MY CHRISTMAS GIFT TO YOU
You couldn’t close the door fast enough. The wind fought you for it. Every time another trooper came in, the below-freezing air that accompanied him twisted around the M40’s crouched along the metal walls of the tank barn and went right through the O.D. jackets and sweaters and woolen hats and caused the group to huddle closer. Circles of light from the bare bulbs over each tank hardly reached the middle of the room where wooden chairs had been placed row on row. Mesmerized by the tiny colored bulbs on the Christmas tree at the front of the room we sat in silence until the Catholic chaplain began the words of the midnight mass.
All these years later, all I remember is the feeling, of peace, of purpose, of kinship that wrapped around us during the mass and the silence when we walked back to the barracks in the cold darkness with the stars crackling in the sky. We were training to deploy and next Christmas we would be who knew where.
There’s a four lane now, but back about 25 years ago going to the top of Saddleback Mountain in Orange County at night was an adventure in itself. There was a monastery there and I had heard they were having a Christmas Eve mass that would be celebrated by the monks and something about that drew us in, JoAnn, our young son Loren, and me.
The dark of the night absorbed all but the light from the stars that flashed and sparked in the night sky when we finally parked on the grass. The wooden chapel was the color of uncured tobacco, lighted only by candles that were a beacon that lighted our way in. Christmas trees at the front of the chapel glowed from white votive candles set among the branches. We sat in silence.
It was the rustling that first drew our attention to the back of the chapel, a sound coming from the robes as the cowled monks entered and took their places at the front of the chapel in rows facing each other, silent, until one of their number rose and signaled with an imposing shepherd’s crook. At the heavy tapping the monks began the ancient Gregorian chant and the thousand or so years that spanned the time when these words were first sung ceased to exist.
It went on for about an hour. No words. No sermons. No prayers. Just the sound of unaccompanied voices. And the feeling of peace that stayed with us all the way down the mountain in the dark night with the magic stars.
Other Christmases, with people and animals long gone that come alive once again in our hearts and memories at this time of year. Christmases caroling with the six or eight of my study group or my fellow residents through the rough and tough streets near the medical school and the hospital in downtown Philly, protected only by our long, white lab coats. No fear. We were their doctors. Christmases on the Cape in New England with JoAnn’s family and the tradition of driving through a local neighborhood known for its farolitos, a touch of Santa Fe many miles away. Christmases at Spirit Ranch with the horses bedded down in the pasture and a visit to them with a glass of eggnog in one hand and carrots in the other. And when the kids were small, eating the cookies they had left for Santa, careful to leave a few crumbs.
It’s a magic time of year and so much more than a mid-winter holiday dreamed up by the druids to chase away the darkness. There’s a reason Hanukah is celebrated at this time, and it’s not as an alternative to Christmas. Hanukah is a celebration of the miracle of a band of dedicated Hebrew warriors, the Maccabees, who won back their freedom from the mighty Hellenistic state against overwhelming odds 2300 years ago. It would take a week to consecrate the oil for the light that must remain lit night and day over the ark of the covenant in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees only had enough consecrated oil to last for one day but they lit it anyway, led by faith, and it continued to burn until the new oil was ready. Jews continue to praise God for the miracle to this very day.
Everyone has their own magic. And every one of us is our own miracle.
All of us at The Medical and Skin Spa send all of you blessings for a memorable, magical Christmas: Susan, Lynne, Sandy, Leslie, my precious wife JoAnn, sweet Sammy Dawg, the horses, and me. Merry Christmas!