I don't know if you believe in Christmas, but I know that I sure do. It just goes without saying that it wasn't always this way. The grand expectations, the materialism, and most of all, the religiosity of the festival always left a lump of coal in both my stockings. Even as a child I doubted. Santa was as real for me as Jesus and the Easter Bunny. I was told it was all make believe. We never got a Christmas tree and we never exchanged gifts. As I matured, I lost touch with any sense of wonder from my youth. I put childish ways behind me and I let go of any intangible ideas about Christmas. The holiday was not alone in this dismissal. Anything I deemed a fable, or illusion, or artificial, I cast aside. I allowed the world around me to dull and limit my imagination and in so doing, I lost any ability to consciously dream. I turned away from anything that I couldn't inspect, validate or touch. You see, my parents had never really tried to ingrain any cultural traditions or even religion into my thinking. There was no magic, no miracles and God was as unknowable as the vastness of space. Myth only served its purpose in the classroom. We didn't go to Church. We didn't own a Bible. We did not believe in fairy tales. Christmas always suffered in the end.
When my daughter was born, I hoped, for her sake, that I would be inspired to marvel and question and even consider. Her birth was all that I needed. It was a catalyst but it did me little good. With no foundation, I always floundered. With nothing to cling to, I always ended up back in that confounding and very empty hole in my head. When it comes to such things, our family is fortunate to have my beautiful Wife at the reigns; Jingle bells and all. My daughter has never not known a Christmas tree on Christmas morning, or presents or egg hunts in the backyard. The contrived idea of exchanging decayed oral matter for cash has known many financial transactions in our home. When I have questioned the lasting effect these things may have on the child, I am told in the most jovial of manner, "So that she doesn't become void like you."
The first time I stepped into a Church, I was 30 years old. My soon to be wife was breathtaking in her gown and veil. Up to that point, any exposure to religion or dogma had always been served cold. I was expected to partake in each ritual but my heart just wasn't in it. It was not that I had dismissed the idea of the ethereal entirely, I was foreign to any application of such a complexity. A year later found little difference. When the baby came home, I just assumed things would be different but they were not. The tactile experience of holding something you created is profound but all the esoteric rhetoric left me wanting. I didn't see a gift from the universe, I simply saw cause and effect. I did not take notice of what I did have, what I didn't have was completely affirmed. I have never felt the need to search for something greater than myself. I have always found life was better viewed with realism than imagination and faith. As my little girl approached her 10th birthday, I still found myself in that void. Her baptism, then her confirmation had seemed silly to me. Every Christmas morning was more a waste of time and money than a heartfelt experience or snapshot of something to be treasured or recalled. The Biblethe child gave me for my 38thbirthday collects more dust than our vacuum cleaner. I resolved myself to the emptiness. No matter how I tried or how often others attempted to recondition my sense of wonder, the more I recognized the dead place inside me.
The Christmas tree went up just like every other year. I had little to do with the process. I was more coerced manual labour than an active participant. We all went to the Christmas tree farm. I cut one down and dragged it back to the car. I was directed how it stood and where it finally rested in our downstairs living room. My wife and daughter did the decorating. As the house was lavished with gold and silver and fancy things, I sat watching the game on the television set in the basement. I protested that I had to hang the lights out front of our home and I resisted setting up the manger on the front yard. This was my contribution to each yuletide tradition. I had never known a Joyeux Noel, or a Merry Christmas, so no matter how much I was exposed to these things I just could not relate. One might have assumed that 10 years of Christmas deluge would have tugged at my heartstrings. I suppose I have always been more of a bass drum than some violin. The garland went up on the mantel, the wreath went on the front door and I just waited for it all to be over. The final touch, the last thing to be done, was the placing of three stockings, hung by the chimney with care. My wife has always found it amusing, granting me a place alongside her name and my daughter's. One dangles in glittered red. One dangles in glittered green. The epithet 'Scrooge' is scribbled on mine.
