An Xmas Carol

by Rob Tiller

As a nonbeliever, I feel a deep ambivalence about Christmas.  The customs and traditions are strongly evocative of a many happy episodes in my childhood — longed-for toys, rich food, friendship and love.  But it also evokes memories and feeling of sadness and loss for loved ones now gone, who were integral to those early years.

And I’m deeply ambivalent at the sweet and absurd idea of Santa Claus.  The red felt suit, the jolliness, the limitless generosity are all great ideas.  But even now, I feel a slight bitterness and chagrin that my normally reliable and credible parents, when I put the “Is he really real?” question  to them squarely, gave some type of yes and set me up to make a fool of myself in defending the existence of Santa to the neighborhood kids.  I trusted them to tell the truth!  There may be, as recent studies suggest, some value in Santa for developing children’s imaginative powers.  But for me, even years later, there was a cost in terms of injured trust.  My Mom’s solution was to let me read the old chestnut Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, which proposes to escape the problem of no Santa by redefining Santa as the Christmas spirit.  Really?

I know I’m not the only one with complicated feelings about Christmas.  Some love the shopping and the happy surprises, some love the story of the baby Jesus, some love being with family.  With all the pain and confusion in the world, I have no wish to add to the store without good reason.  I usually keep a low profile about my own irreligion, and especially so at Christmas time, when it seems that Christian beliefs are  for many on balance a source of joy.  But I don’t like flying under false colors, and I feel less than forthright when I say Merry Christmas.  There’s no problem with “merry,” but I don’t care to suggest I’m on board with the Christ part.  I usually go with “happy holidays” or something like that, but really, that just doesn’t sound as happy.  Yet another problem with no good solution.

Still, yesterday, after playing some really rich and beautiful music of Debussy, I found myself digging through the bottom of the music pile for my rarely used Xmas sheet music, and without any particular internal discussion I was soon playing through some favorite carols of my youth:  Angels We have Heard on High, Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and the Chipmunk Song.  It was a bit like Proust’s madeleine:  memories of family gatherings caroling, happy shopping, beginner band concerts, presents, vacations from schoolwork, trips to see grandparents, fresh smelling decorated trees, wrapping presents, and houses smelling of fresh-baked cookies hit me all at once.  I felt the pure childlike joy of Christmas.