Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Desperately Seeking Substance (but usually settling for substitutes)

I was in the World Store the other day (this is a code name, but you know it’s real name), looking for more of something that seemed so necessary at the time. Of course I can no longer remember what it was. But anyway, I was greeted by one of their "mini-mercials", those little, canned infomercials they broadcast from the tv suspended from the ceiling. Its message was jauntily accompanied by the familiar Christmas advertising sound of sleigh bells. Sleigh bells!! Their sound had always and immediately resonated within me and set up that whimsical, homesick feeling of yearning for the “magic” of Christmas. I am not sure why, but maybe after a half century of being emotionally sucker-punched by that twinkly, tinsely “jingling, ring-ting tingling”, my brain pulled back on the reins and said, “Whoa!” Maybe I had reached some kind of tipping point, but all of a sudden, for me at least, Christmas had jumped the shark.

“When was the last time you ever heard real sleigh bells, or seen them attached to a real sleigh?” I asked myself. “When was the last time you actually rode over a snowy landscape in a real sleigh?” The dawn of my revelation was so bright that I began to feel feverish, and even though it was 82 degrees in the place and I was wearing my festive red plaid Christmas scarf, I continued to press myself with this line of questioning.

“In fact, when was the first time you ever experienced any of that, hmm?” I undid the red scarf and scratched my head, and neck, perplexed.

Looking around me at the other shoppers jockeying for position as they rammed their carts through the aisles choked with merchandise, I delivered, to myself, the interrogatory coup de gras. “What percentage of Americans alive today, you know, like these fine patrons of the World Store, have ever gone over the river and through the woods whilst hunkered down beneath a woolen blanket, admiring the back of that fine one horse who doesn’t need you to steer because he is, after all, a horse, and therefore knows the way to Grandmother’s house?” I personally couldn’t think of anybody, but then again, I don’t get out that much, what with the price of gas, or hay, for that matter. Yet, somehow, I bet for most of us, the mythical sleigh ride and other “Christmas magic” shenanigans registers a desire deep within our collective and individual psyches that is right up there with dying in your sleep and going straight to heaven.

Wow. I realized now that I and most likely the rest of my posse (a.k.a Western Civilization) have been quite willingly conditioned by the Pavlovs of Madison Avenue to a) get in the “Christmas spirit”, and b) listen to the music, watch the program, and buy the stuff whenever we hear a certain (as it turns out, rather meaningless) sound that evokes an experience that has not been real for a really long time. Yet the thought of it happening at one time to somebody draws us, and we even fantasize about buying the bells, whistles, sleigh and horse if we win the lottery some day. Why? What is so alluring?

Though I was standing between the stationery and the candy aisle and not on the road to Damascus when I received this revelation, nevertheless, something like scales fell from my eyes, and I began to notice other things that don’t add up unless you’re in the checkout line. For instance, a lady in a fake fur jacket was carefully handling and choosing plastic “glassware” in colors seemingly inspired by the rose window in Chartres cathedral; just like these jewel-toned goblets, I bet that the rose window also has a lot of lead in it, too.

Next, I passed by a vast array of aromatherapy products, candles, and redundant vanilla, cinnamon, pine and other fragranced air fresheners (because if you freshen the air in your house by opening a window, you might be a redneck), some sprayed, some to “plug in”, and some to burn. Along with the air fresheners that work by numbing the nerves inside the nose, you can buy some which automatically emit puffs of chemicals that mimic the smell of apple pie or cinnamon buns. These puffs will make your home smell as if yummy, homemade things are baking in the expensive stainless steel oven. When you are too tired from working all day to pay for the empty house and the fancy appliances, who can blame you for not cooking, let alone not baking? But the smell you must have, for it provides an olfactory hug and therefore, a link back to something primal. We might have forgotten what that is but we still know that everybody can use even a pseudo-hug, especially at Christmas.
Ah, Christmas. Yes, I was on my way to the Christmas Everything room. I think I might have been looking for yet another outdoor extension cord. Here I saw people buying artificial Christmas trees. I bet these people are also stocking up on pine scented oily plug-ins, I reasoned.

As I gazed upon the edgy, overheated, huddled masses and touchy throngs my spiritual eyes were again opened to see them for what they were. Northerners. Transplanted ones like me. Who else would be in here buying up all forms of fake snow? From the kind you spray on your wreath, to the tiny snow globes, the new and increasingly large blow-up snow globes for the lawn, the snow-covered Thomas Kinkaid prints, Thomas Kinkaid snow-covered ceramic churches, snow-laden Thomas Kinkaid ceramic Christmas trees, to snow-white snow drapes to put under your Thomas Kinkaid snow-covered stuff, oh, my yes, they’re Yankees!

