Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Angels in Spring Mills

(Here is a Christmas column from a few years ago.)

During the week before Christmas the rains came and washed away all the snow. It was a cold, dripping rain that only added to the early darkness and made the gloom of a hard year a little deeper. Rain in this part of the country at Christmas seems unnatural, like the presidential campaigns that continued right up until Christmas Eve. There was no good news and each candidate’s sound bites made you hope that this one, at least, would never be elected.

Everywhere I went the neighbors and friends with whom I exchanged more than a passing greeting seemed wrapped in apprehension. The cost of everything we needed was going up, while only things we could do without were getting cheaper. It was a good time to turn off the radio and forget about the stock market and the falling dollar, and not worry about how to pay for the gifts already under the tree. It was a good time to ignore the last campaigner’s desperate sound bite and go and look for a star and see the Christmas angels.

When we got to the church in Spring Mills at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, it was already dark and the parking lot was filling up with cars. The trees dripped rain and Penns Creek was a shadow beyond the grassy slope. Children streamed through the lit doorway of the little church to get on their costumes and prepare for the play. This year’s nativity play was more ambitious than in years past. Ms. Songer, the drama teacher at the high school, wrote parts for 20 actors, with entrances and exits, songs and rhyming dialog. There were second graders playing shepherds and sheep; teenagers in the roles of Mary and Joseph, the narrator, angel Gabriel, and the star of Bethlehem; and the middle-school-aged girls were the heavenly host of angels. Three adult men were singing Wise Men, and I was typecast in two small parts as the evil King Herod and the heartless Innkeeper who sent the weary couple off to the stable to bed down with the goats and donkeys, also played by young teenagers. Except for the bath robes and cardboard crowns, the play might have been performed without much change a hundred years ago, and the parents could have watched the young children and the beautiful angels with the same awe and delight as on this Christmas Eve.

There is a timelessness to this story that affects me each time I see it. The rest of the world shifts its shape around us, but we haven’t changed much on the inside since the days of Herod the king. Like Mary and Joseph, we are on a journey through a strange land, following whatever star we can find. But it is mostly an inner journey, and we cannot take our Blackberry or IPod for entertainment.

The world is too much with us, the poet says, and once in a while you need to step away, out of the darkness into the light, cross the parking lot and come in among the angels, follow the cardboard-and-gold-foil star along with the Wise Men. I made the most of my half dozen lines, basing both of my characters on Snidely Whiplash, the arch villain from the old Dudley Do-Right cartoons. Despite that, the show went off well. The sheep baaed on cue. No one dropped the baby Jesus.

And when the play was over the overhead lights were dimmed as we lit our candles, passing the flame from row to row, making small holes in the darkness. There were angels in Spring Mills this year, and shepherds, and animals that sing. They have all taken off their costumes, but they are still with us in their human forms. The winter is long and dark, but filled with amazing things.

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Radio Silence

Sorry for the radio silence. I’ve been trapped in occupied France or maybe in Casablanca where I went for the waters. No, that must have been the movie we showed at last month’s Movie Night. The sad truth is that my computer crashed and I had to send off to Dell for a new one. That and all of my 17 years of columns and 2,000 or so photographs were trapped in the little black box when there was an unexpected scrunch and my computer hard drive imploded.

So, a little panic was in order. I asked around and on a snowy morning found myself driving down the creek road, over the bridge, and down a long gravel lane to a house in the woods. A large man in a house robe and slippers, a retired carpenter/computer engineer, named Larry took my computer and said he would do what he could with a mournful shake of his head. At least he didn’t berate me for not backing up my data.

Two days later Larry called and said I could come and pick up the external hard drive, which should restore all my files and photos and the ninety hours of lesson plans my wife had completed (I told her to back up).

This was probably a perfectly good time for everyone to take a break from looking at screens anyway, at least it was for me. I hope you all had a safe and memorable Christmas, a warm and safe time with family and friends, lots of good food and a glass of deep red wine, and time to read a book, maybe something by Dickens or Jane Austen. I’ll break silence again soon.

