By Tom Robotham
So this is Christmas, and what have you done? – John Lennon
When I was a kid, the Christmas season was the most exciting time of the year. Ushering it in, shortly after Thanksgiving, was the arrival of the Sears Christmas catalogue—or “Wish Book,” as it was known. When it arrived, I would eagerly peruse its pages and circle toys that I wanted: a set of plastic cowboys and Indians; a Lionel train set—and most memorably, when I was 9, an electric guitar.
On Christmas morning, I was so excited that I’d wake up at 6 a.m. and lie wide-eyed in bed, anxiously biding my time until my parents and older sister got up and we could finally open our presents.
It wasn’t just about the gifts, though. I also loved going to church on Christmas Eve and—when I was old enough—serving as an acolyte during the mass. Even as a child, I felt a profound sense of beauty and transcendence in the rituals: the donning of my black robe and white surplice, the lighting of the torch that I was about to carry down the center aisle, and the procession itself, as the congregation sang “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
My love of the mass continued long after I’d quit being an acolyte. The most memorable Christmas Eve service, in fact, occurred when I was 18, in 1974. My grandfather had died earlier that year, and his ashes lay buried in the church graveyard. On the way into the church that night, ushers handed a small white candle to each member of the congregation. Toward the end of the service, the priest lit one from the flame of an altar candle and passed the flame onto a candle held by an acolyte, who in turn lit the taper held by a congregant in the front pew. And so it went, until the entire sanctuary was aglow with candlelight.
When the priest dismissed us, he encouraged us to leave the church with our candles still burning—lights unto the world, as it were. When I exited, I was awed by what lay before me: it had been snowing heavily since we’d entered, and the graveyard was now blanketed, as the snow continued to fall. There was a steady breeze, as well, but somehow I managed to keep my candle lit, cupping it with my left hand. At that moment, as if pulled by some force, I veered of the walkway and began making my way toward my grandfather’s gravestone. When I got there, the candle was still lit. At that point, I kneeled down and planted it in the snow, where it illuminated his name. Miraculously, the now unprotected candle kept burning for about 30 seconds before the wind blew it out, causing a wisp of smoke to rise into the cold night air.
WHEN I WENT OFF to college, I stopped going to church, in part because I was usually hung over on Sunday mornings and in part because I no longer believed in it. Authors ranging from Ayn Rand to Ralph Waldo Emerson had caused me to reject its most basic tenets.
Eight years after I graduated, however, and met the woman I would eventually marry, I started going to church again. We were living in Manhattan at the time and, since we’d both been raised in the Episcopal tradition, we found a home at St. Bartholomew’s on Park Avenue, within walking distance of our apartment. Church continued to be an important part of our lives after we moved to Norfolk and found an even warmer welcome at St. Andrew’s in West Ghent. Year after year, we went there on Christmas Eve for the children’s pageant, which both of our kids participated in, and then back again for midnight mass, where we sang our hearts out.
Then, on Christmas morning, we’d awake for the familiar ritual of opening presents. As a child, I’d thought that nothing could be more magical than being a kid on Christmas, but I was wrong. Watching my own kids’ eyes light up at the sight of the elaborately decorated tree and piles of neatly wrapped presents surpassed the joy that I’d felt as a 5-year-old.
By the time my kids were grown, and my marriage had ended, the Christmas spirit had ebbed in me, but I continued going to midnight mass. And although I haven’t been in the last few years, and no longer think of myself as a Christian in any orthodox sense, I still find great beauty in it.
How can this be?
Whenever I contemplate its attraction, I’m reminded of lines from Brideshead Revisited. In one particular passage, Charles is giving his friend Sebastian a hard time for his attachment to religion.
“I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense,” Charles says.
“Is it nonsense?” Sebastian responds. “I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”
“But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do,” Sebastian replies. “That’s how I believe.”
For my part, I haven’t “believed” in any of it, literally, since I was a child. And yet, its truth abides—for as Keats put it, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
THE CHRISTMAS STORY, at its essence, is about finding the light of hope in the deepest darkness. Lord knows, that’s especially difficult these days, as we’re inundated on a daily basis with news of everything from global warming and new Covid variants, to the ugliest of human behaviors. Take, for example, the case of Paul Gosar, the Republican congressman who recently circulated a video depicting him as a warrior slashing the throat of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Or consider the lynching (let’s call it what it was) of Ahmaud Arbery, and the despicable spectacle of a defense attorney trying to justify the killing by talking about the condition of Arbery’s toenails.
How is it possible to keep the flame of hope alive, as the winds of viciousness seem to be picking up force with each passing day?
Certainly, we can each work, as citizens, to elect officials who show some semblance of humanity and decency, regardless of their policy positions. But politics can only take us so far—for regardless of who wins in the 2022 midterms, or even the 2024 presidential election, the hatred and bigotry of people like Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and, of course, Trump himself, will remain formidable in large swaths of our country. These leaders did not create the hatred and bigotry, after all. They’ve simply played to it and exploited it.
There is another way, however, and I was reminded of it recently when a friend posted on Facebook W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” arguably one of the best poems of the 20th century.
The poem—a response to Germany’s invasion of Poland—is initially an expression of despair, as “Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth,” and “important persons shout” the “windiest militant trash.”
And yet, even in this dark hour, Auden found a light of hope. “We must love one another or die,” he writes at the end of the penultimate stanza—then, in the final stanza, he goes on: “Defenseless under the night / Our world in stupor lies; / Yet, dotted everywhere, / Ironic points of light / Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages: / May I, composed like them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.”
As I read that last line, it naturally brings to mind that magical night in the snowy graveyard that held my grandfather’s remains, and in the candlelit sanctuary that was filled with the spirit of agape—the ancient Greek word for the kind of love that Christ embodies in the Gospels.
With this in mind, in this Christmas season, I shall try, as best I can, to turn my focus inward—not in an effort to escape from the horrors of our current circumstance, but to concentrate on the only thing I can control: My own thoughts and actions. I pray, in short, to keep an affirming flame alive. May yours burn bright as well.