An Old-Fashioned Christmas
By Alvin Alexsi Currier
I hung up the phone. Something didn’t feel right. Our son had just called to invite us to come to celebrate Christmas with him and his family in the city. Of course we would come. They were our children and grandchildren. There was no doubt about it, and yet, something bothered me. I stood staring out of the window at the night falling across the fields and forests that surrounded this ancestral homestead of my immigrant grandparents. It was now our retirement home.
My son’s enthusiasm kept echoing in my ear. He kept telling me that we would have an old-fashioned Christmas. There would be candles on the tree, carols to sing, and a roaring fire. He promised a real old-fashioned Christmas. That’s what he called it, “a real old-fashioned Christmas”.
Something made me feel old and out of place. I stood for another minute staring out the window. Then I marked the invitation on the calendar, slipped on my coat, and headed out into the nightfall for a walk. I headed down the lane through a dusting of snow. The moon wasn’t up yet and the stars were brilliant.
I walked along talking out loud to myself, and arguing with my son. “You can’t have an old-fashioned Christmas,” I protested, “You can’t have an old-fashioned Christmas for the simple reason that the things that created an old-fashioned Christmas aren’t around anymore. It was made up out of things that you can’t buy in a store. Things like darkness. Where are you going to find darkness for sale? Where are you going to find that darkness that came in the fall, as the sun sank lower, the air turned colder, and the nights grew longer? Darkness that turned days into little patches of light that grew shorter and further apart; darkness that settled down unbroken by even the smallest of lights for miles and miles. Darkness that was endless. Months of darkness.”
“In that darkness our eyes adjusted to the luminous blue light of the snowy nights. Hours were spent without any light at all, except for the magic light of distant stars, or the northern lights, or some strange phosphorescent glow. Sometimes it was pitch black – endlessly. We moved around in little puddles of light cast by candles, or lanterns or we hovered around the bubble of light from the kerosene lamp on the table.”
“In those days the lights of Christmas, were more than just candles on a tree. They were summer’s brightness, suddenly, dramatically, shining in winter. They were lights in months and miles of darkness.”
Abruptly I stopped yelling. I listened to my voice fade away into the thick sea of stillness. I was stunned by the silence. The dialog with my son returned, now internally and unspoken. “Where are you going to find silence like this, in this day and age, and in the city?” My body underlined the question with an involuntary cringe. I stood still, feeling the silence.
Voiceless, I continued. “Have you ever heard the sound of a great silence? It is filled with the noise of stillness. When I visited the old country I felt the silence my Grandfather had spoken of; the silence he had felt as a boy working in the fields high in the mountains. When I visited I felt the stillness that nestled in those forested hills that rolled away below to distant summits, half lost in mist. I remembered thinking then that I understood why Grandpa said that, in such silence all of us mountain folk learned to whisper.”
With the memory of my soft spoken Grandfather, the haunting memories of loneliness heaved up. Back then as the knocks on our door grew fewer and more infrequent, the weight of growing darkness and deepening snow, thickened into loneliness. The sluggish weight of the long winter isolation settled in. We went about our tasks, our chores, our rituals, and our routines, isolated, alone, and lonely. We spoke little and were nurtured only by mother’s gentle humming as she sat spinning, or by those rare occasions when father would fetch down his fiddle. A passing sleigh was the highlight of a day. Somebody coming to visit was the highlight of a week, and a chance for us to go somewhere was the highlight of a month.
How can you conjure up the magic of an old-fashioned Christmas without the darkness, the silence, and the isolation? It was these powerful potions that worked the magic that we all remember. I still tear up picturing the wild joy of us children when Christmas came. It was Christmas! Christmas!
There was the joy of tumbling into the sleigh, of gliding off through the forest, of seeing the candles in the windows of the neighbors, of sighting other sleighs, of meeting people walking, of seeing people! People! I have no word to describe the wonder of so many people, and so much light.
My grandfather, even when he was ninety-six, remained so impressed by the brilliance of the chandelier in the Church of his childhood, that every Christmas he would tell us that the chandelier had 120 candles. It was so much light in the dark of the winter night. For years I wondered how he remembered this exact number throughout his long life.
Then all of a sudden a few years ago it dawned on me. I chuckled as I saw my grandfather so long ago, bored by the long ebb and flow of the liturgy, but awed by the great candelabra, and as a little boy he was counting, 118, 119, Holy God, 120 candles.
Added to the light, and the people, was the music. The silence was broken. Sound swelled up and flooded the silence as more than a hundred voices sang the liturgy. The priest and the deacon lead in resonant tones and we all answered with full voices. Without a book or an instrument we chanted and sang. Music thundered forth.
Even now as an old man and as a Grandfather myself, I remember those Christmas services of yesteryear as clearly as if it was only yesterday.
I certainly wouldn’t wish the hardships of those old times onto either my children or my grandchildren. We will have a wonderful time together in the city, and yet there will be a little ache in my heart because it cannot be a Christmas as I once knew it.
The darkness, silence, and loneliness that made the Christmas of my childhood such a memorable feast no longer exist among us. I am both glad and I am sad.
Back in the farmhouse I banked the fire, made the sign of the cross before the icon, and went to bed.