever transport was headed in the right direction.
At 3:45 a.m. the Sunday before Christmas, I snapped out of a deep sleep. The night was cold, dark, and, yes, the stars were brightly shining. It was just past 5:30 when I reached a set of train tracks where the train never stopped. Then it did.
"Excuse me - what could you possibly be doing here at this hour?" said the engineer, after squealing his slow-moving train to a halt.
"Hoping to get to Bethune," I said.
"This is a milk train, and I go right past. Hop on," he said, smiling broadly.
I reached Bethune about four hours early, which was good because the church had moved and it took that long to find the new location. In fact, I missed the first hymn, but made it in time for "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
Church members invited me home for lunch. They lit the candles on their Christmas tree (10 minutes of splendor), so I could see "how a real tree should be decorated." Then they drove me home.
It was a Christmas of conspicuous kindness.
Gail Russell Chaddock