It is just like them to come down here to get away from the harsh weather, call the relatives they left behind and tease them with today’s forecast, and then come unglued each December when they realize that Bing Crosby is, from his grave, taunting them by wishing them a you-know-what in that song. So, for four to six weeks of every year they will stage a grand snow re-enactment. Yes, like Lot ’s wife, they make the fatal mistake of looking back at what they escaped from, but unlike her, they are mercifully not turned into pillars of salt but instead become fake snowmen.

Well, since the extension cords were sold out, I shook my head at my fellow Yanks, bought a Snowman nightlight and left the Christmas Everything room, but not before noticing the three Wise Men lawn figures. We Three Kings from Orient Are. And how!!! Almost everything the World Store sells from Orient Are, or Is. Passing the toy section, I just sighed. As concerns the toys, what can I say? They definitely Orient Are, and I’ve already brought up the lead thing.

A word, though, to our trading partners across the sea, to those other countries who typically take the stance of: Orders from World Store for infinite amounts of Christmas kitsch, good; Christian religion, bad. (The cosmic irony, priceless).
You cannot handle all this hall decking d├ęcor, gay apparel and the plastic blow-globe Baby Jesus Himself, without being changed and influenced by Western Culture and Christianity. For all I know, Billy Graham visited the Pope, whereupon they sat around and hatched this back-door evangelism plot, and then became the brokers of business deals between East and West. Governments that ban the bible are now allowing symbols of the Christian faith to be manufactured on a daily basis by their citizenry. I contend that much power resides in these tawdry, seemingly worthless symbols. They might be as lint separated from a garment, but perhaps it is the white, fleecy garment of Paradise . Does something in us recognize these linty reminders of the place where we were once fully loved, but left to become human? Granted that now, in the 21st. century, even our symbols have cheap substitutes, but if you hold onto them they still resonate with magic, and beyond magic, perfection itself. Because our lives have gotten so out of hand and far from true Home, we desperately grasp at as much Christmas as we can afford, and then some. Baked goods and the smell of cinnamon makes you dream of home sweet home, even if your childhood was, or your present home life is, the stuff of nightmares. There is promise in the fake snow and even if the cookies are counterfeit, they comfort us while keeping us yearning for the real.

Why? Because the white snow reminds us of the blank slate of childhood innocence, and the purity of those heroic souls who have fought to stay on the path of virtue, and despite life’s temptations and hardships, have pretty much managed to do the right thing. Snow covers up Earth’s imperfections, just as love covers a multitude of sins. It muffles sounds and calms the busy world. We long for it to usher in a time for us where every night is a silent night because we are, within and without, at peace. Maybe then we can finally let down our guard and sleep in blessed safety.

The Christmas landscape we contemplate is not littered with heartbreak, violence and restlessness. It’s red and green speak to us of sacrificial and everlasting love which we so honestly desire to have and to give to others. This magical land is inhabited by angels, our guardians and the messengers from heaven, and by hapless, underdog shepherds who, despite their low social standing, actually understood what was going on while the leaders and celebrities of their day were probably passed out, oblivious, in their fine chambers.

And yes, along with the angels and shepherds, we love those three Eastern gentlemen, the majestic outsiders, who were indeed wise enough to see beyond the boundaries of cultural bias, and followed the star’s light so they might find the Light of the World, a King much greater than themselves. They longed to bask in that light. We all do, though we may call it by different names. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light”, and that’s why every year, as the world grows darker and darker, you’ll see more and more Christmas lights piercing the blackness of city and suburbia alike.

The presents brought by the Wise Men serve as the inspiration of our modern day gift giving. Though “Santa” is now the one bearing gifts, please don’t tell me that he is just the symbolic embodiment of crass commercialization and greed. Every child and remnant of a child knows that he is the spirit of benevolence and merriment. His pack is filled with celebration, fond, doting parenthood, and the mysterious Good that sometimes falls out of the sky and into our undeserving arms. We are ashamed, we are amazed, but we keep looking up. That is called Hope. Hope is the starry backdrop of our revolving Christmas Drama.

So, know that the carols and the bells merely reflect the sound of Love, which sings as it knits together and sustains the universe. We have tasted a very small morsel of this Love when we eat the cookies and drink the eggnog together. Our families, when they are at their best, show us just the tiniest beginning of what it means to truly belong. Deep in our spirits we stubbornly and persistently know there is a place where all these virtues are held in perfection, so we continually reach out for it, even when it seems silly. We sense that someday, when we have ended the journey that took us over the river and through the woods, we will indeed go to Grandmother’s house, and boy, won’t it just be Heaven?

Sleigh bells ring. Are you listening?