The Secular Light Show

§  As always seems to happen these days, some sourpuss simply had to comment!  §

In early November, a local family initiated their holiday light display—an astounding and impressive effort; simply lovely. It was, perhaps, a tad early, but what with the invidious daylight savings time having begun two weekends prior, the winter nights were certainly quite long enough to make such a light show worthwhile. They noted the display on our local neighborhood website, posting photos and inviting people to drive by and enjoy the spectacle. Several website members commented on the exceptional light show, and I punned that it was “delightful”.

But, as always seems to happen these days, a sourpuss simply had to comment. “This is a very secular display,” he groused. “Christmas without Christ is not Christmas.”

Other members quickly shut him down, pointing out that not only does not everyone celebrate Christmas, but that a light-up baby Jesus in the front yard really made no more of a statement than a reindeer; that religious beliefs were best celebrated in the home and the heart, not on one’s lawn, and not just at a particular season, but throughout the year; that at the holiday season it was best to be building people up, rather than tearing them down; and, finally, that whatever else it might be, the light display was certainly fun and festive and was bringing smiles to the faces of those witnessing it and wonder to the eyes of children.

Nothing that was said to him, however, no matter how thoughtful or theologically sound, altered the Religious Grinch’s opinion; he remained stubbornly resistant to these various peaceful remarks, responding emphatically with his opinion that the light spectacle was insulting to the true meaning of Christmas and intimating that he felt picked upon for having stated his opinion.

Mindful of our ever-watchful website “Lead”, who had deleted my comments before, I merely replied with a carefully-pointed remark that I thought it was a lovely gesture that this family had taken so much time, effort, and expense to make so beautiful a display just ahead of World Kindness Day on November 13th. It seemed to me, I continued, a truly a kind thing to create such beauty for one’s neighbors to enjoy, and I, for one, was most appreciative of their efforts. Then I private-messaged two of those who had made the most rational and courteous responses to the Religious Grinch, and told them how much I appreciated their efforts, receiving in reply their thanks, good wishes and blessings—blessings and good wishes that they also offered publicly to the Religious Grinch, and which were (perhaps not surprisingly) not returned by him.

Although my true thoughts remained unsaid on the website (at least by me; some others dared make some of these points), there were so many things I wanted to say to Mr. Religious Grinch. I wanted to suggest that perhaps the light display had been set up by a Hindu family celebrating a belated Diwali, not Christmas, or even a NeoPagan family whose spiritual holiday, celebrated with light, is not Christmas but Yule, the winter solstice. I didn’t know, I pondered, if light displays comprised part of the celebrations of Hannukah or Kwaanza, but those holidays, rather than Christmas, might be what the lights represented. Soyaluna, Saturnalia, Festivus—even the 6,000-year-old holiday of the Kemet Orthodoxy faith, called “The Return of the Wandering Goddess”, might be the reason behind the glorious twinkling and blinking and racing lights in the front yard of a neighborhood home.

I wanted, too, to ask Mr. Religious Grinch what he had done, or planned to do, to bring a smile to the lips of his neighbors during this holiday season; to provide them a moment’s joy. He certainly had not provided his good wishes to those on the website, so was he planning some other random act of kindness?  How would he express his Christ of Christmas during the season?  Would he speak a word of  loving encouragement to someone sad and depressed, or haul an elderly neighbor’s trash bin through the snow to the curb? Would he be dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s outstretched hand, or volunteering at a food pantry, or giving a contribution to a domestic violence shelter?

Finally, furiously, I typed my reply to Mr. Religious Grinch–the reply that (lest I become a Grinch myself!) I ever so carefully deleted before my finger, hovering anxiously over it, could press the SEND button:

”Well, sir, since this light show disturbs you so much, perhaps you should set up on your own lawn a very non-secular display, full of stables and Holy Families and angels and stars and Magi and shepherds and sheep and oxen—and YOU could be the ASS!”

The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past

§   This year, as I turned out the room lights and lit my tree for the first time, it seemed to me that there was a ghostly presence inhabiting the room with me.  §

When I was a small child, my father one holiday season brought home  a tiny, thin book titled An Ancient Story of The Christ Child. I have the book still. It is bound in green velveteen, tied at the spine with a gold cord. It is beautifully illustrated, and a yellow Christmas star illuminates each page of text.

