All present at Christmas
Last Sunday at the Chilmark Community Church, Arlene Bodge preached nostalgically about the Christmases of her youth and decried the commercialism of Christmas 2009. The minister was correct, of course, that joy at the birth of Jesus has become buried under the greedy quest for ever-more-up-to-date Nintendos and iPods and whatever the hot toy is this year. Ms. Bodge worried that today's children are being cheated of the real Christmas.
In her childhood, as in my own, the music played in stores was Christmas carols, not novelty songs. The biggest treat in her Christmas stocking was the tangerine in the toe, a miracle in a snowy December in the 1940s. She felt herself rich as she set off to Woolworth's with two dollars to buy presents for her mother, grandmother, and sister; and one present to and from each was enough. Joy, not rescuing the economy, was the reason for the season.
Grumbling about the anomie of Christmas is nothing new. The English banned Christmas celebrations in the 16th century because gangs of rioters extorted money, gifts, and food from the upper classes, sometimes violently. The seemingly cheerful song "We wish you a merry Christmas" has its origins in those violent Christmas revels, and the line, "We won't go until we get some, so bring it out here!" gives a hint of that.
More in tune with Ms. Bodge's sermon is the 18th century satire by Richard Steele titled "Christmas Greens." Steele writes in the voice of a teenage fashionista who complains that the decorations in her church obscure the sight lines between herself and the young men with whom she would like to flirt.
I'm willing to concede that Christmas has become detached from its religious roots. But I think in spite of the crass commercialism of the age, wonderful, positive new traditions emerge which today's children and grandchildren will remember as fondly as Arlene remembers hers.
My children's Christmases moved to the Vineyard in 1972, when our oldest was 10. I'm pretty sure that they'll remember how the oysters came from Tisbury Great Pond for the stew on Christmas Eve, and that our fragrant Christmas tree was a cedar cut from our neighbor's field. I think they'll remember the white walls of a country church decorated with holly and pine, and lit at the end for "Silent Night," by scores of little candles. I know they remember that their mother read from chapter two of Luke, and then their father hammed up Clement Moore's old familiar poem. They'll remember going docilely to bed and pretending, even when they were in college, that what filled their stockings was magic.
My children's children have their own Christmas traditions, some handed down from two sets of grandparents, some brand new. My granddaughters will remember decorating the Christmas tree and lighting the Chanukah menorah all on the same night.
What positive Christmas traditions do you hope your children and grandchildren will remember? Santa Claus at the West Tisbury fire station? The Grinch's epiphany, or Charlie Brown's naive sympathy for the sad little tree? The Edgartown Christmas parade? The Messiah, or the Minnesingers? The Gatchells' light show? Wrapping presents for the Red Stocking Fund? The temporary dining table that reached out into the hall? The delicious wild turkey, or those little pastel mints no one ever actually eats? Dad burning his fingers trying to realign the angel merry-go-round without blowing out the candles? The lonely neighbor Mom invited to share Christmas dinner?
The Times invites you to respond to Arlene Bodge's grumbling. Write a comment below. Include your name, town, and age, and tell us the positive traditions you hope your children (or grandchildren) will remember from Christmas 2009. No grumbling; send those comments somewhere else. We'll print the collective Christmas joy in the paper next week.