Light in the darkness

I can’t forget Christmas bells.

This year, a group of us gathered at a local shopping mall to spend a day and night ringing the bell for the Salvation Army. I can still hear the back-and-forth trill of the tinny cymbal.

The Army’s 25,000 volunteers and low-paid staff raised nearly $149 million last year in kettle donations — but the money raised locally stays local, and helps buy toys, clothing and food for the poor.

In Joplin, Mo., someone dropped five cashier’s checks wrapped in dollar bills totaling $50,000 into a kettle. Kettles around the country have been emptied to find gold dental bridges, Viagra tablets, lottery tickets and gold coins.

At our kettle this month, shoppers passing by were mostly friendly, if harried.

Our tactic was to open the door for every shopper, ingress or egress, and to wish each one a “Merry Christmas.”

By evening, that was a lot of Merry Christmases. People liked the greeting and, I suppose, it put more money in the pot. But we let down our guard one time, saying nothing as a man rushed past, apparently reconsidered the kettle, returned with a $5 bill to drop into thin slot, then dashed to his car. Over his shoulder he yelled, with obvious irritation, “You were supposed to wish me a “Merry Christmas!””

Oh, it is — an old season with new rituals and time compressed, ticking off from Black Friday and ending in round-the-clock store hours to Christmas Eve.

More often, it’s Christmas experienced with a keyboard and debit card. Tap, tap. The Twelve Tweets of Christmas.

It doesn’t particularly bother me the holiday has long mixed in a variety of non-Christian and pagan influences — even though the word “Christmas” originated, not surprisingly, from the compound meaning “Christ’s mass.” And the name “Christ” is from the Greek word Christos that in turn translates the Hebrew word for “Messiah.”

Does it matter that “Xmas” has Christian roots? Didn’t think so.

Or that Santa’s sleigh makes tracks into the snowy obscurity of the third century? There may actually have been a real St. Nicholas of Myra in modern-day Turkey, a fighter of heretics whose legend grew from tales about how a holy man saved young girls from being sold into prostitution by gifting their destitute parents with bags of gold.

Even the origin of our Dec. 25th date is disputed, though scholars agree this day does not represent the historical marker when the son of Mary was born.

Then there’s the Christmas tree. Planted among family, holding up traditions, silent witness to the season, there it stands.

Call it what you will — “holiday tree,” tree of the knowledge of good and evil, syncretic totem — so much happens there.

And what might the Christmas tree, have to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Yeshua, the Jewish son born on an unknown day to a teen mother and her conflicted husband in a nondescript town in a dusty Roman province so long ago?

You see, my hopes and dreams, my futile schemes, hang on the tree.

As she does every year, my wife asks what I’d like for Christmas.

“Nothing,” I reply, once again. There is not another gadget I need or deserve, not another sweater, nor an Irish setter, not a book, nor something to cook.

I ask her what she wants to find, under the tree.

“Spend the money on the kids,” she says.

God have mercy on my soul if I comply.

Legends abound about the origin of setting up a tree to decorate for Christmas.

Legend or not, every season, I see friends’ trees so perfect in their perfectly ordained and ornamented perfection it takes my breath away.

I think, mine will never measure up.

Because, all my imperfections are displayed, on the tree.

My Christmas tree is usually misshapen, listing to one side or another, branches askew, with a wild mind of its own, daring to be tamed.

Each year, my wife and I debate: Fake tree or real tree?

Fake or real — I can’t tell the difference anymore. I find myself watching a TV yule log burn away in HD, with Christmas music playing in the background.

No ashes, no dust.

Real, we agreed. We want to be real.

So once again I wrestled what seemed like tons of dead tree through a small door, aiming the massive conifer toward its stand.

Sweating and muttering, I heaved the beast into its burden, then I tried to set it straight.

Lying on my back, with a friend yelling, “Move it to the left!” and my wife shouting, “It’s going to fall!” I finally achieved something like equilibrium.

We are not of this world.

And, yes, Christmas gifts await, at the tree.

It’s another cold night and the shadows gather, as they always do.

In the tenderness of twilight, when the blue horizon fades, I look inside, and see the lights on the tree.

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light.”

As our children got older, they lost interest in putting up ornaments and stringing lights on the tree.

So, again this season, my wife and I decorated the tree. Porcelain angels and glass ballerinas. A “Nutcracker” display that was once my mother’s — but she’s gone now.

Distant drums.

Still, generations dance across this tree.

There’s a piece of green construction paper with a photo of a daughter when she was 5. Clay ornaments, children’s creations.

A tiny red sled marked “1957.”

Everything goes on the tree.

Tonight, I’ll hear the Christmas bells. And I won’t be surprised when I hear them toll for … me.

Christmas night falls.

The light shines in the darkness.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Come, stand before … the tree.

Herod trembles.

A star rises in the East.

Posted from San Lorenzo, California, United States.

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