I loved the story, which is based on the moral of being kind to strangers, for by doing so, one may, all unaware, entertain saints or angels. But above all, I loved the illustration of the Christmas tree. My child self thought it was the most wonderful Christmas tree I’d ever seen: hung about with polished red apples, and trimmed with popcorn strings and candles.Christmas Story_20191022_0001 (2)

Many years later, as an adult living in South Carolina, I stopped in an ancient dimestore one afternoon near the holidays. There, as if waiting for me, were shining little red apple ornaments, and strings of plastic popcorn and wooden cranberries. I could not resist. For that Christmas and several that followed, my inner child thrilled to a red apple and popcorn decorated Christmas tree.

Eventually, those apple ornaments of painted styrofoam began to deteriorate; the plastic popcorn yellowed; the cranberries lost their color. I reluctantly retired them for more modern decorations.

My lovely red apple tree had not been my first holiday tree, though. As a 19-year-old living in a one-room apartment in the slums, with no money to speak of and only a kitten for company, I’d scrounged to buy a little three-foot tree, tromping through slush and snow in the dark to purchase it. I crafted cheap ornaments from painted plaster of  Paris, using bent paperclips as hangers. That little tree and plaster ornaments served me for several years, cheering me as I returned home evenings to my lonely digs. It apparently cheered my kitten, too, who viewed the small tree as a pine-scented cat toy! Abandoning my evergreen room spray, I bought a concoction called “Cat No!’ and doused the tree liberally with it. It smelled awful, but it did deter Doski’s forays into Christmas tree destruction. (And to this day, I weirdly associate the smell of cat repellant with Christmas.)

In the years that followed, my Christmas trees were garlanded with beads of gold and silver and hung with silver bells, some topped by a star, others by an angel. I enjoyed each new version, always taking photos, especially after the tree had been lit and the gifts piled high at its base. I learned to place a hook in the ceiling and tie the tree to it with nearly-invisible fishing line, so that my cats could not, despite their best efforts, tip it over. I learned, too, to place only unbreakable ornaments within the reach of their sneaky little paws, and never to drape tinsel where it could be swallowed. (One cat, Domino, was nicknamed “Tinsel Butt” for months following the holidays.)

Following my divorce I divested myself of old holiday decorations and their associations with the Christmases of my failed marriage. I  briefly considered the newly-revived “shiny aluminum trees”,  rejecting them after realizing that nothing would ever equal my Grandmother’s aluminum tree, rotating to a color wheel and laden with pink glass ornaments.  Instead, I loaded up on red velveteen ribbon to garland my tree, pairing it with golden ornaments.  Later I traded out the aging velveteen for wide ribbon in Stewart plaid, and acquired a set of tiny brown glass acorn ornaments to scatter amongst the gold. I dispensed with the cat-menacing tinsel and began using realistic plastic icicles.

SnowQueenTree (2)Finally, having grown weary of the red/gold theme and its links to some less-than-joyous Christmas days, I gave away all my decorations and began completely anew with a fresh tree of opalescent ribbons and turquoise and silver ornaments.  The Snow Queen tree, I called it: frosty and icy and different.

No doubt I’ll enjoy my Snow Queen Tree for years to come.  And yet, this year, as I turned out the room lights and lit my  tree for the first time, stepping back to admire my handiwork, it seemed to me that there was a ghostly presence inhabiting the room with me. A little child—myself—stood staring in wonder at a tall, tall, green tree, garlanded in polished red apples and strings of popcorn and white candles—staring in wonderment and joy, while a visiting angel held her by the hand.

Merry Whatever-Doesn’t-Offend You!  As my blog posts are published on Wednesdays, I will be taking Christmas and New Year’s days off.  My best love and blessings to you and yours for a peaceful, healthy and joyous holiday.  See you the first week of 2020! 

Lopsided No More

§   On December 12, 2018, I published a blog post about my lopsided Christmas tree. Well, much like Star Wars, the saga continues…  §

I hit the Lopsided Tree with my car again.

