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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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It’s just Christmas

December 1st, 2004

BY CATE GARRISON

I don’t know why I love Christmas.

The excitement I feel on December 24 has nothing to do with anticipated presents. I cherish no childhood memories of tearing into gorgeously wrapped parcels to discover every item on my Santa Claus list. As a rule, the offerings the Obese Old Deer-whipper left me when I was a kid filled me with nothing but disappointment.

There was the year, for example, that my mother told me He would bring a box of multi-colored nail polishes, complete with files and little scissors, if only I’d stop biting my finger nails.

I did.

He didn’t.

That year He brought me a homemade sewing box I’d seen my granddad carving in his workshop, with not an elf in sight. I hated sewing… couldn’t thread a needle. My only remaining pleasure was to nibble off the new-grown white bits at my finger ends.

Then there was the bike fiasco. I’d clearly ordered a particular type of Raleigh, all chrome and shine, with snappy gears and white-walled wheels, just like my friend Carol’s, only better. I got a reconditioned, one-speed, nameless, clunky thing, in black, that lacked a spoke or two and rattled. I’d chewed my way down to my wrists before December 26.

Seasonal offerings haven’t improved all that much since. Sure, various children, relatives, friends and lovers have cast some pearls before my swinish snout. But as for the Ruddy Big Guy’s contributions, most years I’ve filled my own hope-laden stocking with whatever came to hand: unopened packs of pantyhose, leftover calendars by Doonesbury, replacement cookware, pen-and-pencil sets, with a few apples, oranges, crackers, and coins thrown in to make the Christmas morning dumbshow look more jolly.

My thrills don’t involve the birth of Jesus. Though I reckon the Holy Babe turned out to be a good guy with some excellent life suggestions, I’ve been an atheist almost as long as I can remember. All those little nativity scenes on Anglican altars or Methodist tables seemed as fake to me, at eleven, as the twinkling wire reindeer that pranced across our neighbors’ rooftops. I sang in the chapel choir because I liked the carols, not the conceits. The whole angels-from-on-high thing seemed as superstitious and improbable as Scrooge’s visiting spirits. From virgin births to stationary stars, the story contained more blarney than an Irish tinker.

I remember spending a rather bizarre winter in a small German village, away from my own family, when I was in my early teens. On Christmas Eve, the lady of the house made me sit and watch the empty, moonlit street for hours before I went to bed, saying I was to look out for the Christchild. My inadequate language skills convinced me that some sweet local procession would wend its way towards us around midnight; I hoped for a distribution of Lebkuchen. I can’t describe my shame when I realized she expected me to believe that the Wee Laddie would come a-prancing among the cobbles and cow shit of a Black Forest hamlet. How could she imagine I was so lacking in sophistication? I was wounded to the very core.

I cling to no visions of ancestral halls decked with boughs of holly, or any other jolly fa-la-la. We made our own decorations when I was a kid. My gran sat me at the kitchen table every evening from Guy Fawkes onward to lick nasty bits of colored paper and link them into lurid chains. We had a hollow, cottonwool snowman with a wayward eye and half a nose into whose toothless open mouth we’d stick our Christmas cards as we received them. These we had to open dutifully on Christmas Day before we were allowed to attack the parcels, such as they were. The cards were more boring in those pre-Hallmark days then even today’s interminable polycopied success accounts so many otherwise kindly people feel cruelly impelled to circulate.

I admit we always had a Christmas tree. One year we were so poor my granddad ventured out at dead of night and stole one from the nearby national forest. He felt so guilty afterwards he actually threw up over his turkey dinner. The day pretty much tanked after that.

To be honest, it wasn’t all bad. During those chorister years, a bunch of us young’uns would go carol singing at midnight in a horse-drawn haywagon from farm to farm around the village. There’d be hot punch waiting, and steaming mince pies, and a lot of flirting under the woolen blankets the driver provided to keep us warm. And sometimes there was even snow.

But those few bright points can’t explain why, as soon as I left home, and certainly when I had children, I found myself sitting up, first alone, then cuddling various warm, pink bods, on Christmas Eve, shouting to Father Christmas up the chimney, singing a Yuletide song, writing a letter and a list, leaving a glass of brandy for the Man and a carrot for his Reindeer, faking a wobbly, written response, filling the stockings with a shaking hand, going at last to bed and failing utterly to fall asleep for the very excitement that the morning was to bring.

And even now that the kids have grown, and though my partner’s more a Thanksgiving than a Christmas fan, nothing has changed. I go through all the rituals with the devotion of a priest celebrating mass, though no one’s there. And when I take the dog for his last walk upon the starry desert midnight, right on the cusp of Eve and Day, I swear I feel a tingle in the air.

There’s no explanation for it. It’s just Christmas. It’s just there. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Christmas Issue, Garrison | Link to this Entry

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