A Changing Christmas

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I remember sand tarts painted with egg white and dusted with nutmeg and sugar, and half a peanut pressed face-down into the middle. We put two sand tarts onto a plate, with a jelly jar half-full of milk; and on Christmas Eve at bedtime we put this little offering on the seat of a wooden kitchen chair and left it there for Santa Claus.

I remember a magnificent tree reaching toward a ceiling that seemed twelve feet high, all trimmed with lights and tinsel and heirloom ornaments from the old country. A creche with plaster figures. An electric train labeled the Commodore Vanderbilt; a wind-up bulldozer; a doll for my sister; and new books.

I remember the arrivals of uncles and aunts and great-aunts and great-grandmothers, all in Grandfather’s car (only one car for five households didn’t seem at all unusual). All the leaves were put into the heavy oak table and covered with a sectional pad, a flannel table cover, and a monogrammed linen tablecloth. There were fine china and silver and napkins, crystal cruets and toothpick holders, and even a silver crumb scraper and pan. Granddad gave a long, heartfelt grace, with the tops of heads, young and old, pointing toward each other all around the table. Then an immoderate feast: mashed potatoes and carrots, turkey, cranberry sauce, hot rolls and warm butter, and smooth, steaming gravy over almost everything.

If there was ice cream to go on the pie, Granddad always winked at us kids and put on too much. If instead there was whipped cream, he went out to the kitchen to whip it in an old glass-and-cast-iron whipper, which is now one of my most cherished possessions.

Most of all, there was the sense that, though times were often hard, we were living in the Promised Land, where honest people could by hard work earn a good living and be secure in their persons. And somehow all those decent, sober burghers made us kids feel that the children of the world were its most beloved and important people.

It would be easy, looking back, to lament what we’ve lost. My generation, who were little kids before the Second World War, grew up during the boom that followed it. We were the first to move away from our home towns in search of opportunity. The trip to Grandma’s house became a plane trip. Christmas has changed as much as we have.

It’s bound to endure, because it occurs at a time in the cycle of our natural world — the season of greatest darkness, the winter solstice — when for millennia people have lit candles and bonfires, feasted upon the recent harvest, and huddled together from the cold outside.

It’s also bound to change, because it’s a Christian holiday not dictated by Scripture. Easter is related to Passover, as are Pentecost and Epiphany. But the date of the celebration of the birth of Christ was quite clearly dictated by the desire of early church fathers to exploit the festive nature of the existing midwinter bacchanalias — to put Christ into Christmas, if you will. And celebration born of a current need is bound to change to fit changing needs.

And so it has. The festival nowadays is a mix of commercial activity and the sentimentality of a “good old-fashioned American Christmas.” These include Norse Yule logs and reindeer; Anglo-Saxon wassail singing; Druid mistletoe; Hanukah candles; a Dutch St. Nicholas; Roman toasting; a German Christmas tree; and finally, American turkey! If we ever need to be reminded how much our country is still a melting pot, a look at Christmas should do it.

Most of all, Christmas is meant to remind us, in the icy darkness of midwinter, that the old year is past; that the new year, dark as it may seem, gleams with the promise of returning light; and that the best thing we can ever do, in this season that recalls the ultimate gift, is to give in our turn, and help some children feel that they are the world’s most beloved and important people.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, working my way toward Christmas!

–Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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