by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – I’d have to rate the Christmas of 1958 as the worst I’ve ever experienced. My beloved old Plymouth had thrown a rod the Sunday after Thanksgiving and lay dead in the field behind the tow truck owner’s garage. I’d cut my knee (and a new pair of jeans) with my double-bitted axe a couple of days previous, and on Christmas Eve had been laid off my job cutting and burning brush up on Porter Mountain. I got two meals a day by cleaning the barroom down on the corner in the morning and tending bar during the evening. I had two little gray kittens nobody else wanted.
My parents were deaf, so I couldn’t call home, even if I’d had a telephone. Home was about three hours away, if I could have gotten there. So I went out back and cut a scraggly little white spruce (what’s called a Charlie Brown tree nowadays) about two feet high and propped it in the corner on top of my table. No ornaments. I was feeling pretty lonesome and sorry for myself. The bright spots were that my kerosene stove, running water, gas stove, and hot water heater all worked, and I had enough venison hanging frozen in the woodshed to last all winter. Also, the Garrisons, who rented next door and had little more than I did, brought me a freshly baked cake Christmas afternoon. Which, of course, made me feel more forsaken than ever.
Here it is, 62 years later, and I’m going to be alone again for Christmas. The whirlwind that for several decades transformed my Christmas into a Dickensian masterpiece is now running the show in a celestial setting (the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter surely reflect her influence). As before, all my domestic utilities are up to snuff. There’s no venison in the freezer – I gave up hunting years ago – but the vehicles are running fine. Trouble is, there’s nowhere to go.
Thousands of my fellow citizens – perhaps hundreds of thousands – are in the same boat: alone for Christmas, which, along with Thanksgiving, is traditionally a time for families to gather.
But somehow, after months of semi-hibernation and cautious interactions, I don’t find it so hard – especially when I consider the huge and growing number of COVID-afflicted families that, like old jigsaw puzzles, are missing pieces of their pictures. They may also be dependent upon a food bank or be waiting anxiously for the pittance about to be allotted them by their millionaire benefactors in Congress, or even facing eviction and homelessness. It’s dark out there.
In fact, the day I’m writing this, the winter solstice, is the shortest, darkest day of the year. It’s the day that’s been celebrated since ancient times by Druids, Romans, Norse, and English. It’s a day promising better (if, for a while, colder) days to come. A common theme of our celebrations, from Hanukkah to Kwanzaa, is that of light – tiny but unquenchable – shining in darkness.
This is no doubt the reason the early Christian fathers picked midwinter as the birthday of the Christ child: a light shining in darkness, as the Gospel of John describes it, that the darkness has never put out. We were encouraged as kids to memorize the beautiful Nativity story from Luke. My Grandfather Lange, who gave me (among many other Bibles; he was a Gideon) Martin Luther’s translation, was quite happy when I mastered the passage in German.
As with most stories, it doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not. It’s perfectly suited to both this time of year and our apparently everlasting sorry human condition. Under the oppressive thumb of, and threat of death from Caesar and Herod, a tiny, vulnerable peasant infant improbably brought a flicker of hope into a suffering, warlike world. The ensuing slaughter of all the area’s male infants is testimony to what the fear of a rival meant to the political hierarchy.
The Christmas of ornaments and tinsel and bright presents around a fir tree are for me but memories, albeit happy ones. I do love the old carols; and my former church in Hanover, St. Thomas, has put the music of its traditional service of lessons and carols online. It’s playing in the background as I write. I remember the children’s choir in Brownwood, Texas, on Christmas Eve in 1953 singing “Angels We Have Heard own Hah” in a broad Texas accent. And on Christmas Eve here this year, I’ll look at the old man’s picture and say, “This one’s for you, Grampa.” Es begab sich aber zu der Zeit, dass ein Gebot von dem Kaiser Augustus ausging…