She blew the buildup of dust and residue in my face. I coughed and sternly condemned her action. I had promised to attend Christmas Eve mass, and like her mother, she was in my face regarding the matter. The leather-bound collection of both the Old and New Testament rested in her hands and her smile turned to a grimace when I chastised her. Regardless of my posturing, she handed it to me anyway. You could tell she expected I would read it all, like I should be studying for a great big test. My wife watched from a distance, tinkering with the Christmas tree. Nat King Cole was singing about chestnuts and scented candles filled the air with apple cinnamon and an almost heavenly glow. It all looked like Christmas. Thanks to Glade, it even smelled like Christmas. I tried my best, at least, to not interfere with the atmosphere, if only for the sake of the child. I agreed to go to Mass for this very reason. I even wore a tie, although I must admit this had more to do with silencing the nag than appeasing the child. I was noticeably ready to go long before either of the ladies were. I was enjoying
when my better half put me to work. I went out to the garage, raised the automatic door and turned on the car to warm up. I went back inside and started at the top moving down towards the living room. It was my duty to put all the candles out and make sure of it. I grabbed the snuffer from its place and started in the bedrooms. I navigated by each light, tipping the copper hat onto each flame. Tiny trails of orchard whispered behind me as I made my way. I asked myself why we needed all this luminescence with the lights turned on. I wondered to myself why we needed to go to Church when the we have all the tapers in our house? Remembering the "importance of atmosphere," I shrugged it off like I had done every other year. I finally made it down to the family room and past the tree, snuffing as I went along. I proceeded around the room, when highlights of the game came on. I sat back down in front of the television in good measure. I was summoned almost immediately. I switched off the set, unplugged the tree and headed out to the car, jacket in hand. I switched the basement lights off when I exited. I didn't notice the lovely glow I had left burning near the tree. I am convinced it was the television that distracted my duty. I am sure that it was providence that had me leave on that flickering wick. Sports Center
The second time I stepped into a Church, I was 40 years of age. As my wife and daughter each lit an altar candle in memory, I sat snoozing with my eyes wide open. My smartphone was in my wife's purse, silenced until after the service. I had no idea just how ironic the ritual would turn out to be. As they used a flame to remember the past, I used several to destroy our future. The fire spread fast. Down the wall and into the tree it moved. I'm told the place went up rather easily after that. The firemen came, the police tried to call me, and my neighbours watched in horror, praying it remained intact and far away from their abodes. It was rubble before we left for home. We saw the smoke and the lights long before we turned onto our street. A crowd had gathered near one of the fire trucks and a police officer was trying to call my phone one last time. I stopped the car when I saw the ashes and we all got out in the middle of the road. There was almost nothing left but a burned out frame and some embers. A pair of first responders were putting out the last of the flames. It was all gone. The house, the garage, everything, lost to stupidity and the daily scores. I looked over at my wife, who was holding my daughter against her. You could tell she was trying not to cry. She looked over at me and asked me if I had done what she asked of me. The police officer interrupted and informed us that it appeared the fire had started in the basement as a result of burning candles. The only thing I could think of, the thing that popped into my head, wasn't about our smouldering belongings. It wasn't even gratitude that we all were safe and that no one had been at home. All I could muster somewhere inside of my head, as I looked at my girls, was where's your Saviour now?
I am well aware of my limitations. I am also very much aware of my responsibility in starting the fire. This did little to silence every word of the Pastor from that night, preaching in my head of God's Mercy and Love and how He lavishes Grace upon us all. The only thing that going to Church on Christmas Eve had accomplished was yet another reason for me not to believe. As I stood counting everybody else's blessings, I recognized that this was no wonderful life. The flames had not only stripped us of all our possessions, it stole our home and destroyed my family. As I stood watching, my wife took my daughter into a neighbour's home and waited for her parents to arrive and carry them both away. Without a word to me, they shuffled into their getaway and left me sitting in my car at the edge of our street, staring at the charcoal remnants of my entire life. As they made an escape, I lingered on the front seat, trying to force even one tear. I supposed, in the most literal of ways, that my wife had been right all along. I was void. I was dead inside. Not even losing it all could make me feel anything but resentment and anger and despair. In that moment, I did something I had never done before. I wasn't even sure that I knew how to do it. I closed my eyes, put my head against the steering wheel and for the first time in my life, I prayed.