Damn teeny one-car garage.

Damn teeny-tiny Christmas tree boxes that the disassembled tree never, never ever, fits back into after the season is over.

The Lopsided Tree was parked in a corner of my garage, fully assembled but with branches compacted and wound about with twine to keep them in place. And, yes, the duct-taped-and-tied-on-with-ribbon top branch was still in place, lopsided as all get-out, but appealing and cute.

But at some point during the summer months, the tree must have fallen over as I exited the garage, bent on some errand. Bent, indeed! For I returned and, easing into my narrow, short, not-SUV-ready garage, I failed to stop in time before cruising over the tumbled tree.

Ooops.

This time it was not the injured top branch which bore the brunt of the damage. Instead, several of the umbrella branches—the quick-set type which just open into place–crunched under the car tires. They were loose and floppy and quite obviously irreparable.  Examining the damage, I sighed, gave the lopsided tree the last rites, pushed it upright back into its corner, and made space in my budget to begin saving toward a replacement tree.

And so it came to pass that late October  (yeah, I know, it wasn’t even Halloween yet, but the Christmas displays were already prominent in all the stores) found me on the hunt for a new Christmas tree. After several disappointing false starts, I ventured far down the road to a home goods store where I had in the past experienced great luck in finding the obscure things I wanted. It was there I discovered my new little tree: much shorter than the lopsided tree, but prelit and with the soft, fluffy branches the manufacturers like to call “cashmere”.  I lifted the compact box (the box into which the tree, next January, was sure to never again fit!) into my cart.

But in the months since I had inadvertently destroyed the lopsided tree, I’d been giving the whole “Christmas decorating” matter some serious thought.  Two years previously I’d simplified much of my Christmas décor.  Now I realized that I wanted a completely different tree.  What, I pondered, what could I do differently? And why was this so important to me?

I love Christmas. I always have. I love the old, familiar carols just as much as the new songs that breathe life into the season. I love choosing presents, finding that just-right gift; I love wrapping them while sipping mulled cider. I love the scents of pine and the glimmer of candle flame. But in recent years, I’d found  that decorating my tree felt more like a chore than a pleasure. Why? I needed to know why.

After much thought, I realized that my annual tree theme of bright red or plaid ribbons and golden ornaments felt stale and weary.  I’d chosen that color scheme when trying something different just after my divorce. And beloved though some of my ornaments were, they’d watched over many a not-terribly-happy Christmas day.  (The year when, having eaten the lovely Christmas lunch I’d prepared, everyone bailed without so much as carrying a dirty plate to the kitchen, leaving me all alone to a tearful afternoon of  clearing up the mess; the year when a beloved relative had fallen into a coma on Christmas day, and I, having gone to keep the family company, had gotten lost in the dark on the way home, terrified but unable to summon assistance because I’d forgotten my cell phone; the Christmas when another relative, while enjoying the special dinner I’d worked so hard to cook, had mocked my aging nativity figurines…) There was, I concluded, a lot of accumulated negative energy infiltrating my Christmas décor.

So I began sorting through the boxes of decorations, keeping only a few of those most deeply precious. I’d already refurbished my disparaged nativity figurines (see Repainting the Nativity, 01/16/19).img_20190115_110047196 (2) I bundled up ornaments and garland and donated them to a charity thrift shop.

Now, with my new, non-lopsided tree in the cart, I searched for equally new decorations, fresh and free of negative associations. SnowQueenTree (2)Brilliant new colors: turquoise and silver and opalescent white. A Christmas tree unlike anything I’d done previously.

As I am Vintage, I may find myself, sooner than I like, downsizing to a “Not Quite Giving Up on Christmas” tabletop tree. And I will always recall with pleasure the many Christmas trees I have decorated with a fair degree of artistry and enjoyment.

But despite having moved on, I will always remember that quirky Lopsided Tree.

Rooms of Darkness

§  This year my annual Halloween poem speaks of true demons: the demons of one’s heart and mind and spirit…  §

Since beginning this blog in 2017, it’s been my brief tradition to include a ghostly little poem for Halloween.  I began with a sweet but mysterious story poem I wrote for my great niece and nephew, Ghost Kitty Walks, and continued in 2018 with another story poem I had written decades ago, Struggling Home–a work that, when written,  told an engagingly creepy ghost story while actually helping me exorcise some old anguish.

