Tuesday, January 6, 2009
On Epiphany, the day after the Twelfth Day of Christmas, I reflect that to a very unusual extent for Houston, this year the holiday season's color was white. For one thing, Houston had a delightful evening snowfall a week before Christmas. Then as I watched the holidays unfold, a whole string of symbolic moments were white, as over against the Technicolor extravaganza that Christmas in Houston can be.
Actually, though, it all started with the refrigerators.
After Hurricane Ike, three million people lost electricity for days on end. Eventually most of us broke down and cleaned the fridge. Out went condiments of great antiquity and variety. Hurricane parties and post-hurricane barbecues had already dispatched the imported lobsters, Gulf seafood, and choice cuts of venison and beef. Cleaning the fridge meant discarding innumerable mystery meats and desserts of uncertain provenance. Spills, stains, crumbs and the fossilized radish leaves in the vegetable crispers got cleaned out too. It was a banner day when the power came back on and another banner day when we were able to go to the grocery store and find fresh milk and vegetables to tuck into the fridge.
So in this holiday season there were three million clean, white refrigerators. Clean refrigerators is an understated grace note that seems apt on the brink of 2009. Most of us got through Hurricane Ike OK or at least alive. But reminders of Ike are still everywhere. As I jot this down in the Harris County Jury Assembly room, it's just been announced that we, the potential jurors waiting to be called, will not get to watch the Travel Channel on the video monitors. "Back in September, Hurricane Ike took the satellite dish off the roof and didn't give it back," says the Bailiff.
On the heels of Hurricane Ike came Hurricane Financial Meltdown. That one is nowhere near over. A couple of days ago I heard a pedestrian on his cell phone advising somebody to "hunker down," which undoubtedly had to do with either their job or their retirement plan. This could be the worst Christmas for years to come. Or if things keep going downhill, this could end up as the best Christmas for years to come. Christmas 2008 definitely wasn't Christmas past, with the usual excess and self-congratulation. Christmas Present was grateful, but somewhat weary and wary. Christmas Future had a lean and hungry look.
This year I intended to put up my tree as a brave exhibition of celebration amidst uncertainly. For most of the year Christmas lives under my bed. I got as far as dusting the boxes containing ornaments and artificial tree and all. Then I fell ill. For several days I subsisted on white rice, white bread, and yogurt. All, you will note, white, and a lot better than not being able to eat anything (or keep it down) at all. I felt bad enough for long enough to skip the tree. But I had the Advent wreath I made in a workshop at church on the first Sunday of Advent. Even better, I had a good place to put an Advent Wreath this year, because last May I brought my grandmother's sewing machine back from Georgia. The machine is hidden in an elegant table with a smooth top—a perfect place for the wreath. It was a large evergreen wreath with four candles symbolizing the four Sundays of Advent. Three of the candles were blue and one, to symbolize the Third or Rose Sunday of Advent, was pink. In the center of the wreath was the white Christmas candle.
On Christmas Eve I crept into bed at 6 PM, pulled the warm covers up, read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, slept until almost midnight, got up to light the Advent Wreath and say the prayers that go with it, and went back to bed feeling blessed. Christmas day I didn't run around giving and receiving. Still recuperating, I stayed home. But I had some presents to make me feel better. Two of these meant especially much to me. One was in a plain white envelope from my mother. She has Alzheimer's, and last Christmas she had just moved into Assisted Living in Georgia. Last year for the first time in my life I didn't get anything from her for Christmas. That was deeply unsettling. This year, though, she insisted on my cousin Roy giving her a blank check; she obtained a perfectly nice Christmas card; and she sent me the card with a nice little check enclosed. Never mind that I write her bills with the same checking account. It's the thought that counts, and she thought clearly enough to go through the giving steps for me, and I'm glad.
Christmas morning I opened a present that came just the day before from my friend Flo in San Francisco. In the white FedEx box, inside the bright wrapping paper, there was a white gift box. It contained a pretty sun-catcher. The wreath, the sun-catcher, and feeling well all felt like enough on Christmas morning. I've noticed in years past that the less cluttered Christmas Eve and Christmas are with parties, food and drink and social things, the more brightly the spiritual dimension shines, like the Christmas candle. There is profound difference between having too little and having enough, and an equally profound difference between enough and too much. Consumer capitalism does its damnedest to implant the conviction that the best definition of "enough" is more, more, more. As we go into 2009, that lie looks more transparent than usual. In an editorial in the New York Times on December 26, Bob Herbert refers to the idea "...that the essence of our culture and the be-all and end-all of the American economy is the limitless consumption of trashy consumer goods."
The engines of consumer capitalism long since hijacked Christmas as much as possible. The liturgical churches have more or less held out against the hijacking of Christmas by observing the season of Advent. Thank you very much; the poinsettias don't get put out until Christmas Eve and even then it's not the same Christmas as in the local mall. I was back up on my feet by the Sunday after Christmas and glad to be able to go to my church, St. Stephen's Episcopal. The Christmas decor was all greenery, gold accents, white banners and while poinsettias. No red decorations. It was beautiful, reverent and appropriate. White is a peculiarly barren yet promising color—the color of snow, or desert sand, or a fridge without food, or the white page before any words are written. As I understand the history of textiles, white is a rather hard color to manufacture. Nature has lilies, stars, snow, sand, milk, and creatures with snow-white fur, but in the old days the word white (Latin albus) just meant relatively white, including the flaxen color of linen garments. So the linen church vestment called an alb, which is derived from the Roman linen tunic, doesn't have to be snowy white.
By New Year's Eve I felt well and had a wonderful evening out. My friend Yazmin invited me to spend the evening at St. Joseph Antiochian Orthodox Church. The three-hour (!) service included an Orthos, Divine Liturgy, and I'm not sure what else, in celebration of St. Basil the Great, the Circumcision of Jesus, and I don't know what else. Orthodox services are not easily understandable, or meant to be. However, the worship was radiant with mystery, fragrant with incense, and resonant with the chanting of the choir. Some of the tones sounded Arabic. This particular church is a small, acoustically live basilica with many icons and white walls. So again: the color white.
At one point (I think it was at the consecration of the bread and wine) the entire congregation prostrated itself. This means to kneel and touch your forehead to the floor. It can be a shock to the system of a Protestant Christian. Yet even for a Protestant visitor in an Orthodox church, prostration can feel profoundly right and heartfelt. There's a slightly famous quote from I know not where that refers to people who bow down in awe and reverence before no wisdom greater than their own. At the end of 2008, after CEO's, a presidential administration, and other wise fools left the United States mired in war and financial ruin—and after Hurricane Ike, when the power grid of Houston, the energy capital of the world, ended up in shreds—after all that, some bowing at the idea of wisdom greater than our own does seem in order.
After the church service, St. Joseph's threw quite a party. Having been raised Southern Baptist, I quickly realized that whereas a Baptist church might well sponsor an event on New Year's Eve, they wouldn't have a) bottles of wine on every table, b) tastefully sexy dancing such as occurred in the St. Joseph event hall when the DJ played Arabic dance music. All of it, the music and colored lights, the fine food and the dancing, greeted a new year that isn't like most I can remember. 2009 probably won't be about entitlement. It will be about loss, hope, and a basic truth: that having much and expecting more and more has nothing to do with joy. Worldly goods and wealth don't create happiness. Joy comes from community, meaning, and hope. Happiness, the icing on the cake of joy, is having just what you need, no less and no more, like a clean refrigerator with some milk and vegetables.
Happy New Year!