Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Ghost of Christmas Past

I am no Scrooge, but now that Christmas is here and I still have some holiday time left, I am invoking my hypothetical Ghost of Christmas Past to see what it would show.

The earliest Christmases I can remember were full of joy, the kind of absolute joy that only a child can possess. The church was filled with music, bedecked in colorful lights and tinsel, the air was subtly pervaded with the pungent smell of the big pine tree towering in one corner, and we kids sang at the top of our lungs in honor of Baby Jesus. But my pinnacle of bliss was the two bags of candies I received after the celebration, one for being just a kid, and another for being a choir member. In those days candies were a special treat not to be taken lightly, and I remember falling asleep with the bags of sweets still clutched against my chest.

All that came to an abrupt halt when communist soldiers swarmed our land and local lowlifes rose to meet them. The next Christmas found our church closed down, my father taken away, and us moved to a shack in the middle of nowhere with just a small kerosene lamp making a feeble attempt to light up the surrounding darkness. That did not dampen my spirit one bit though, and I asked my older sister who had a good voice to sing a few Christmas songs with me. She was dilly-dallying, but I could tell she was warming up to my idea when our mother made the mistake of urging us on, to which my sister flatly refused out of spite I could sense. I wasn't interested in that mysterious mother-daughter friction, all I wanted was some holiday music, and for the first time ever I felt sad on Christmas night.

A few years later, I was all alone treading the streets of another town. It was Christmas Eve, and I was shivering in my threadbare jacket while watching other people having a merry time. I stopped in front of a church, looked at it the way I suppose a wounded man would look at his amputated arm. For a fleeting moment I thought I was going to cry, but then I laughed at the idea of crying and walked on. Late that night, back to the tiny room I called home, I stood very still when my nose caught the familiar pungent smell coming from a twig of pine I had taken from a nearby hill early that morning. I picked up the little twig, walked out into the dark and flung it as far as I could.

After that one, Christmas no longer excited or bothered me, and from an eager participant I became an indifferent spectator. In the meantime I grew up into a young man, life started to take new shapes and meanings, pushing old priorities further back into the cobwebbed crannies of my mind. I had some good Christmases, such as those when I had someone I could call my own next to me in a church listening to old songs sung by young children. I also had some bad Christmases, like the one when I stretched my body on a sagging cot staring at the stained ceiling of a dorm room and wondering whether I should take a sleeping pill at eight p.m. to forget my unbearable loneliness. In any case, Christmas had long retreated from center stage to mere backdrop for my own activities on that particular night.

This year I went to church on Christmas Eve. What brought me there was a simple "why not" when someone asked. I listened to the old hymns of my childhood, sang along a bit and found the antiquated lyrics somewhat funny. The church was old and there were signs of dilapidation. My aesthetic sense cried in protest against the decoration in poor taste and the sadly flawed music. The guitar was out of tune with the piano, and did they really have to play both instruments at the same time? The choir didn't start their song in sync, and that guy's solo number sounded very much the same as Pierce Brosnan croaking in Mamma Mia the movie. Then suddenly it dawned on me that I got it all wrong. This was not a performance, but a group of people doing their very best to express how they felt towards the Savior despite their limited talents and resources. I had also got it wrong when I had turned my back on Christmas because I had been hurt, and I'd been getting it wrong all the way back to the time I had gone to bed with two bags of candies pressed against my chest on Christmas night.

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