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The night is dark and filled with the rustle of leaves. In the downtown the lights shine out of the storefronts and the students walk in groups to and from the bars and restaurants. On busy South Allen Street, couples and groups of friends are entering the well-lit storefront of a secondhand bookshop.

There is movement and a hubbub of conversation. The café at the front of the store is doing good business in café au laits and Caffé Americanos.  Some of the crowd are students, but most are older, people whose cultural touchstones are the day John Kennedy died and the landing on the moon. There is much gray hair among the crowd, though some of it is tied back in ponytails.

Tonight there are chairs set up in rows for a few dozen spectators, and a makeshift stage with armchairs and tables, a lamp and some few stage props. The chairs fill quickly and latecomers stand in a semicircle behind the back row.

If this were taking place a hundred and fifty years ago, we might expect to see the sad, high-domed forehead of Charles Dickens at the front of the room near the stage. This was his kind of amusement, an amateur theatrical, a few friends with talent and a place to show off a new piece of writing.

This is the time of year it seems possible to see Charles Dickens on the streets of State College. I think he would like it here, the old stone houses that look like a London neighborhood of the 19th century, the big mansions that he would not suspect were the frat houses of a hundred college boys, all lit up now with a thousand Christmas lights.

Downtown across from the campus I can see Charles Dickens looking in the shop fronts and the restaurants, studying the menus, in a long frock coat, his hair long and brown with streaks of gray, interesting shoes. The college girls arm-in-arm go by, and laugh and look back, but he is oblivious; the cars rushing by and the stoplights changing color have distracted and delighted him.

We need Charles Dickens now, with Christmas of a new age coming on and the same old weary world with all its problems facing us anew.  It was Dickens, the sad, lonely genius, who made the world care for the poor and needy in this season. Christmas without Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption is hardly even Christmas. It was not just the campaign he waged against child labor in the bitter England of the 1850’s, or the book after book he wrote until he was wasted and broken – he gave us the human face of the season. Between the insane commerce of the shopping malls and the tender story of the savior in a manger, lies the art of the great humanist, Charles Dickens, who gave us this secular Christendom.

Dickens slips in to the back of the store as the play begins. It is the first stage production of “The Zombies of Montrose” by James Morrow, well-known science fiction author, who is in the audience. It is the sort of fun and witty farce that Dickens himself might have produced on a small stage for friends and well-wishers in the days of his great productivity.

This is what he misses most in his exsanguinary days, the intimate applause of friends, the center stage, his ideas thrust into characters unforgettable and eternal. Arabella, the Voodoo Queen, is on stage, dark and lovely, able to restore the dead to life, but only if they agree to serve the poor and needy. It is just his sort of play. Dickens leans forward, brushing aside a twitching newspaper columnist or two. He will work for the needy as always, he promises. Look at me Arabella, and cast your spell.

But it is only a play and the audience applauds and laughs and the author takes a bow. Charles Dickens wanders down the aisle to the fiction section, and there at the section labeled D, he disappears into the shelves of his own timeless creations.


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The Thanksgiving Day newspaper landed on the lawn, causing small seismic tremors with its load of advertising inserts. Thick colored booklets from all of the major retailers spread out on the dining room table, advertising sales that would begin in the early evening and run through the night. The black ink of Friday seeped into the calendar page of Thursday, like Marley’s ghost dragging its chain of debt.

When I was a boy in south Florida, I spent each October and November poring over the Sears Christmas catalog with my brother and sister. We would lie on the floor of the old stone house hidden among fruit trees, with our heads together, skipping quickly past the clothing ads and into the bright colored toy section. There were the treasures I longed for, double holstered cap guns, space stations, baseball gloves, and plastic castles with one hundred knights on horseback, all arranged to capture a boy’s imagination. It was an early training in consumerism.

So, I thumbed through every page of every newspaper catalog Thanksgiving morning, but nothing stirred my imagination. I did not see myself in the skinny jeans or wearing the noise cancelling headphones or tapping the screen of the iPad. I did not want to wait in the late hours of the evening at the door of a big bright store with a crowd of other well-trained consumers. But I was not above it all – no, I wanted my Black Friday, too.

