Christmas has always been a combination of celebration and crisis for us.
For me, it began about the age of reason, the age when we begin to ask metaphysical questions about the existence of Santa.
I was crawling on the bedroom floor of my parents’ room, playing cops and robbers, when I found a secret stash under the bed, a treasure trove that included toy soldiers of Captain Gallant and the French Foreign Legion. When I ran to tell my mother, she promptly explained they weren’t mine. They were meant for another little boy who was the son of her friend and whose father, I suspect, was in the French Foreign Legion. Lucky kid.
Well, that year I learned about the omniscience and beneficence of Santa because several weeks later when I opened up a very large package under the Christmas tree, there was a collection of French Foreign Legion soldiers.
God bless Santa. But it got me wondering because also under the tree was the same Rawlings baseball glove, the same cheesy bow tie, and the same Hardy Boy novels that the other little boy was supposed to receive. Santa must have gotten a great deal on toy soldiers that year.
Over the years, Christmas was marked by major and minor events that sometimes overshadowed the gaiety. There was the time my mother was walking down the stairs with an armful of gifts and stumbled – and ended up in the hospital emergency room, where we spent the night singing Christmas carols.
Then, there was the time my wife, who was nine months pregnant, slipped and fell in the stream because I had insisted that we go to the tree farm, over hill and dale, in search of the perfect Christmas tree – which we never found. Our first daughter, somewhat shaken, was born shortly afterward, and on some days I wonder whether that episode had anything to do with her behavior.
I’ll never forget the Christmas Eve my father passed away while my sister was driving him home from her son’s school pageant. We were in New Hampshire, but the minister in the hospital at midnight told my sister, “What a wonderful gift to celebrate Christmas in heaven.” After my grief subsided, I realized he was right. It was a wonderful gift.
There was the time our family was decorating the tree, and the room erupted into mayhem as my four daughters started screaming hysterically because while they were putting ornaments on, they disrupted a spiders’ nest and dozens of frightened spiders went scrambling for cover across the branches. The tree was promptly dispatched to a snow pile on the front lawn.
In the interest of avoiding another crisis, we got an artificial tree the next year, but when we came home from Christmas Eve Mass, we discovered it had toppled over, and all the heirloom ornaments we got from my grandmother were broken. Christmas trees have always been problematic for us.
Perhaps our most wonderful Christmas was the first year we spent in New Hampshire with our four daughters, watching the snow fall on the mountains. Even though we didn’t have furniture, we had a nativity set and a small artificial tree that we surrounded with gifts. When we left the house for Mass, the temperature was 10 below zero, and as the car chugged along through the biting cold, my daughter Julie piped up in the backseat and asked, “Is there going to be heat in this church?”
“Where do you think we are, in the wilds of Alaska?” I said. “Of course, there will be heat.”
She rolled her eyes when we got into the small church of St. Matthew nestled in the hills of Whitefield, where a handful of people were gathered – shivering. The temperature inside the church was only slightly warmer than the temperature outside. When the priest turned on the furnace and the heat started to come up, the pipes began knocking and rattling. There was no pageantry. Only a live Christmas tree with crepe paper decorations and an elderly woman at the organ singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” joined by the rest of us with our unabashedly bad voices. And yet in all its simplicity, I felt close to Christ and knew he wanted us to be there.
Time has taught me that through all the ordeals and crises, Christ is always there, waiting to give you a special gift that you can’t find at the mall: joy. Christmas is his special day even though the outside world tries to push Christ aside and make him irrelevant. Despite the atheist billboards, despite the sanitized Christmas carols, despite the legal disputes about nativity scenes, despite the commercialism that tries to usurp the true meaning of the day – always remember what Saint John the Evangelist said 2,000 years ago, which is as true now as it was then: “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.