silent night

Wichita, KS

I write a Christmas post every year. I’m actually quite fond of this year’s entry, with its reflections on ghosts and spirits and other things in the wintertime dark. But, inspired by the simple beauty given us by Katherine’s and Jason’s posts, I decided to reprint something quieter and humbler instead.

Merry Christmas to all my friends and antagonists here at FPR; thanks ever so much for making me part of your motley crew. See you in 2010.


It’s been pretty cold in this part of Kansas lately; little snow, but temperatures that feel near the arctic level just the same. It was already going to be a low-key Christmas around the Fox household this year anyway, for financial reasons, but the weather has been keeping us indoors and inactive even more than usual. With the cold, everything slows down; slows, quiets, and eventually stills. Certainly not the way my wife and daughters (who tend to be a lot more sensitive to cold weather than I am) would prefer their winters, but for this part of the season, anyway, stillness has it’s upside.

Amongst those cultural critics who look upon modern life and see little that is admirable and even less which is sustainable, Bill McKibben definitely has a rather one-sided fan club. Whereas Wendell Berry, for example, can find readers and enthusiasts on both the right and left, McKibben’s followers are almost always on the progressive side of things. This isn’t surprising: he made his name with The End of Nature, a provocative book on global warming, then later followed-up on the environmental catastrophe theme with Maybe One, a book urging everyone to restrict themselves to reproducing only once. Folks whose complaints with modern life arise from religious or traditional concerns don’t, for the most part, respond well these kind of deep ecological, vaguely or arguably anti-family pre-occupations.

I myself am not a huge McKibben fan, though I’ve read a lot of his work, and found much in it to learn from and admire. This year, I’m thinking a lot about the ideas he put forward in Hundred-Dollar Holiday, a wonderful and thoughtful–if not entirely liveable–essay on what a simpler, more local, less commercial Christmas might entail. Again, this isn’t a message that is likely to resonate terribly well with you if, in the midst of whatever concerns you may have about the busyness and business of modern life, you’re also trying to bring up four well-adjusted daughters in an ordinary, mid-sized American city, as we are. But then, we’ve compromised on localist resolutions before, and that hasn’t stopped us from trying to take them as guides to our living anyway; Christmas wouldn’t be any different. Besides, probably the most important point McKibben makes in that book is simply that Christmas festivities have always been adapted to one’s time and place. A Christmas of noise and celebration, of gift-giving and light-stringing, of feasting and exuberance, is the legacy of the West’s much poorer and much more agricultural past, when nothing provided more of a break from the routine of life than a little rowdiness and luxury and overeating. In the world of constant noise and selling and appointments and expectations we have today, trying to limit oneself, so as to turn the holiday into something different, makes good sense.

It’s interesting that this same week I’ve been talking online with some folks about Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I’ve talked about my passion for that story a couple of times before, and it was fun to discuss it with others. One point which came out in our conversation was that the ideal which Dickens sketched out in that novella was not a Mckibben Christmas; Dickens very strongly believed (as was brought out in the Orwell essay on Dickens I mentioned in the latter post) in commerce and celebration and material things and festive times as forces for good. Of course, he believed in those things liberally, and crusaded against those individuals and institutions which worked against them from being within the reach of all men, especially the poor; but he did not imagine Christmas as a reason or occasion for us to attempt to rise above such concerns entirely. Clearly, McKibben and Dickens live in two very different worlds (though I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the end, their perspectives on and faith in Christianity and the Bible weren’t pretty much the same). The rest of us, hounded by the overwrought expense and rushed pace of the holiday around us on the one hand, yet also desiring to partake of that good cheer which Dickens (as well as others, including our own experiences) has taught us to understand as being a legitimate part of the “Good News” of the season on the other, are stuck in between.

So maybe we just muddle along, in our usual ameliorative way, looking for some compromised simplicity and some arbitrary spaces to step back and step away from it all and be still in the midst of our modern busyness. I think it can be done. In the aforementioned post on Dickens’s masterpiece, I mentioned another masterful storyteller, Garrison Keillor, whom I’m just liberal enough and Christian enough and sentimental enough to be just about the perfect audience member for. His annual Christmas broadcasts are important events in my yearly routine, and one monologue of his, given back in 2001, included a passage that seems appropriate here:

This is the best parts of Christmas, the part just before it starts. There are these whole big patches of serenity that open up, and you feel this peace of Christmas, when the rush has sort of quieted down a little bit and there’s not that much that remains to be done–or it’s too late to do what needs to be done–and you sit and enjoy the quiet. You walk outside on a Christmas eve after you’ve done with the supper, and you’re going to go off to church, and you look up at this great vast starry sky, and at black branches poking up into it, and you just stand there and you breathe it all in. That’s Christmas: that part, right there, that’s the peace of Christmas. Or on Christmas Day, when the company has not come yet and everything’s done–the cookies are all baked, and you’ve done your turn around the living room with the vacuum, and the table is all set–you have this little twenty minutes, this little half-hour, and you just drink it all in: it’s such a lovely, lovely time, when you can just sit and think back about all the Christmases that you remember.

Twenty minutes doesn’t seem like much; certainly it’s not any kind of hundred-dollar manifesto, looking to change one’s routine entirely. But it is something; it is a bit of stillness that keeps you from losing sight of that alternative entirely. And maybe one of the reasons our North European/New England shaping of the holiday has stayed with us for so long is that our memory of the cold and dark–or the actual experience of it–gives those moments of stillness and memory an edge, an advantage against all those other things, as worthy and appropriate as they may be, which too often drag us away from homes and hearths where siting down and counting blessing and breathing it all in is a little bit easier.

This Christmas, I’m thinking of the way, as a boy, I would try to find a way to get myself alone in the living room late on Christmas Eve–a difficult thing, in a large and noisy home with eight siblings, but I usually managed it just the same–where I would light the candles on our Swedish Angel Chimes, and listen to the bells ring. And I’m thinking of Melissa’s and my first Christmas as a married couple; we returned home late on Christmas Eve from a visit to my grandparent’s, had a light supper, then walked to local Catholic parish, and attended a midnight mass. Walking home on that cold and clear Utah night, returning to our scrawny tree in our underheated (and soon to be condemned) apartment, where we lit some candles and put on some music and sat down. It was like everything was on pause; everything was before us, waiting for us to begin.

And, of course, it did begin, and it’s still going. Four daughters will be waking up tomorrow morning, looking for evidence that Santa Claus had come (which he will have, of course), and their bound to be noisy. And then the day will be upon us, and we’ll have stuff to do. But we’ll have had the night before–and next year, God willing, we’ll have another cold and still night before, and many more after that as well.

I’ll finish with my father-in-law’s favorite carol, and one of mine as well:

Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow.
For all is hushed,
The world is sleeping,
Holy Star its vigil keeping.
Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow.

Sleep, sleep, sleep,
‘Tis the eve of our Savior’s birth.
The night is peaceful all around you,
Close your eyes,
Let sleep surround you.
Sleep, sleep, sleep,
‘Tis the eve of our Savior’s birth.

Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.
While guardian angels without number,
Watch you as you sweetly slumber.
Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.

Here’s wishing you a joyous day tomorrow, everyone–and maybe, just maybe, a quiet twenty minutes or so, lying still in bed, before it all begins.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks December 26, 2009 at 5:50 am

Merry Christmas, Arben, and many more.

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