That morning my family got up in shifts based on age, first me, then my wife, then much later the older daughter, followed, after much coaxing, by her teenage sister. By this time, Black Friday had been ongoing for about nine hours. We thought downtown State College, with the students gone for the holiday, would be less hectic, and we were not disappointed. The sidewalks were mostly uncluttered and the shoppers unhurried. Families stopped to look in windows, nobody pushed or cursed. The clerks were unharried.

We ate a leisurely breakfast at the Waffle Shop across from campus, then wandered for an hour among the shops on College Avenue. There were many things I admired, but none that I longed for. We all seemed on the same wavelength, if I read my wife and daughters right. This year we are hoping to save toward a special trip in the future, and the British Isles seem more glistening than ear rings. We bought a few stocking stuffers and thought of England.

My mother always liked to imagine she would take her extended family on a trip to England some day. She wanted to walk among those places she had read about in novels and poetry, the Lake Country of the Romantic poets, the London streets of Dickens, Walter Scott’s misty hills. The years came and went, and she grew too old to climb the hills. It was a sad day when she told us we would have to go on our own without her. But England would remain, green and perfect in her imagination.

We ended the day, as we often do, in the library. There the gifts were all on the shelves, and we plucked them like gold apples, eager and greedy. They were gifts of the imagination for this alternative Black Friday, and we sat in the warm library and read for hours.

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(Published earlier this month in the Centre Daily Times and in Recipe du Jour e-newsletter)

Some years it is hard to get into the Christmas spirit. The days seem all too frantic, with too many things to do piled into too few evenings and weekends. Sometimes I look around in a daze and it is the 20th of December, and I feel at a loss as to when, if ever, I will feel that sense of wonder that I think of as the Christmas spirit.

That spirit is compounded of all those childhood memories that made us almost sick with anticipation — the glimpse of wrapped packages being carried off to a high closet, the tree suddenly appearing in the living room, sprouting lights, and the artificial memories from movies and holiday television specials that pictured Christmas as deep snow, crackling fires, skating on frozen ponds, and frost on the windowpane.

To most of us, the Christmas spirit is Victorian, full of the old language of hymns and Dickens’ Christmas Carol, which as a child growing up on a citrus grove somewhere south of Miami, who had never seen his own breath on a frosty morning, seemed perfectly natural and as it should be. I might be walking barefoot through green grass in December, but in my mind it was new-fallen snow.

From the first time I saw the town of State College and the campus beyond the Allen Street gates, I thought it was that place I had imagined in my childhood fantasy of Christmas. It was autumn and the trees were all scarlet and golden along the quiet streets and the big Victorian mansions near downtown that later turned out to be fraternity houses seemed like homes Charles Dickens would have admired.

So when I felt that spirit of Christmas falling on me as I walked with my older daughter, home from college for the Thanksgiving break, through the streets of downtown and across the campus, into and out of shops, spending time together after months apart, I felt an unexpected joy.

And when she began to tell me about some ideas she had about this Christmas, based I think, on the books she was reading for her young adult literature classes, I was caught up in her vision.
She was telling me about a genre that was becoming popular in children’s books and books for teens called steampunk, a kind of alternative version of history permeated with a Victorian-era sensibility in which the world is powered by steam engines, electronics were never invented, and machines run on gears and levers rather than transistors. Created in science fiction novels of the nineteen seventies and eighties, the steampunk culture is gaining in popularity today, with steampunk clothing and design, and communities devoted to steampunk lifestyles. The new Sherlock Holmes movies, with their intricate gadgets and anachronistic elements, are high steampunk visions.
She said that it would be fun if we could have a steampunk Christmas this year. By that I think she meant a holiday where we played board games instead of video games, went to shops instead of the box stores, gave handmade gifts instead of shopping online, as though some parts of the last hundred years had never happened. It appealed to my sense of wonder, and though it was a warm day for late November, I could sense the coming of snow as we walked together through the imaginary town.

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