Bearing those two blog posts in mind, I searched through my hundreds (no exaggeration, this–quite genuinely several hundred) of poems for a verse also written many years ago, Alicia Walks Softly.  This was another story poem, about a ghost who walked nightly to weep at the site of her own grave.  It seemed an appropriately seasonal subject!  Unfortunately, I could not locate the poem.  I wasted a somewhat-pleasant hour sifting through ring binders and loose sheets and simply scads of poems, amusing myself,  reading a number of verses that were quite frankly awful (why in the name of God did I write that, and–bigger question–why on earth did I ever keep it?!), and astonishing myself with works I had forgotten and had, unbelievably, written, and written well, at very young ages.   Hunting for Alicia Walks Softly proved fruitless, though.  It was simply nowhere to be found.  And, sadly, I could recall only the first stanza and the final line of the work–far too little to reconstruct it.

But as I sifted through my poetry–so much written, so few (only six) ever published–I came across one that, while definitely neither a story in verse nor a ghost poem, seemed to fit the bill for my Halloween-themed blog.  Certainly, it spoke to the seasonal topic with its references to demons.  This time, though, my poem speaks of true demons: the demons and devils of one’s heart and serveimageES3CCUHSmind and soul.

And so, for this Halloween blog, I offer you Rooms of Darkness.

 

Rooms of Darkness

I sleep in rooms of darkness, no longer needing light.
But in my distant childhood, I feared the coming night,
for ghosts and devils, demons, each eve awaited me,
with caves formed by my covers the only place to flee.

No more such childish tremors.  The shadows of my room
mold not the shapes of devils from shades within the gloom.
I’ve not the indecision to open or to close
my eyes–to face the horror, or hide in shammed repose.

I am adult.  My demons stand squarely in the sun.
I’ve even less escape route.  There is no place to run
where heartache cannot conquer, nor need not locate me.
From loss, distress, confusion, there is no place to flee.

I vanquished childhood’s demons, I thought, but did not know
that creatures forged in sadness will follow where one goes.
The shades and shapes of sorrow still rule my troubled heart.
I’ve never quite forsaken my demons of the dark.

May you have a fun, happy and ghost-free Halloween!

 

Taking Down the Christmas Once More

(This post first appeared on January 2, 2017.  It now appears with pertinent edits.)

Today, as I always phrase it, I “took down the Christmas”.

The fireplace mantel, deep in dust after four weeks covered in garland and lights and candles, shines once more under an application of lemon oil. The cheerfully-decorated wax taper candles—the ones that cost me so many hours of searching to find in a world that seems now to use only LED lights–have been wrapped in tissue and gently stored.

Outside, the garlands draping each carriage light have been removed. The Yule wreath once more resides on a hook within the coat closet, having been replaced with a sign celebrating the next holiday to come, St. Valentine’s Day.

The cheerful Yule placemats and napkins have been discarded to the laundry hamper, as have the decorated hand towels from the bathrooms. The live mistletoe, dry to brittleness, is wrapped in a paper napkin and carefully enclosed within a glass dish, where myth and legend say it will now protect my home from fire.

The colorful holiday cards have not been discarded; as always, I’ve placed them thoughtfully into the storage boxes for ornaments and garland. Next holiday season, as I once more take out all the precious Christmas décor, I will find them there. I will sit and reread each of the loving, thoughtful sentiments, perhaps with a personal message added; I will look once more at enclosed photographs; I will, perhaps, shed a tear, coming across the card sent to me by someone who is now gone, or signed with the names of pets who have passed on–as I, in fact, did, during this most recent Christmas season. Then, and only then, will I recycle the holiday cards, having once more relived the pleasure of receiving them and their loving messages.

The tree has been crushed down to its smallest size and crammed into a corner of the garage, where, I hope, it will not topple over this year! Each of the boxes of ornaments has been specifically labeled (Breakable Ornaments. Unbreakable Ornaments. Most Precious Ornaments. Angel. Stockings and Stocking Holders) and stacked in yet another corner of the packed garage.

