Wow, it’s not even Thanksgiving, and I’m posting the meaning of Christmas? It seems that way. Actually, it is my December contribution to the NWTC “What’s Cooking Newsletter.” For some reason I struggled with a topic–all I knew is that I wanted it to be “Christmassy.” I had wanted to write a piece of historical, flash fiction, like maybe about St. Nicholas as a boy, but I couldn’t readily find enough information about his early years to make it historically accurate, but then, I suppose that’s why it’s called “flash fiction.”
As a child, Christmas meant to me; presents, cookies, great TV, sledding, and somewhere towards the bottom of the list I might actually say Christ; although I couldn’t promise you that he figured into the equation except, maybe, as an afterthought during the Christmas mass. Sometime after Thanksgiving, I’d start paying attention to the TV guide. “Is Frosty on tonight?” I’d ask my mother, and eventually, on one blessed night she’d answer, “Why, yes he is.”
Of course, this was years before the advent of those VHS tapes, and their larger precursors, whose name escapes me now, which allowed the watching of programs ad-lib, and ad-nauseum. Nowadays, you can wirelessly live-stream Frosty from a remote server onto a hand-held device. But, back then, way back in the 60’s and 70’s you could only watch Frosty, and Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and Rudolph once a year; so, of course, it was very special. And every year I cried at the end when Frosty turned into a puddle of ice-water. And every year I’d watch, terrified, as Rudolph got trapped in the cave of the Abominable Snowman, not absolutely convinced that he would escape, even though vaguely remembering that he did the year before.
On those special nights, I could eat milk and cookies in the living room while lying on my stomach on the carpet–my favorite was peanut-butter cookies and next was chocolate-chip. I don’t think skim milk was invented back then, so whole milk it was, and towards the end of my stack of cookies the only thing left was a lumpy slush of warm milk and cookie crumbs in the bottom of the glass, which I was loathe to drink because I only liked cold milk, and it didn’t seem natural to drink it warm, especially so, filled with left over soggy cookie-remnants as it was.
I couldn’t say when I stopped watching the annual Christmas programs, but I suspect it was not long beyond the discovery of the truth about Santa—kind of like a Christian Bar-mitzvah, when a boy becomes a man, except that it’s not celebratory, and there’s no formal ceremony. Okay, that’s probably a poor analogy–the point being that there’s a line, a life-line you might say, drawn in the sand of our lives, in which that which came before is different from that which comes after: before, the childhood belief that a jolly man, with a soft white beard, red suit, and black shiny boots leaves presents under a tree for you in the night: after, the realization that the jolly man is a make-believe myth, no more real than a cartooned Frosty or animated-puppet Rudolph.
I can’t remember if it was my father’s or mother’s voice telling me about Santa over forty years ago, “Santa is a fairy-tale, Shaun; but it’s based on St. Nicholas, who was a kind man with a white beard who traveled around the country giving people gifts a long, long time ago.”
I didn’t take much solace then from the reality offered of St. Nicholas, a long-gone relic from some remote past, more than a thousand years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 even. He seemed a poor replacement for a ruddy cheeked, bearded man whose red-velvet lap I could sit on and reverently whisper into an attentive ear all the treasures I wanted that year for Christmas. But what young child could understand the context of St. Nicholas’s life without the gentle interpretation of Santa Claus, Sinter Klaas, Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Kerstman, and so on, all around the world.
As an adult, Christmas means to me; Christ, beautiful music, decorating the tree with Sue, midnight Mass, smiles and good cheer, chocolate and other sweet temptations, and towards the bottom of the list I suppose I’d put presents, because they’re always important for the little ones. Christmas has become an immaterial state of mind, as opposed the material world of Hot-Wheel race car tracks, plastic GI Joes, and Tonka trucks of years past, with the in-between times filled with a succession of life-lines marking points in life where nothing was as it was before—points both sorrowful and joyful, each an occasion for growth in this great pursuit of life. What Christmas is, is an annual marker, a season of reflection and appreciation for the year just past; and lastly, a time for humongous, frosted sugar cookies.