I have seen 65 Christmases and remember 61 of them, and yet every year at this time, I find myself deeply moved and filled with an upwelling of hope and joy that is quite unquenchable, and is as intense right now as it was when I was a little boy, looking up into the stars of the holy night, half expecting to see Jesus and half expecting to see Santa on his sleigh.
We really have two Christmases. One expresses the ancient joy that came with assurance that the sun, which had been journeying away to the south all winter, was really returning. Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, people called the sun back with bonfires between the 21st and the 25th, then celebrated their success by dancing and gift-giving in the days after the 25th. The other expresses the more modern joy at the greatest gift of all, that of the Christ child. The atmosphere in our homes, full of gifts and symbols of fertility and survival, such as the Christmas tree, is right out of the Roman Saturnalia and the ancient northern european solstice festivals. But in our churches, we celebrate another gift entirely, that of the wonderful councillor who brought us new and more godly ideals, those of compassion and mercy, and showed us the way to a freedom of soul not present in any other wisdom tradtion but that left to us by Christ.
On this Christmas eve, my mind ranges across what is now a lifetime of memories, from the sound of my grandfather's sonorous voice as he read 'The Night Before Christmas' on the first ten of my Christmas eves, to the wonderfully inventive explanations of my son, as he offered his bright-eyed proofs of why Santa must be real, and I waited for him to finally lay down his head so that I could finish assembling his toys.
I remember my early Christmases with Anne when we could not afford a tree, and we decorated an avocado plant that we had grown from a pit with ribbons. Our celebration consisted of exchanging books and eating a pint of Haagen Das ice cream.
My dad was a great lover of Christmas. One year, he got up on the roof and rang bells, a very convincing display for a seven year old, I can tell you. But then there was a terrific racket on the rainswept roof, as something large seemed to be sliding down the shingles, bells jangling frantically. When there was a thud in the back yard, my sister said, "He's here," and we both ran off to bed. We were too innocent to connect the dad who hobbled into view the next morning with the fact that we had actually heard Santa on the roof.
And the many, many times I have been moved at midnight mass to a closeness with my faith that comes to me at no other time, seemingly borne on the magic of the night itself, opening a door within me that feels directly connected to Christ, and I always recall then His love of children, and the combination of tolerance for human frailty and steadfast refusal to accept evil that marked every word of the good news that he brought.
This Christmas, many of the older generation of my family are pushing into their nineties, and soon will join my mom and dad, my aunts and uncles and grandparents, and those we have lost in the wars. But also there are children in this old family, eyes full of wonder at the promise of Santa and awe at the promise of Christ, eager with anticipation for the magic that will unfold in their lives tomorrow.
My thoughts also go to the marvelous community that has created itself around Unknowncountry.com, as we travel on, balancing forever on the edge of reality, trying to see a little beyond the edge fo the world.
Merry Christmas, all!
Note: the image associated with this journal is known as the Pale Blue Dot. If you look, you will see a blue dot circled in the upper band. This is our world, all we are and all we have, taken by the voyager spacecraft in 1996 from 3.7 billion miles away. This is us: a pale blue dot in the unimaginable vastness of the universe.
To learn more about the story of the Pale Blue Dot image and see a clearer copy, click here.