The beautiful crocheted lace and cutwork tablecloth, handworked more than a half-century ago by my Italian great-aunts, has been delicately laundered and starched and pressed, and then folded into its special storage box. In its place once more resides the tapestry cloth given me a decade ago by my beloved late mother-in-law—just as beautiful and precious, yet different.

All the living room furnishings once again reside in their proper place. No more the rocker crammed up against the fireplace hearth; the green armchair blocking the path to the French doors. Instead, there is space to walk a normal path through the room.

Everything is, in fact, brighter and cleaner and more orderly and spacious than it was just a few hours ago.

And sadder. Somehow, infinitely sadder.

The Oak King and The Holly King

(This Winter Solstice story first appeared on this blog on December 21, 2017.)

It is a night in prehistory, someplace in the area that will one day be called Britain. Those in this tiny village of mud thatched roundhouses live a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence, eking a few precious crops from the soil each summer season, hunting and fishing, gathering from the wild.  They pray each summer  for a bountiful harvest, that they might have enough to survive the coming winter.

The nights have been growing colder for many weeks now, but, what is even more frightening, they have been growing longer. The elders in the village say that this has happened before; many times, in fact.  The sun rises later and later, sets earlier and earlier, and each successive night lasts longer.  The elders have grown wise merely by the act of surviving so many repetitions of this occurrence.  And so they choose the largest, hardest, longest-burning oak logs and set them aside for what they know is coming: the Dark Night.  The Long Night.  The fearful night when Darkness overpowers the Light.  They set that hardy wood aside for the night when everyone in this little village will huddle together, seeking warmth, and desperately hoping that this time, this time once more, the Darkness will not win.  The unbearable, long night will end, must end, and the morning sun be reborn.

Gathered About the Yule Log
Gathered About the Yule Log

And as they huddle together about the bright light of that long-burning log, stories are told. Legends are born.  For the light of the log is like passion, like the heat of battle, and so surely it must represent a battle – the battle of Light and Darkness.  Perhaps it is two great Kings who are battling ,  or even Gods  (for there must always be kings and gods – someone, after all, must be in charge of all this.)   Perhaps one of these God Kings lives within the oak log itself, the oak twined with ivy, ivy which remains green even in winter, and with mistletoe, that mystic plant which appears growing high in the trees without reason or explanation.  This Oak King must be battling the Holly King, whose sharp, thorny green plant bears red berries like blood.

And what of the sun, the golden sun, the longed-for sun? Drawing perhaps on some misty memory of an ancient  sun-scorched land known only from legend, they recall the myth of  Nuit, starry Goddess of the Night Sky, from whose body each morning the sun was reborn.  Surely a God King must have a wife: a wife pregnant, laboring, struggling to give birth to the Sun.  A family — a family and history remembered even by those who have no memories of that land.  (It will be centuries yet before another small family will fly into Egypt, that ancient land of the starry Goddess…)

And so at sundown, the Great Battle commences: the battle for the very Earth itself. If the Holly King wins, the laboring Goddess will perish in childbirth, the sun never be reborn, and the Earth and all its inhabitants will die.

But the Holly King never wins. Time after time, battle after battle, he is slain, dying as he knows he must die: King, and God, and Sacrifice.  Darkness never conquers the Light.  And at the moment of dawn, the Queen of Heaven once again gives birth to the Child who is the Light.

And so it is that all the ancient legends blend, and twine, and intermingle, into this singular neverending Truth: that though the Darkness may gain sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes minutes, its reign upon the Earth and her peoples must always, eventually fade; that sacrifice and courage and wisdom enable one to battle through the long and fearful night; that the pain and toil of women who carry and labor the children of the Earth into existence allows us always to persist and continue.

And now in closing this ancient but always-new tale, I send (as Fra Giovanni once wrote in his Christmas Greeting, quoting the great Song of Solomon), “…the hope that for you, now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.”

 

The Word of Your Year

(Note: This post originally appeared on December 31, 2017, under the title “Word of the Year”.  An afterword follows this re-posting.)

