I can hardly remember the last Christmas I spent in America. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with an American Christmas: I have spent hot ones in Florida, cold ones in Boston, and colder ones in Michigan. I still remember Christmas time 1986 when the temperature seemed arctically cold and my near-to-Christmas wedding on the 19th found people huddled in an under-heated Episcopal Church straining to find the melody to Rossetti’s lyric hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It was a great wedding. Shame about the marriage.
I don’t remember much about Christmas in California where we moved soon after. My oldest daughter was just two and I was convinced she had CDD—colour deficit disorder. I used crayons, balloons, poster paint and comic books to get her to say “red, green, yellow.” But she would only say “lellow.” Everything was lellow, The red train was lellow. The white ceiling was lellow. The green table was lellow. In despair I gave up and resigned myself to the fact that my firstborn was a visually challenged person, until one day, by surprise, she asked me to bring her a pink stuffed rabbit. Is it pink I said hopefully. You said pink bunny! No, she said, defiantly: lellow. She liked the way it sounded. It may be informative to know that this same girl is in the last year of an MFA program in scenic design at Boston University.
I remember Christmas in Papua New Guinea. I had been hired to organize a program in the study of religion at the national university in Port Moresby, the capital. In local terms that made me a “bigpella”—entitled to pigs– and my daughter the child of a bigpella. We spent the first Christmas on arrival at a local hotel called the Islander, where later Marthe, my daughter, learned to swim or rather to race against much older Australian children to the water born. I wasn’t sure that Christmas came to Papua New Guinea, but somehow we managed to convince her it did, or rather that Santa had a very good map and a swim suit and had taken his anti-malarials.
There were balloons (even yellow ones) and toys brought from California and especially a few VCR tapes she played endlessly, in seeming obliviousness to the fact that the world outside her temporary accom in the Vice Chancellor’s house was about as far from downtown Sacramento as it was possible to get. What I chiefly remember is opening the screenless windows to the outside and watching giant fruit bats glide by–wondering what I would have done if one had mistakenly glided into the hotel room.
I have to say though, given the choice between Christmas in California and Christmas in Port Moresby, give me PNG any day.
After that there were lots of Christmases in England. I had returned to Oxford as a lecturer and we moved easily between college chapels, Evensong at New and sung Vespers at Christ Church and Keble and the high latinic beauties of the Oxford Oratory. In lots of ways, those were glorious days: a second daughter arrived (do women, I wonder, hate the word “arrived”? She didn’t come with suitcases but in the usual way), and family life was family life.
There were Christmases in Africa, in Malawi to be exact, and in Hawaii and Beirut. One day on Sadat Street a random guy toting what seemed to be the last Christmas tree in the city followed us to our apartment and offered it to us at a deep discount. It is amazing how even the humblest tree (think a Charlie Brown Christmas) cleans up nicely with enough stuff hung on it a and few hundred sparkly lights. The daughters were getting older—learning Arabic (both) and about boys (the older) and the Middle East. When we moved onto the American University campus and into a rather grand apartment in 2002 Christmas included a box of special chocolates that before wrapping Anna, the Oxford deliveree, had essentially devoured. Guilt stricken and sad, she said, “I saved you some.” Christmas is a time of innocence.
9-11 happened. Afghanistan happened. Iraq happened. After a brief sojourn in Botswana we returned to the States. My marriage collapsed from the inside out. There were Christmases, but they are, sad to say, a bit blurry. We settled in Ithaca, where my ex-wife still is. There were Christmas trees and dinners—she is a commendable cook—but nothing quite came together. Maybe it was boredom: too much travel hath made him mad? Or Ulysses lamenting being with Penelope (funny I thought: that was Ithaca, too). One year I was in Pakistan, soon after in Beijing. My daughters finished college, went to college, went to graduate school. My then-wife wrote to me that while she loved me she could no longer live with me, which was just as well because we were no longer living together anyway. Christmas seemed to disappear. Then the marriage actually did.
This is not a parable. There is no lesson and no moral. It is just a rather predictable story of life and travel, having a family and watching it disperse under the natural conditions that affected it. One of things all families notice, if they are honest, is that Christmas dinner is a great opportunity to release all the tension and hostility of the previous eleven months of the year. At least that is what my story is, or became. It was not always like that. But that is what it became.
There is a lot I miss. Christmas morning breakfasts. Impatient children on Christmas morning. The dulcets of boy choirs in candlelit chapels, and going out into the hoarfrost afterward. Plum pudding and mulled wine. Feelings.
In the long run, I think Christmas is a memory, anyway. We want it long after we can have it. It is like wanting eternal youth and settling for a new mobile phone and gift cards. But that’s deception isn’t it? It is everything Christmas isn’t supposed to be. Are you Jesus? Do you really deserve gifts? Is the ceremonial observation of greed not the death of the symbol of innocence?
Just asking. I think in my life I would like to have one more Christmas, to bunch together all the good Christmases of my past and let them float before my eyes at one last dinner. That was Dickens’s vision: Scrooge loved the Merry Christmas of his past, deplored the present and feared the future. But he is wrong in thinking that the restoration of the past is the cure for the present. We are what we are, and that means that in part we will always be what we fear. Dickens thought the Christmas spirit was eternal, bigger than a single, miserable old man. In fact, we all live with the same fear Scrooge lived with and the regrets that made him the way he was. Christmas is not the cure for anything. And it can be the cause of many bad things.
The birth of Jesus in the New Testament is a late addition to gospels that were written about an itinerant preacher who was crucified, and whom tradition declared risen from the dead. That is a legend, too—but an early one. If the story of the birth of Jesus has any bearing on Christmas any longer, remember its sadness: the dislocation, the fear, the wandering, the threats. Even the story of the Magi is the story of spies who have come to remind the new king he will die. There is plenty of joy in the tale, but there is plenty of sadness too. Like life. Like this story. Like Christmas.