Thursday, December 22, 2011

An imaginary war

It wasn’t just cold on the main street of Barnes, it was antarctic in the old-fashioned sense of the word. An icy wind sluiced up from the south unopposed by structure or hill or tree, kicking up clouds of dust, whipping flags to froth and jackknifing down collars, turning skin to stone and eyes to icicles, and in every which way making life miserable for the hundreds of people lining the street. But not so miserable that any were willing to leave.

My wife and I were there for different reasons, me to photograph the annual lighted horse parade for the newspaper and her to simply be with me. Or at least that was the reason we provided when asked. To tell the truth I think there was an inward draw for all of us, something unspoken and unspeakable but that harkened back to our childhoods which were so different, or even further into the deepest recesses of our human genome when nights were haunted by fanged creatures and bewildering arrays of stars, beauty and terror compounded into a tapestry woven by unlimited imagination and breathless awe. These bright colored lights, this silent procession, were more than the inaugural of the Christmas season, they were subliminal reminders that the true spirit of the season lies not in dogma but in childlike wonder.

And so we watched and felt it wondrous in that small-town, cheesy sort of way where minimalism is the rule and passion makes up for the rest, the families with young children and the elderly and every age in between, and afterward drove to our homes in the velvety darkness under a panoply of glittering stars, and in the succeeding days put up our Christmas trees and decorated our houses and bought gifts which we wrapped and reverently placed beneath our ornamented trees in rituals dating back far before the birth of Christ when there were other gods and other beliefs.

December was a long graceful slide toward the waning of the year. In downtown Washington Christmas music wafted from speakers placed around the square. A manger sprang up on the courthouse lawn. In the news office we engaged in a running discussion over the relative merits of musical artists and tastes, my editor favoring the oldies such as Perry Como and Bing Crosby which I considered outlawed by the Geneva Convention as cruel and inhumane punishment, ditto for most country yodelers. Days grew shorter as the solstice approached, the bleached winterscape so barren and sere succumbing to nights pulsing with color and dazzle. Despite the cold and the short days it was, for most people I know, their favorite time of the year, a tripartite festivus stretching from Thanksgiving to New Years Day with Christmas the glorious centerpiece. It was also, I discovered, a No Man’s Land of competing ideologies.

When the first rumors trickled in, mostly from casual comments dropped by conservative friends, I dismissed them as the machinations of the lunatic fringe. Liberals wanted to ban Christmas, they said, though when pressed details were sketchy to the point of nonexistence. (None of my liberal friends had any idea what they were talking about, singularly and collectively expressing nothing but adoration for the holiday.) Five minutes of research tracked the rumors to a certain news organization and reports of government entities banning nativity scenes from public facilities and schools that no longer allowed religious festivals of any kind. Much of ballyhoo centered on egregious acts of political correctedness divorced from common sense of which the religious right is also known for, such as efforts to ban Halloween in schools and of course the shrill outcry over the invidious evils of Harry Potter novels. And some of it involved injunctions filed by atheists opposing religious displays on public property as a breach of the separation of church and state.

Which was not to say, as Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry did in an infamous political ad, that the Obama administration was waging war on Christmas. 

It would pass, I thought. Christmas will come and Christmas will go and the rumors will suffocate from a lack of substance. 

I should have known better. Perry’s ad seemed to trigger a wave of conservative angst that spilled over into every facet of life, most evident, at least in my case, on the social network site Facebook. The entries came from numerous sources, many copied, shared and forwarded by friends, acquaintances and family members, all of whom seemed royally pissed off about a perceived state of permissiveness toward the sanctity of the season. They railed about non-Christians using Christmas trees and the use of X instead of Christ, about the one true meaning of the season and how Jesus “missed” hearing people say “merry Christmas.” One major touchpoint that set them gnashing their teeth was the use of “happy holidays,” which in their minds was a willful denouncement of the birth of Christ. Oddly enough, they didn’t complain about the commercialization of the holiday. 

What an unhappy lot, I thought. Jeez, can’t we all just get along?

The deeper I delved into this inexplicable vindictiveness directed toward “godless” liberals and Democrats, the less I understood. Whatever alleged assault was being launched against Christmas was mostly imaginary, a natural outcome of differing cultures, theologies and ideologies butting heads. Unfortunately, their message became a platform for demonizing others whose doctrines were different.

I tried taking this in and not letting it rankle, but it bothered me on multiple levels. Some were even contradictory. While it bothered me that Christmas had become little more than a commercial venue, I also appreciated the gifts Santa was slated to bring. (Yes, I peeked). It bothered me that the very people who should be most compassionate about the reason for the season seemed intent on keeping it to themselves or drawing a line in the sand with a sword. It bothered me that America had become a nation of whiners and martyrs who felt entitled to whatever rights their deity, political party or ideology promised as birthright while refusing to grant the same rights to others. 

But it didn’t bother me enough to skip the Blue Rapids lighted tractor parade. 

It was another frigid evening with another frigid wind slicing from the south, the town circle ringed with vehicles and people and kids running about, our small round park ringed with lights and decorations of which the best was a tall illuminated Christmas tree topped with a blazing star. As I waited for the floats to begin their procession I huddled out of the wind against a limestone building, watching the throng and the lights and a full moon lifting golden above the post office. On the opposite side of the square the sound of children’s voices singing carols lifted into the crystalline air, pure and sweet and innocent. There were only about six vehicles in the parade but they were our own, and anyway it didn’t matter how long or short the parade lasted. What mattered was that we were here as a community to celebrate the best of the season, one filled with light and love and wonder and hope, and it showed in our expressions and our actions as we waved to one another and shouted “Merry Christmas” and “Happy holidays,” and the floats with their Santas and their snowmen creaked around the square twice to give us all a good look and everyone, Protestants, Catholics, agnostics, atheists, whites, browns and blacks—believers all—cheered and laughed and waved in perfect harmony until the last float disappeared up Main Street, peace on earth, good will toward men.


Connie said...

very well thought out!

Connie said...

well thought out! Very well written

Bud Simpson said...

Nice work, Tom.

Merry Christmas!

Tom Parker said...

Thanks, all--and a very, merry Christmas to you all!

Anonymous said...

Tom - just finished reading your book, which I very much enjoyed for the most part. It almost makes me want to take up birding since I have gradually collected some feathered friends in the small tree outside my front door. Having had some newspaper experience myself, I can relate to a few of your experiences. Keep up the good work. I was recently through Washington and Marshall counties en route to NW Kansas and loved the scenery there. Rick Nichols, Leavenworth.

Tom Parker said...

Rick -- Glad you liked the book (for the most part!). The country around Leavenworth ain't too shabby, either--I love it along the Missouri River, though the flooding this year really tore it up, didn't it?