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When It’s Cold and Dark, Memories of Faith Can Warm

Second in a series of Tyee essays on winter’s meaning.

Charles Demers 21 Dec

Charles Demers is an author and comedian and a regular on CBC Radio’s The Debaters. His most recent book is the murder mystery Primary Obsessions.

When I was a teenager, my father had a "Do Not Disturb" door-hanger sign which he would occasionally put on the knob of the closed door to his room. It only recently occurred to me that this was not typical of most people’s dads or most people’s houses, and is in fact even, on reflection, a somewhat hilarious idiosyncrasy.

My dad was not at all a chilly or unavailable father, in fact quite the opposite; the sign was not remotely indicative of his general approach, and I think I understand where the need for it came from (as a single parent, still in the closet even to his sons about his homosexuality, that little semi-laminate paper sign was probably his only chance at either solitude or privacy in the home we rented in Burnaby).

But at the time, the only thing my brother and I found funny about the Do Not Disturb sign was that its obverse side, done in red and green, read “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.” This wasn’t the kind of thing that we had in our house. It wasn’t that we were a particularly atheist or staunchly anti-clerical household, though by the mid- and late-'90s we no longer attended church and my dad, raised Roman Catholic with two sons baptized into the Anglican Communion, had joined the ranks of those known in the ecclesial-statistical literature as "SBNRs" — “Spiritual, but not religious.”

There had been times in our lives when our family had been religiously observant; my Dad a member of the choir, painting a watercolour of the stained-glass window in the chancel and me a loyal altar server, lighting candles, leading the kids upstairs from Sunday School, putting candles out. But even in those churchy days, we weren’t cornballs. We never would have gone in for “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.” There was still too much High Church dignity and gay Québécois sophistication in our blood to go in for that kind of earnest, rhyming evangelism.

But we never really know what flotsam and detritus from our upbringing will elbow its way to the front of our brain when it comes our turn to be the parent, and wouldn’t you know it, that Christic door-hanger has made a second coming in my life. As my own seven-year-old daughter — who recently pieced together that Santa Claus is not a literally material physical agent within space-time — has expressed ennui and disaffection about her first post-naive Christmas, I find the phrase popping up cloyingly, involuntarily. “I wish I didn’t know,” she mutters, before questioning the purpose of a de-Santafied Christmas, and I have to clap my hand across my mouth to stop from singing:

Jesus Is the Reason for the Season!

As she was sharing her frustration with her uncle over FaceTime, my brother told my daughter a story from the Christmas when he was seven. He had written Mrs. Claus (whom he found more accessible than her husband) and asked for an area rug (an area rug!) for his part of our shared bedroom. Mrs. Claus had written him a letter back, and on Christmas morning our Mom read it to him. Someone in the family took a photo of this precise moment: my overjoyed little brother listening to the message; our mother, holding the letter and gazing up at him with as much love as Mary shows in any image of the Nativity; and me, 10, smiling with indulgent, knowing warmth, aware of who really wrote the letter.

The moment is 76 days before our mother died. She is smiling under cheeks swollen to the lunar angles effected by prednisone. She had been sick since I was five and my brother was two, so we’re used to it and don’t know, as she does, that it is the end.

851px version of DemersFamilyChristmas1980.jpg
The author as Christ-child, All Saints Burnaby Nativity pageant, 1980.

Like many western Christians, I was raised in a cultural environment that made a much bigger deal about Christmas than it did about Easter, though occasionally paid guilty lip service to the fact that it got things backward.

For various reasons, none of them salutary, we modern and post-modern types preferred Christmas to Holy Week: there are presents to get and buy, rather than eggs; a resplendently candle-lit church will always look more spectacular against the bleak December darkness than any lily-choked altar in April; a baby surrounded by sheep listening to a drum solo is a more winsome picture than a tortured and flagellated sage, healer and peacemaker abandoned by his best friends and killed in broad daylight by imperial power, religious authority and mob hysteria. In Adam McKay’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the southern-fried NASCAR driver played with brio by Will Ferrell refuses to say grace at dinnertime to anyone but specifically the Baby Jesus, rejecting him in all other forms.

But Saint Francis of Assisi, the guy on the bird baths and man responsible for laying out the first-ever Nativity scene 798 years ago, also left a theological tradition that has historically advocated for the primary importance of Christmas.

For roughly a thousand years (some years pretty goddamn rough), the church's dominant explanation for Christ's mission on Earth has been largely based around sin. God's son came and died among people in order to remedy the effects of our sinning, which began way back when we ate the wrong fruit in Eden.

But for almost as long, the Franciscan tradition has argued for a minority opinion on the Incarnation: that Jesus Christ, as the perfect union of God and the created world, was the whole point of the universe in the first place.

The popular American friar Richard Rohr puts it this way: “For the Franciscans, Christmas is more significant than Easter. Christmas is already Easter! Since God became a human being, then it’s good to be human, and we’re already ‘saved.‘”

In other words, Christmas really is about elaborate, surreptitious gift-givings from Mother and Father. In the Incarnation, the Source of all Being, wanting to be with us, has eternally flipped over the Do Not Disturb sign. And you know what it says on the other side, right?

When my brother tells the story about the Christmas morning photo, he says one thing he loves about the picture is that even though I’m a child, the face I’m making is “older than 10.” It surprised me when he said it, because before he did I’d only seen the opposite; the less complicated innocence of the twilight moments before death came crashing in. I thought it was one of the very last images of me as a real kid. I would be much, much older every Christmas that followed.

But if we’re more fragile than we sometimes think, we’re also more durable — and why shouldn’t that resilience include our innocence?

As it happens, I would feel that kind of naive and unadulterated Christmas morning joy once again the year I became a father myself. And this year, as I put up the tree with my daughter — hanging decorations made by the grandmother she never got to meet, but whose presence shoots effortlessly through every joke she makes and every hug she throws around family or friend — I’m more convinced than ever that Incarnation and Resurrection, Christmas and Easter, really are birds of a feather after all.  [Tyee]

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