Monday, December 28, 2009

Books I Have Read - on-line

Moby Dick
Heart of Darkness
Plutarch Lives

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The "true" message of Christmas

I will humbly propose the "true" message of Christmas. But I do this humbly since there are always differences of opinion. Years ago when I attended the Infantry Officer Advanced Course, I was a liaison to the students from various coutries. As part of the course for them, they were taken on some trips to survey America. One student commented, "I have been to Columbus, Georgia, that was not the true America. I have seen Atlanta, Georgia, that was not the true America. I have seen Washington, DC, that was not the true America. But now I have seen the true America, I have seen Disney World!!"

There is a Christian message and tradition such as in Germany well articulated briefly in the Short Story by Adalbert Schnitzler, Berg Krystal. There are also numerous neo-myths of Christmas featuring Santa Claus such as Miracle on 34th Street. The non-Christian traditions of the Winter Solstice are captured in echoes of Holiday Songs such as Deck the Halls, O Christmas Tree, etc.

Rather than dispute or debate what the true message of Christmas is, I would like to offer my message of Christmas. I was impressed with a message in the movie, Fred Claus. In the movie, Santa Clause strictly adheres to the doctrine of checking the list twice to find out who is naughty and nice. The naughty don’t receive anything. Fred, Santa’s brother, has a different idea. He believes that if a child who doesn’t deserve a present can receive one, it can turn them around, it can change their life.

It definitely is very humbling to receive a gift we don’t deserve. Occasionally I will punish my children with grace. I will describe their deserved punishment and then I will commute it. I can’t expect them to know about mercy unless they experience it. Other times when my daughter complains that her brother is getting away with things, I point out to her some things that I did not punish her for.

So, that is my message of Christmas. Treat people better than they deserve. I sure liked it when I was treated better than I deserved so I am now just returning the favor.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas 2003

I will remember Christmas 2003. I was stationed in Baghdad. I lived on the Tigris river with a bunch of lieutenant colonels in a house. My friend, Joe, made the house festive with Christmas cards strewn around the living room. I admired his dedication. He had 300+. I have never been good writing letters or cards. Joe spearheaded a nice event at our house arranging to get some Iraqi food and inviting some of the civilian staff who worked at the palace. One guest was the acting U. S. ambassador to Baghdad. We were having a nice meal and enjoying some Christmas fare on TV when some Iraqis pooped our party. They began lobbing mortars into our compound. We were in a house so we had some protection but the acting ambassadors body guards being the professionals they were, they were concerned for his safety. Joe got some of the soldiers who lived with us to move a machine gun to our roof in an overlooking position to any approaches from the river or road. The body guards thought it best to move the acting ambassador away and soon all the other guests departed. So I will always remember our celebration of the Prince of Peace which was interupted by the sounds of war. Those were real mortars bringing their destruction. Unfortunately, I have also experienced other times of war, but the weapons were not tangible but just as real. It is so sad to interupt any celebration of the Prince of Peace with harsh words or anger. Sometimes in my innocence I almost think that anger is more destructive than bullets. This year I pray that we will remember all those who have the shadow of guns in their midst and strive to bring peace on earth wherever we are.

Christmas 2009

I am happy this year. I started Christmas early. In a few sad years, Christmas flew by and in the US, the day after Christmas is a hallow feeling. Christmas was at one time and still is in some places a twelve day celebration. We sing the great song, the Twelve Days of Christmas to remember that. Many churches have preserved the twelve days and celebrate the 12th day, the day of Epiphany (Greek for Appearance), the day that the wise men came to visit the Christ Child. The US does echo the 4 Weeks of Advent (Latin for the Arrival) which the Church has preserved. But I as many was raised apart from the traditions of the church so my experience was the secular version of Christmas in my younger days. We acquired certain rituals which I remember and then molded into my own experience when I was introduced to the traditions of the Church when I was 16.
My childhood ritual was to go to downtown Seattle where one used to shop in the 50s and 60s. Later there were outlet malls, Galleria malls, etc. But in those days downtown was downtown!! We always would go to Fredericks. They would have a display which featured trains that would move when one put their hand on the black outline of a hand on the glass. Inside, there were wonderful Christmas displays. We would always purchase Frango mints, great chocolate mints.
The decorations at my grandparent’s house were more ornate than what I had at my home with my mother. Interestingly at the time I thought nothing of the fact that we had a star on top of the tree. Later, I would have a wife from a European background that had always had angels. (Of course I deferred to the angel!). There was a tiny fireplace, 1 foot square, that was never used for fire but every Christmas, my grandmother would make a manger scene. The baby Jesus on a cradle with hay, surrounded by Mary and Joseph, the Wise men and the Shepherds with an Angel hovering overhead and a light that had the 5 points of a star around it.
The tree was always overflowing with presents.
In those days before video, we relied on the routines of the TV stations. Every year on Christmas Eve they would play a Miracle on 34th Street. This is the old black and white version set in the 1947. I have watched the modern versions but they can’t compare in my mind to this original version especially with Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus.
Of course I would watch some version of Scrooge (a story I had first been introduced when my grandmother would read stories to me including the Night Before Christmas poem),
I would watch either some old theatrical version of Scrooge or Mr. Magoo’s version.
After that the solemn Mass from Rome. And then I would go to bed. In later years I could hear my grandparents and mother climbing up in the attic to retrieve the special hidden presents. It really wasn’t much of a surprise because I was spoiled because I got about everything I wanted. Things like an egg beater helicopter, mentor, the robot game, baseball bats, footballs, etc.
After I started going to church in High School, I had another layer of ritual to add. I add a renewed enthusiasm for Christmas Carols. My grandparents had a grand piano and I would relearn the Christmas Carols and play them on the piano.
For Christmas we would have the traditional turkey but because turkey wasn’t my favorite, a ham was also cooked. I did love the turkey sandwiches which would last about a week.
In college, I renewed my study of German which I had started in Junior High School. How wonderful to go to a German Church and hear the Christmas Carols in 4 part harmony. There were many German Christmas Carols that I had never heard before such as Susser the Gocken nie klingen. O altissima. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen. These German carols added a level of solemnity and beauty to Christmas that I will always treasure.
Also the German Shortstory by Adalbert Schnitzler has one of the best short descriptions of the Christmas in Germany that I have ever read.
The description can be read here (in English, but of course the original German is great too!)
In the Army at Ft Hood Texas in the early 80s, there was a German Christmas service. Also there, I met a pilot who was married to a Dutch girl. She translated the Dutch dialogue and song in the Miracle on 34th Street. I still sing the song
Sinterklaas kapoentje
Gooi wat in mijn schoentje
Gooi wat mijn laarsje
Dank je Sinterklaasje

St. Nicholas, I beg of you
Drop into my little shoe
Put into my stocking
Thank you, Saint Nicholas
So What rituals are being passed on now to my youngest children? One year I did not see them at all.
This year we are starting right after Thanksgiving. We listen to a radio station that plays nothing but Christmas music. FM 101.9 Baltimore. We bought the tree, adorning it with lights, ornaments, and candy canes. I buy presents to put under the tree. We sing Christmas carols to the accompaniment of the electronic key board. A few weeks ago we saw the new Scrooge Movie. I was totally amazed the other day when my 8 year old daughter knew every word of "Last Christmas." So Christmas goes on!!!