The Christmas Story

24 Dec

In one of my previous posts, I wrote, “God had never spoken to me before (except he maybe hit me in the head with a fifteen-pound cross on Christmas Eve last year, but that’s a story for another time).”

I am now going to tell that story.  It is a story about how Jesus gave me a bitch slap and a black eye for Christmas.

I left Richmond for my first semester at the University of Virginia last August with a carful of carefully-chosen room decor, my very own Swiffer, and a selection of cutout dresses that I would be too lazy to wear to parties.  I promised myself to do something that scared me every day.  I told myself I would join every club that vaguely interested me and find all the best hole-in-the-wall cafés.  When December rolled around, I was involved, all right, and stretched too thin.  The skin under my eyes had turned a permanent shade of purple.  I had a malingering illness that left me unable to eat much more than a few slices of bread and some fruit each day.  Although I faithfully responded to every email I received each night, by morning my inbox would be bursting with notifications from professors, announcements from the extracurriculars I’d joined, and minutes from the student government council meetings I attended.  I had lost weight.  My attitude was more depressing than Eeyore’s.

When I returned for Christmas break, I felt like a stranger in my own household.  Had I never noticed the stench of dog pee emanating from the living room carpet?  What was so bad about eating Chunky Monkey straight from the container at 2:00 A.M.?  When we dressed ourselves in our finest to go see The Nutcracker, a family tradition, I realized that my younger sister had been wearing my favorite pair of black pumps.  Her feet, a size bigger than mine, had stretched the faux leather beyond redemption.  I trailed behind them as we walked from the parking lot to the theater, hissing threats at her and hobbling down Grace Street like a drunken mountain goat trying to scale the Alps.

In addition to the usual prelude duties I had at the late night Christmas service, my choir director had asked me to accompany the children’s choir on flute for the pageant.  A less-than-perfectly-melodic bunch at the best of times, the choir kids were less than pleased to be asked to harmonize with any instrument other than the triangle and the bongos.  Rehearsals made me want to bang my head against a wall.  On Christmas Eve, I threw on a dirty dress and slunk into church five minutes before the service began.

“Where were you?” said the choir director.  “Our last rehearsal was half an hour ago!”

“I was…baking gingerbread,” I muttered.  “Lost track of time.”

We stood in the sacristy among the bustle of acolytes tugging on white robes, clergy going over the service notes, and toddlers running around with shepherd’s crooks or angel wings, haloes askew.  One of the acolytes, a glasses-wearing boy of about twelve, ordered the younger kids around, boasting about how heavy the crucifix was.  “You gotta be strong to carry it.  Someone with muscle,” he said.  “Like me.  Lookit.” I cleaned my flute and glared at him.

“All right,” said Lyndon, one of our head priests.  “Are we all ready to -”

Suddenly, a blinding pain exploded in my right temple, and I staggered sideways.  One of the little angels screamed.  I blinked and realized that my vision had gone fuzzy.

“Oh, shit,” said someone.  “Sorry, I mean oh my God…I mean, wait, hold on…”

It was the acolyte.  I saw him, as if from far away, holding the heavy, brass cross like it had come to life and begun to dance the two-step.

“Did you just…” I began.  Pain lanced into my cheekbone and behind my eye.

“I swear it was an accident!  I was just lifting it and -”

My mother, a soprano in the adult choir, appeared from nowhere and grabbed my wrist.  “Let’s go to the bathroom, okay?”

“Mom,” I said, a few minutes later, looking at my blurry reflection.  “I think I might be concussed.”

“No, you idiot,” she said, fondly patting my arm.  “He knocked you so hard both your contacts fell out.  I found them on the floor.”  And she offered the two withered discs to me.  I slid them onto my irises, wincing.  “Do you know how close he came to taking out your right eye?  Half a centimeter lower, and…”

An enormous bump had begun to form under my eyebrow.  “Don’t I have to go play now?” I asked.

“The choir director says you don’t have to.  You know, considering the circumstances.”

“No,” I said.  “I have to.  I have to.”

I adjusted my wrinkled dress, grabbed my flute, and proceeded to give the worst performance of my life as my black eye started to grow dark and fat.  And that was, somehow, cathartic.  I looked like shit and I played like shit on a night when all of Christiandom was supposed to offer up their talents for the Christ Child (or something like that, anyway).  Between services, I nibbled on bread and clamped a frozen steak from the church pantry to my face.

At St. Thomas, the 10:00 service is always meditative, filled with candles and the delicate melodies of quieter Christmas hymns.  My friend Darren and I had rehearsed Dave Matthew’s “The Christmas Song” as the prelude.  It was a tradition from the place we’d met, an Episcopalian summer camp where I attended and he worked during the summer.  The wood cabins clung to the foot of a mountain on the border between Virginia and West Virginia.  On the kind of July nights where the air was saturated with cricket songs, one of the musically-talented counselors would pull out his guitar and treat us to a rendition of “The Christmas Song.”  That’s where a song like that is most appropriate: the quiet places, the ones with clasped heads and pensive thoughts.

As Darren’s fingers danced over the guitar fret, I sang the first verse and glanced around the shadowy nave.  Maybe, I thought, this was what I’d needed all along: an actual blow to the head to make me sit down and recognize the beauty of everyday things.  And maybe it was Jesus and maybe it wasn’t, but whatever his or her name was probably didn’t form the most important part of the picture.

By the time we’d finished the song, my temple had begun to pound less.  Darren and I returned to the pews and joined the congregation in “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  It was cold in the church, and all the churchgoers had chosen seats close to the warmth of the chancel.  Perfect strangers smiled at me as we progressed through the hymn.  If this was how the Ghost of Christmas Whatever wanted to get my attention, I mused, I was perfectly fine with that.

It’s exactly a year later now, and although I’m hoping this Christmas Eve won’t be quite as physically painful, I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to sing something so true in the quiet of a church in the nighttime.  Christmas is a hectic time – especially for those of us who, like me, are just arriving home from studying or working abroad – and it can do a lot more good than you’d think to take a moment to sit down.  Listen to some music.  Drink a cup of tea.

Because my personal opinion is that it is better to realize this yourself, before some metaphysical being bludgeons you with fifteen pounds of metal.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all those who stumble upon this essay!

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