I stopped making New Year’s resolutions well over a decade ago. I saw no point in setting myself up for certain failure; it was simply depressing, and merely reinforced my bad opinion of myself. (I feel the same way about goals.  Goals are something I set just to prove to myself that I am a failure.  I don’t set goals anymore, either.)

For a long time prior to that decision, I’d followed Robert Fulghum’s sterling advice: On New Year’s day, I sat down and wrote a list of every good thing I’d done in the previous year, backdated it, and called it my resolutions. This was eminently satisfying for a number of years, even though I knew I was sort of missing the whole “resolution thing” point.

So, casting about for some way to set myself some type of goal-yet-not-a-goal, I was struck by an idea: I could still forego a resolution, yet choose something—some character-building, life changing something, to focus on during the coming year.  Not a goal, I decided; a focus.  With that in mind, what if I chose just one word, one meaningful word, and attempted to concentrate on it throughout the coming year?  Not to accomplish it—simply keep it at the forefront of my mind, and make it active in my life.  One word was so little.  Surely I could do that much.

I liked the concept. One word, one focus, seemed like a challenge I could meet.  The trick, I realized, would be finding a way to make myself remember to focus on that word— to keep adding it to my life.  (Well, that, and picking my word in the first place.)

Amazingly, having come up with the concept, I found that my answers came easily.  I’d recently discovered that a lack of assertiveness had caused me a number of problems; assertiveness, then, seemed like a very good first focus word.  But how to keep it at the forefront of my mind?  How not to forget, not just the word itself, but the need to concentrate upon my focus word?  Ha!  That was going to be the real challenge of my not-resolution.

During that first year, I found that tricking myself into remembering my focus word was the best way to go. I took post-its and scraps of note paper and proceeded to hide them throughout my home in places where I knew I would not find them to easily, yet was sure to look.  Since I wasn’t about to turn the heavy mattress on the bed more than once a year, one of the notes emblazoned with “My Focus This Year Is Assertiveness” was pushed into the thin hollow between the mattress and box springs.  Another went under the couch cushions—I had been known, from time to time, to actually lift them up and vacuum beneath them (or at least search for loose change).  And, yes, one note, slipped into a plastic bag, went into the bottom of the vegetable bin in the frig!

And, amazingly, it worked. I came across those notes again and again throughout that first year and was forced to remember that I was supposed to be keeping my attention on becoming more assertive.  And while I cannot now say that it changed my life, I can say with certainty that it made a difference.  By the end of the year, I knew that I still had a very long way to go on learning to be assertive, but I was no longer quite the wimp I’d been twelve months earlier, either.

I’ve used many Focus Words in the intervening years, and I’ve learned to choose them carefully. The Universe, I’ve discovered, will cooperate with me—oh, yes, will it ever!  Choose Peace as a focus word, and every possible non-peaceful situation imaginable will be tossed at me like errant baseballs.  And, for the love of heaven, never, ever, choose Patience !

But, defiant in the face of overreaching myself, the focus word I chose for 2017 was Magnificent.

And it was.

Afterword: In 2018, the Word I chose was “Kindness”.  I learned, quite amazingly, that kindness is not just something we extend to others, but also that we must, humbly and with gratitude,  receive.  It is also something we must extend to ourselves.  I learned, too, that though I may behave in a kindly manner to another, requiring of myself that I treat them with courtesy and consideration, I’m often shamed to admit that true kindness from within my heart is absent.  I will carry this knowledge with me into another year, and hope to create and extend more true loving kindness to all.

 I’d love to have you share in the Comments what you choose as your Word of the Year for the upcoming change of the calendar.

 

Reindeer and Bullies

Since my earliest childhood, I have hated the Christmas song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.

I associate my distaste for the carol with the fact that I am now and always have been sensitive to the effects of bullying. Bullying was a culturally accepted child-rearing and social practice during my childhood, and, while still extremely common (and if you doubt that, just glance at the comments bandied about at the end of news stories!), is slowly being recognized as the abuse that it is. Nevertheless, when I was a child, no one, neither other children nor adults, thought a thing of verbal bullying.  Parents who did not hesitate to label their own children “dumbass”, “blockhead”, “idiot” or far worse things paid lip service to the ideal that “name calling is not nice”. Those same verbally abusive parents scolded their children when the kids mirrored adult behavior and mocked their playmates. This dichotomy probably resulted in many a psychologically screwed-up adult.