Asking a Divine creature for help was very much against my nature. Spending the night alone in a hotel room did not convince me that anything had been listening. In the wee hours of the morning, I could stand it no more. I couldn't just sit there and do nothing. I couldn't sleep. Most of the time, I felt like I could not even breathe. I got in my car and I started to drive. In the deepest, darkest part of the night, I pulled up in front of my burned down home and I got out to inspect what was left of my future. The water that had been used to extinguish my fate had frozen and formed patches of slick ice all around the property. Any snow that had melted due to the fire had joined these pieces. The entire scope of the grounds looked more like a skating rink than a place where my daughter had once played. I didn't pause for a moment, despite the yellow barricade tape wrapped around the seared trees which surround the building. I crunched threw the outer rubble, my scorched existence calling out my name. At what was once the front foyer, I was forced to stop in my tracks. I peered down into the shadows, past what used to be the ground floor. The chasm left by the flames was nothing compared to the growing space within me. I hungered for a glimpse of what had been but all I could picture was the look on my wife's face as she took my daughter's hand and abandoned me in my greatest hour of need. I turned from the place, almost slipping on a slick surface, and left my car sitting on a sheet of glass where our driveway used to be.
I walked away, wandering past all the quaint little homes that used to be part of my neighbourhood. Every once in a while, Christmas lights called out to me, somehow mocking my disbelief. In the distance, at the 6 o'clock hour, the Church we had attended
rang out and pierced the night with ding dong merrily on high. I headed in that direction. I felt pulled to journey that way. I trudged through the misery, unable to imagine a life without my girls. I told myself that there was nothing left without them. There was no life to live if it meant this feeling of loss and guilt and horror. The further I walked, the more I convinced myself it was over. I was over. Every part of me cried out that this must be the end. I couldn't go on knowing what I had done and the consequence which had left me all alone. As the dawn began to break, I arrived in town and I sat down on the front steps of the Church and I started to cry.
The snow fell softly on Christmas morning as I sat waiting for the doors of the Chapel to be unlocked. I didn't know why I was so compelled to linger in the shadow of a God I have never known, let alone believed in. I was empty and I did not know what had brought me there. When the bells tolled at 7 o'clock, from somewhere within came the unlatching and the turning of each lock. The service, the Christmas Mass, would begin in an hour. I slowly rose to my feet, wiping off the white dust of defeat that had covered my head and shoulders. I opened the door, stepped inside and stomped away any ice which had found my feet. Inside was as heavenly as it had been the night before. The priests and altar boys shuffled about preparing for the Eucharist and Holy celebration. I left the fount behind me, failing to make the Sign of the Cross as I passed it. I walked up the centre aisle and dropped down, almost halfway up the row of pews. I was exhausted, and collapsed on a hard wooden seat. It took little time for me to lay my arms on the back of the pew before me, resting my head in the cradle of both hands. I starting shaking at the thought of my world coming to an end. In desperation, from the deepest part of my soul I cried out for God to help me. I was sure that no one was listening.
"You cannot search for something if you really believe there is nothing there."
I opened my eyes and raised my head to see who had addressed me, startled by a voice and a face which had not been there mere moments before. The old man sat down on the pew in front of me, placed his black fedora on the polished seat beside him and turned to speak. His hands gripped the back rest of the pew and I noticed his heavily stained fingers, as if they had been dipped into nicotine.
"I beg your pardon," I replied, somewhat irritated by this intrusion.
"When one door closes, another one always opens," he relayed.
"I don't understand what you mean. Who are you?" I asked.
"A friend," he assured me. "A friend and an answer to a prayer."
He was around 60 years old, dressed entirely in black and he seemed to calm my agitation simply with his presence. He looked at me as if he could see right through me.
"Do I know you?" I questioned.
"As a matter of fact, you do not," he stated in the same manner.
"I'm just sitting here waiting for the Mass to begin," I pointed out in the most obvious of ways. "I'm just here to .."
"To ask forgiveness before you kill yourself," he punctuated.
