December 1997, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Christmas is inescapable. This year my passive willingness to be dragged along with the season has drifted away in the fall breezes like the last of the late summer blooms. Instead I feel like a disdainful and cynical teacher who gazes over his spectacles at some poor specimen of a pupil whose lack of all those attributes necessary to civilized humanity is amazing in its completeness. I don't feel at all like writing our usual diaristic account of life in Calgary as experienced by the Brown family. Instead I'm going to give free reign to my analytical tendencies and meander off into the Yuletide season like some ancient, pastured-off carthorse with dyspepsia.
Undeniably there is an overwhelming societal intent to make Christmas by far the most important season of the year in the Western World. To think of it as the result of a conspiracy is to forget the tremendous diversity of purpose readily apparent to anyone who steps back into detachment for a moment to observe. When I try to picture such a dispassionate observer I wish I might clap a hand onto the tweed-coated shoulder of Mr. Heisenberg and suggest another principle to him. Heisenberg's Certainty Principle: an observer who attempts to view Christmas without any involvement is certain to lose himself shortly in introspection and become deeply buried in his own memories of the past.
For it seems to me that aside from being a profitable trigger for consumer spending, Christmas is largely about the past. It is based upon a religious festival centring on the celebration of a birth that occurred almost two millennia ago. It occurs just after the winter solstice and builds upon and incorporates much earlier pagan feasts and practices of the that season. Two thousand years have provided plenty of time to inspire, evolve and mature many diverse traditions about it around our world. Here and now, Christmas's omnipresence and complex historical roots cause it to involve Christian and non-Christian willy-nilly. With the advent of a global information age, I can be bombarded, enveloped and smothered in Christmas traditions from cultures familiar and foreign.
What I feel about Christmas and how I experience it today rise up from my remembrances of the Christmases of my youth. I don't require a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past to conjure up personal views of those ancient days. Over this nostalgic picture are painted the repairs and alterations of a hand that apparently cannot decide between restoration, continuance and faithful representation of the contemporary. This is my Ghost of Christmas Present. And it is, I suppose, a memory of Scrooge's Ghost of Christmas Future that has led me to this moment of consideration.
Contributing to this state of mind is the completion of a phase in my art career. For the past six years I have pursued my studies at the ACAD with increasing pace and gathering momentum until I recently and suddenly arrived at the doorway of BFA graduation. One might think it the time for a moment of quiet thought and preparation before the first confident step into the outside world is taken; but really I feel much more like a battered spirit in a whirlwind clinging grimly to the lip of Pandora's recently-opened box. These preparatory years have increased my appreciation of grayness as subtlety and as a reasonable, rational habitation between the extremes of conflicting binary opposites; but our culture also demands that we highly value uncontrolled, polarizing passion. I bring this up because each year I see the goods and bads of Christmas further separated.
Great pressure is exerted on us to accomplish all the Christmas tasks of food-preparation, gift-giving, event-attendance and entertaining and to be merry and happy all the while. And as Charles Dickens has pointed out, it should be no surprise that stress, depression, grief and want are most keenly felt at this time of year. It is still the horrors of reciprocal gift-giving and card-sending that nip at my hindmost parts during the dying days of the year. Yet under unstressed conditions I enjoy both. Another irony, that of being so busy and yet having so many interesting and special events on offer might be from the pen of some misanthropic playwright. While most of these stress-generating traditions still have their claws deep in us, we have managed to shed a few. Negotiations continue on the gift front as they do apparently in many families.
The part of Christmas that I now enjoy most is the choral music. CBC radio seems happy to oblige almost continuously. For probably almost twenty-five years now I've managed to find some church or other running carol services at Advent and Christmas and attend them. I've also been singing in church choirs for most of my last twenty years in Calgary and this always means special services and concerts around Christmas. But the high point this year was attending a Handel's Messiah Sing-a-long. At last year's concert I stumbled through my unfamiliar score from the congregational pews while my ears sought out the notes of distant basses. This year I sang with considerably more gusto and confidence, gowned and choir-stall-seated in the midst of a crowd of powerful and knowledgeable basses. I think perhaps you have to be a choir singer to completely appreciate what a tremendous and sustained thrill this was.
With this letter almost complete, I can begin to look forward to a ride out this evening to see the Christmas lights. There is a Festival of Lights thirty minutes north in the town of Airdrie that the children should enjoy. Tomorrow evening brings a multi-choir concert in which Danielle, Elwyn and I will sing. In no time at all we will be up to the church services of Christmas Eve and the chaos of Christmas day at home. Soon Christmas will pick me up like a piece of flotsam in its flow; but later, during its ebb, it will spin me aside forgotten.
It seems we ought to be able to do life better than this; but God willing we'll get another chance next year. I hope you have made some advance on the season and I wish you a very happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year. Those of you familiar with English comedy may remember Beyond the Fringe's coal-miner complaining of life down the mine: "It's not enough to keep the mind alive." Few of us would say the same of our lives - it's more like 'never a dull moment'. I wish you all the best and that during 1998 you will find some measure of peace and happiness amid "the hurly-burly of modern life". (Beyond the Fringe, Take a Pew sketch, ca 1965)
P.S. Thanks to Elwyn for the hand-lettered title.