Perhaps it was because I was labeled “skinny” by adults that I felt such a distaste for verbal bullying. (Ah, to have that problem now!)    In the late 1950s, when my adult relatives and my parents’ friends felt perfectly comfortable discussing my physical defects, thoughtlessly and loudly, right in front of me, it was not considered a good thing to be “skinny”.  Like Anne of Green Gables, I had “not a pick on my bones”, and was consequently humiliated in a world of plump, dimpled girls.

But on to Rudolph. I encountered the carol in my first-grade classroom, and I to this day I remember my distress on hearing the lyrics sung so cheerfully by Miss Markey, my teacher.  “All of the other reindeer/used to laugh and call him names…”  The shock I felt at hearing those words echoed right to my bones, but I (always the well-behaved little student) bit my tongue.  At home, I’d been known to occasionally use a word or phrase picked up from my adult male relatives, and, had I been a few years older, I might not have restrained myself.  I’d have burst out with my Pop-Pop’s well known phrase, “The hell you say!”

Uh…if we laughed and called someone names on the school playground, we got at least a token scolding.  So exactly why were we singing about it?

Bewildered, I listened to the rest of the words of the song, feeling even more confused. Mind you, this was 1960.  Civil rights were but a glimmer in the eye of Dr. Martin Luther King, and racial prejudice, even in the nominally-northern state of Indiana, was rife.  But, due to early encounters (see the post of 06/01/2018, “Amosandra”), I, although fish-belly white, was personally familiar with racial prejudice.  And it seemed to me quite clear that  this was what the song was about. Rudolph’s nose was a different color. That made him fair game for exclusion and humiliation.  To reach the status of any other reindeer he had, in fact, to prove that he was better than they were–sort of like Jesse Owens winning the Olympics.

To me, a six-year-old child attempting to make sense of the lyrics, this song was not about his eventual triumph over humiliation and abuse…because the humiliation and abuse should never have happened at all in the first place. Why, my child-mind demanded to know, didn’t anyone protect poor Rudolph?  What was Santa thinking?!

It was a rotten song, a song that glorified rudeness and humiliation and prejudice, and I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.  After that, I mouthed the words, but I refused to sing along.

And in my heart, I’m still that astounded six-year-old, sitting in my classroom, shocked to my core about a song which laughingly portrays bullying and bias. To this day, as each holiday season rolls around, I refuse to watch the classic Claymation show, and I switch off the radio the minute “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” begins to play. My heart will always ache for poor Rudolph, bullied and shunned and rejected for nothing but a physical characteristic.  For me, that pathetic little Christmas carol will never be about Rudolph’s eventual triumph over adversity, for he should never, never ever, have had to prove himself in the first place.

Only At the Holidays

I’ve made my own Christmas cards for nearly three decades now, each year choosing a special photograph or a theme as my holiday greeting to family and friends. At the time I began creating personal cards, the only way to do so involved bringing a printed picture to a photo shop and making a selection from a very limited variety of card designs.  But just a few years after I began sending photo cards, color photocopies became affordable.  Delighted with the new opportunity, that holiday season I had my young daughter draw a picture of  our family at Christmas—Mom, Dad, herself and three cats–added a greeting, and had copies made to send out for the holiday.

Not long after that, I bought our first home computer, which came with a wonderful publishing software called Picture It!  (which, I must sadly report, has gone the way of the dodo, but it was a fantastic software).  From that point on, my holiday cards became more professional, more personal, and involved considerably more effort—sometimes hours of work, in fact.  It didn’t matter; I  thoroughly enjoyed creating my special greeting cards.  I even created a succession of logos for the back of the cards, updating our trademark as family circumstances changed. Logo for Yule

But, just like the software, eventually my state-of-the-art Moo Cow computer—fondly named Hal, after the evil genius computer from 2001–became a venerable antique.  Nevertheless, I kept the old dinosaur hanging around, solely due to that publishing software.   Until Hal went permanently to the blue screen of death, I booted him up once yearly to create my Christmas cards.