I looked at him, ignoring the statement, quite dumbfounded by his insight. His face was much more withered than it originally had appeared to be. His hair was gray and thinning on top. His eyes were a blue I had rarely seen before. They glimmered in a reflection from the sanctuary lights and bounced back unto themselves with an almost eerie glow.
"I don't mean to be rude," I lied. "I have just experienced a personal tragedy and if you don't mind I would appreciate it if you left me alone."
"Do you not feel alone already?" he inquired. "Just because you think that you have lost everything does not mean you have to abandon everything else altogether."
I looked at him slightly astonished. What he said didn't really even register in my head.
"May I make an observation?" he asked.
"Why stop now?" I affirmed. He, apparently, didn't take the hint and shrugged me off.
"The obvious fact that you are sitting in a place of worship would indicate to me that you already believe in what you are seeking. You could have chosen anywhere else. It doesn't matter where you have come from, it only matters that you are here now." He smiled at me. "You may believe your world is over but I am here to inform you that even the saddest sorrow can turn into the sweetest fate."
I watched him push himself up, forgetting his hat, and he proceeded over to the altar candles. He reached for an over sized match, lit one, and walked back towards me. One single flicker raised out of the lifeless and empty display. He walked down the centre aisle and approached me gently. He reached down, clutched his hat and smiled at me again.
"Love can make beauty from ashes," was the last thing he shared.
He breezed past me as if he was floating mere inches above the path. I turned to watch him leave and he was already gone. I looked about in an attempt to find him but there was no one. I was truly sitting by myself. The only other life in the place was the flame of that one candle. It danced and it waved and seemed to say hello. It convinced me that he had not been a figment of my imagination. What if everything he had observed and stated was the truth? If I had come looking for God, then I must believe in God. In trying to find something Holy, I forgot that seeking must come first. What if God had been with me all along? Blood raced to my face and I felt flush. My mind turned over and over and it started to throb. I grew weary. I grew weary of thinking and weary of feeling. I placed my head back onto the pew in front of me and closed my eyes to ponder what had been said. The smell of apple cinnamon woke me.
I don't know if you believe in Christmas, but I know that I sure do. The greatest gift I have ever received was a glimpse of what life could be. I opened my eyes and my world had been returned to me. The TV whispered, the tree shone bright, those damn candles flickered where I left them. I was back in my space, in my home. It must have been a dream. All of it was a dream. When my wife called out that I had left the car running in the garage, I knew that all was well. I was flabbergasted and quite bewildered. It had been so real. I pounced from my chair and ran to the candles sitting like demons near the spruce. I grabbed both, puffed them out and walked directly into the downstairs bathroom. My daughter found them in the morning, each submerged at the bottom of the toilet bowl. I stormed up the stairs like a giddy schoolgirl and grabbed my wife. I kissed her full on the mouth, hugged her with even more zeal and whispered "I Love You" in her ear. "What's gotten into you?" was all she had to say.
It was strange to sit in the very spot where I had been approached in my dream. For this first time, I didn't fall asleep during the service. The priest's words had new meaning for me. The place had new meaning as well. As the congregation began to splinter and head home for the holiday, I looked about me for the man in black. He was nowhere to be found. It must have been a dream after all. As we walked towards the exit, it struck me. There was something I could just not forget. I left my wife quite confused and my daughter calling after me. I walked up the side of the pews, took a match and lit an altar candle. I almost skipped on my way to the car.
The snow had been falling. The car needed warming. I scraped the front window and then the sides and finished with the back. As I opened the driver's door, the Church bells once again rang out of joy to the world and peace, goodwill to man. It was now Christmas Day. I looked into the night sky and I thanked whatever it was that had saved me. Across the street, standing in the heavy flakes of snow as they lingered, I saw the man in black standing on the sidewalk. He tipped his hat to me. I called out "Merry Christmas," and then he was gone. We left for home. I turned the Christmas tree off, checked for burning candles and locked all the doors. I crawled into bed and I held my wife close. It was not long before I drifted off to sleep. There were no flames to put out, no stranger to behold, just visions of sugar plums that danced in my head.