It’s Christmas Eve (morning). There are streaks of rose madder in the sky. All is calm and bright before The Onslaught of Holiday. This morning I read Robert Browning’s (very) long poem “Christmas Eve.” A dream is set off by the poet going into a dreary church service on Christmas Eve, falling asleep during the sermon (more sympathetic I could not be) and having a magnificent dream that takes him all over the world to see how Christmas and Christianity in general is understood. When he wakes up in the pews with the church’s peculiar congregants shrinking away from him –he had been snoring—he concludes,
Looking below light speech we utter,
When frothy spume and frequent sputter
Prove that the soul’s depths boil in earnest!
May truth shine out, stand ever before us!
One of the reasons that all is calm and bright for me is that I resigned from my job as a church music director. (It’s a story you will have to pay money to read when it someday works itself into a novel.) In any case what that means is that I didn’t have to run choir rehearsals all month, I didn’t play at the children’s pageant, and I don’t have to work Christmas Eve for the first time in ten years.
Warning: a digression. Here’s the thing about church musicians: they are working. Saturday night is a work night for them. They don’t get to lie in bed on Sunday and decide they’d rather go out to brunch that morning. They can’t waltz into church five minutes late. Maybe you think the musicians at your church are members of your congregation. They might be, but more often they are not. Their spiritual community is elsewhere. They may seem to be enjoying themselves, and I expect most of them are. I enjoyed my job at the church, but it was a job.
So all has been calm and bright this month, where was I? Oh yes, choirs. A quorum of The OK Chorale caroled for my friend Doris. Once a month I spend an evening with Doris who has Alzheimer’s. She comes from an illustrious family of musicians whose idea of a family sing-a-long is to gather around the piano and sing Italian Art Songs from the 17th and 18th centuries. Nick (bass), Eileen (tenor), Heather (alto), and Nina (rhymes with Dinah, soprano) joined me during my evening with Doris and sang this quarter’s OK Chorale program. I had brought my Christmas cardamom bread for the occasion but had made the mistake of giving Doris a slice of it before her dinner. She wouldn’t eat dinner after the bread, and to my knowledge all she consumed for the rest of the evening was chocolate so it was rather a night of debauchery for her and I’m almost afraid to call and see how she was the next day.
After the OK Chorale finished their quarter with a moonlit, magical performance at the Green Lake Luminarias, I was looking at ten days of little responsibility, something that happens so seldom to me that it takes me a few days to actually stop working. I wind down like a music box, getting slower and slower, making less and less music until finally I ping here and there. As I approached pinging, I spent one glorious day moving from wrapping presents to writing cards to baking cookies and back to wrapping presents. These are pleasures that I don’t always have the leisure to enjoy. There are years when I stuff gifts into bags on my way out the door and practically throw them at their recipients.
It’s been a season of teas. I had three friends over for a Christmas tea. Nancy, my good friend and weekly walking partner, and I eschewed the walk and had a Christmas tea. Anna and Julia took me to tea at the Sorrento Hotel’s Hunt Club, our tradition of twelve years except that I used to pay for it. Now they are grown up, they treat me. These days we order two meals and three pots of tea. Anna and I don’t eat wheat, I don’t eat dairy, Julia doesn’t eat meat, and all of us try to keep the sugar consumption low. We divvied up the food like the dignitaries at the Paris Peace Conference. I scraped the cream fraiche off the cucumber and offered it to Julia. I kept the caviar, which is what she really wanted. Other than that I think we settled things amicably.
One small joy was the gift I gave one of my newest and youngest piano students. Alex is a tiny and exuberant child. She looked at my collection of porcelain and wax caroling figures surrounded by miniature gifts, Christmas ornaments and old, old pieces of candy. There’s some Cornish fudge wrapped in cellophane from 1980. But Alex fingered the chocolate coins.
“I’ve never had these,” she said.
Did I hear wistful? I looked at the six year old and thought how many other things she hadn’t yet experienced. I remembered how it felt to be six and how hard it was to speak my desire. I remembered the adults who had picked up on just such hints as I was getting from Alex. I had planned to make little packages for my students of homemade cookies and candy canes but you can bet I bustled down to Bartells and bought some chocolate coins. Two per package except for one package that got three. That was the package that Alex happened to pick. It was one small joy in a season of overwhelming excitement, and perhaps she forgot all about it as she went out the door and I wiped the chocolate smears off the piano keys. But maybe not.
Tonight I am going to a big-ass Christmas Eve service with a friend. (“You just can’t stay away from church, can you?” another friend asked). Oh, I think I can, but for once I want to sit in a pew and not be responsible for anything or anyone. Maybe I’ll fall asleep, dream a magnificent dream, and write a 45 page poem about it.
Whatever your plans in the next few days and whatever boils in earnest in your soul: May truth shine out! Merry Christmas!