In the years since, never having found an inexpensive software with the versatility and functionality of the old Picture It! , I’ve been forced to create my cards using just one side of the standard piece of paper.  They don’t please me nearly as much, but I’ve still enjoyed making them.  And my family and friends assure me they enjoy the special greeting cards and look forward each year to seeing what I’ve come up with.  Some tell me that they even keep each of my cards, while tossing “store bought” ones in the recycle bin at the close of each holiday season.

Yet I have one upsetting memory connected with my personal greeting cards and, each year as I sit down to my annual ritual of creating my special holiday greetings, I recall it.  And it still bothers me.

It was back in the old “photo card” era. Someone, knowing my love of all things Christmas, had given me a giant stuffed Santa.  Reindeer being unavailable, I’d perched Stuffed Santa on my daughter’s old red rocking horse, posed him by the Christmas tree, and snapped a photo, which I used the following year for my holiday cards.

I thought the cards were cheerful and whimsical—bright greens and reds, Santa and the tree, the silly rocking horse instead of a reindeer. But it seemed not everyone felt that way about my choice, for a month or two after the holiday, as I had dinner with a group of friends, something was said that reminded two of them of my annual card, and they began to ridicule it…right in front of me.  Perhaps unthinkingly, or just uncaringly, they made mocking remarks to each other about the greeting card as I sat there, listening and slightly humiliated.

I said nothing; what was there to say? They didn’t appreciate my creative effort. That was their privilege.  But was there any need, I asked myself silently, for them to have humbled me in front of our other friends by scornful remarks?

Gauguin is said to have wept over disparagement of his paintings by art critics who themselves couldn’t have painted a cow barn. And while I hardly compared myself to a great artist, my little yearly creative expression was satisfying, and brought me joy each holiday season…and I felt like crying  to hear it belittled.

I might have let that unpleasant experience put me off creating my holiday cards, but I chose not to. I’ve continued to create greeting cards, as I said, for decades.  And each year as I sit down at my computer and await the magic of inspiration to strike, I recall the casual cruelty of two former friends.  Then I smile and remind myself that the spirit of the season—true loving kindness—should continue not just until the last greeting card is tossed out with the wrapping paper, but throughout the year.

Struggling Home

(A spooky little Halloween story told in verse.)

The square of light spilling from my window
casts liquid gold on the rain-drenched streets,
while angry winds, beating harshly sullen
reverberate like an army’s feet
and pound the night with a vicious fury.
An evening fit not for man nor beast,
I think–when, startled, I glimpse the outline
of someone walking the darkened street.

Sad Rain 3 cropHer silhouette bleared and fogged by raindrops,
small shoulders bowed unmistakeably,
a sodden figure that struggles forward,
the very picture of misery.
I know her!  She is my neighbor’s daughter.
Her father leads her a sorry life.
I wonder at her uncaring parent.
To send her out, and on such a night!

(For what she carries proclaims her mission;
 her father’s need, and the cause of strife.)

Her shadow moves from my light.  I hurry
up to the doorstep to call her in.
But I’m too late.  Though I call, no answer.
She cannot hear me above the wind.
And I wonder, closing my door quite slowly,
if any other might have the heart
to spare a thought for that broken figure
struggling home in the windy dark.

…That was last night, and I met my neighbor
on the street corner today.  I asked
if she, his daughter, had journeyed safely,
reaching their home with his liquor pack.
He stared at me from eyes deeply sunken,
his face unshaven, jaw gaping low.
He tried to speak.  Tears grimed down his cheeks,
and then, angered, bitter, confused, he moaned.

“Damn fool!” he cursed me, wiped tears, and whispered,
“my daughter’s dead–died two weeks ago!”

…It’s not rained since for a month.  Such clear nights!
Such nights as I’ve had no cause to think
of storms, or of that streetside encounter
when reason tottered upon the brink.
But clouds roll up, and the storm is threatening,
and I dare not look upon the street
where pall of night is illuminated,
nor lend an ear to the sound of feet.

I dare not open my door, nor listen,
nor gaze at gaps where the curtains part,
nor spare a thought for that broken figure,
struggling home in the windy dark.