There’s not a lot of jingle, jingle or fa la la la la going on in our house this year, although having our daughter home for a good stay is more than enough to assure joy throughout the season. She helped her gimpy old dog find a comfortable spot in the car so that he was safely settled, still able to poke a snout over the back seat, and set out for a cross country drive from Massachusetts to Oregon in the midst of a pandemic. The Republic is a mess as our national character shifts from Abe Lincoln to Freddy Kruger, but in our small corner the sky is blue and the sun is shining.
About ten years ago I found myself feeling quasi-Grinchy, finding fault with Mannheim Steamroller, Rudolph, even Santa and his elves. I was somewhere below disgruntled, hovering near total coal-worthy self-pity as I croaked out my dissatisfaction to whatever constellation of people were still willing to hear me whine. I can’t remember exactly what small holiday miracle jogged me slightly closer to humanity, but it suddenly struck me that I was approaching my sixty-fourth Cristmas in a row. How could I expect it to have the lustre of moonlight on new fallen snow? How many flights of reindeer had I tracked? How many cookies had I left by the fire? All things, considered, sixty-four years of delight was a pretty good run.
Over the years I’ve been calmed by the admonition that when in doubt, I might simply go with gratitude, and saved by the crisp call of holiday bells, I pulled myself back into the more generous perspective. I have a lot for which to be grateful.
Oh, but December 1991 might not be on my gratitude list.
I had taken a job as Headmaster of a small boarding school for a thousand bad reasons, almost all of which were attached to my outsized ego. I was the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time, and I fear I made a shaky situation even more precarious. That confession aside, I did try to throw myself into the school’s many rites and rituals. I knew I was in trouble from day one as my sense of humor was clearly not appreciated, and humor is just about my only stock in trade. I stumbled along as best I could, trying to warm up the climate, hoping that the weeks between the Thanksgiving holiday and the Christmas break could be merry and bright. I played lilting seasonal music in my office, sent out cards, built a snowman, pretty much cavorted as often as I could, and volunteered to help the school’s Chaplain prepare for the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols.
We’re not going to go into my on-again, off-again relationship with the Episcopal Church, but I was on-again that year and happy to help strew greenery around the Chapel and line up a series of well scrubbed teen aged boys to read and sing. There were some moments of tension as the afternoon wore on. The chaplain’s patience was wearing thin by the time we broke for dinner, and I sent him home to restore himself to good humor.
Restored is not the word I would use to describe our spiritual mentor that evening. He came in hot and sizzled through the first half of the service, stumbling a bit as he grabbed a huge spray of evergreen shrubbery and tossed it into the third row. But still, hope was springing. We were to go on holiday the next day; a long vacation promised peace and joy. Surely we could get through twenty more minutes of fun and frolic before adjourning to the main building for cookies and cocoa.
I don’t know when the cork popped, as it were. At some point in the middle of Adeste Fideles, singing the verse in English, the boys apparently hit the word “Come” too solidly, as in “Come let us behold Him”. The Chaplain stood after the first rousing “Come”, moved to the first pew on the second, and grabbed the organist on the third, shaking him from the bench and pushing him toward the door at the rear of the Chapel.
He grabbed the remaining greenery at the altar, tossed it into the crowd, and told the assemblage to hie themselves elsewhere.
“Get Out! Get Out! Get the Hell out of this building! We’ve had enough!”
He certainly had, and I stood with him as the boys slunk through the door and back to their dormitory rooms. The cocoa had not been brewed yet, and the cookies were still baking; we’d try to bring the school together in a few minutes, but for the moment all was still, all was blight.
Vacation came, the boys gladly travelled back to the homes from which they had sprung, we left the campus tree decorated until New Year’s Day, and the school year ground itself to its appointed end, which not coincidentally was my appointed end. I’ll claim a great deal of responsibility for my uncertain leadership in those trying times; had I known what I know now, I would have let others take the reins.
And yet, as I pull the snow globes from their boxes and set out the miniature snowy village, I have to confess that the Christmas Chapel meltdown springs to mind, assuring me that no matter how many Christmases I am privileged to enjoy, no memory will linger as distinctly clear.