I didn’t get any Christmas presents the year my parents got divorced. My mother was busy playing Handel in Heidelberg and my father was busy conducting Handel in Syracuse; and I was home alone on Christmas Eve. I was eight. I remember searching the house for evidence of Christmas munificence but there was nothing in the basement, the closets or out on the porch. I remember getting up on Christmas morning and going downstairs hoping, not expecting… just hoping, to find some form of acknowledgement that I existed outside of myself but again there was nothing and I put on my coat and walked across Thornden Park to my best friend’s house. As I walked across the crusted snow crunching coldly beneath my feet I looked up at the looming gray clouds filled with more gray snow and cried asking god to send me some kind of message that I had not indeed been totally forgotten. Although presciently suspicious, I still entertained the folly that there might be a higher being whose entire project was to look down from his lofty perch and make sure that I was happy. And then, getting no reply from god I thought that perhaps I was mistaken, that it was not actually Christmas day, that my mind was playing tricks on me and so I took a detour over to my grammar school thinking it might be a school day but of course the big brick building sat there silently explicit about my wan hopes and when I got to my friend’s house all steamy with cheer and wrappings and fruit cakes and sundry other proofs of yuletide extravagance it was all I could do not to start crying again. I have hated Christmas ever since. And, I have often wondered if all that really happened…but there isn’t anybody left to ask any more. Besides they would probably lie about it just like all the rest of the virgin birth, manger baby Jesus, Kings of Orientar, star of David mendacity.
I have discovered, in my personal surveys, that most other adults also hate Christmas but are reluctant to admit it in public just like they are reluctant to fess up to their doubts about an all-seeing, all-knowing, benevolent deity looking after their quotidian welfare. Of course, this neurasthenia only comes up after Thanksgiving, during which festivities we actually were genuinely happy, but immediately, the day after, appropriately named ”Black Friday”, everybody over fifty begins the melancholy spiral down into the gloom of angst, morbidity and revulsion which we are admonished by the virginous, Santa and reindeer people to keep to ourselves. I mean, what if you don’t believe in that ridiculous virgin birth business… in a barn no less, a searchlight star (which apparently nobody else on the planet saw that night) and three guys on camels bearing gifts gawking as the god-child emerged from the vagina of the young virgin girl Mary… In the whole history of man and biological research has there ever been another virgin birth? As Thomas Paine said, “Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course or that man should tell a lie?” A generous interpretation would be that the Septuagint screwed up; plain and simple… some ancient scribe, perhaps in his cups, said that a virgin was gonna give birth, not a young girl as written in the original texts. Is it possible to calculate the havoc wrought in the next two millennia by this single word: virgin? And, what is Frankincense anyway? Or myrrh? And that song always confused me, “We three kings of Orientare…” Where the hell is Orientare? And then of course, nowadays we all have to listen to a month of acoustic assaults from Jingle Bell Rock, Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer to We Wish You A Merry Christmas. I hate every one of those stupid songs; they make me physically ill.
One thing we should all hate about Christmas, besides the songs, is Santa Claus. I mean, who is this guy anyway? Can anybody explain the historical roots of this fat guy with his reindeer that fly through the sky from his workshop up in Fairbanks or The North Slope? How weird is that? Virgin birth, bright searchlight, flying reindeer; what’s up? So there’s this fat guy (a recent report by the NIH says that 75% of Americans are overweight) with a beard and a bunch of clever elves that somehow knows about the behavior of every kid on the planet. Hmmm…begins to sound a bit like that other dude who knows EVERYTHING. But perhaps he is able to maintain his toy factory because rather than every kid on the planet, which would number in the billions, he just focuses on gullible North American kids, which brings the figure of surveillance down to the tens of millions. But that is still a lot of kids to know whether they were naughty or nice all year. How did he do this before computers and surveillance cameras anyway? But, like all the other religions on the planet, we’re told not to ask such silly questions; just have faith right? (as the late Christopher Hitchins was wont to say, “faith is the surrender of the mind, the surrender of reason, the surrender of the only thing that differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom”) And, additionally, like all religions, all those versions of sundry gods who supposedly love us, we now discover that god, I mean Santa, only loves us if we are nice…if you are not nice you get sent to the basement with a chunk of coal while your smiling sycophant older sibling gets a new bike. Another important lesson thank you very much. And speaking of naughty or nice, I used to feel slightly embarrassed the way my own kids, and I am sure all kids, would abruptly become very nice about a week before Christmas, unexpectedly remembering how to wash dishes, sweep the floor, clean their rooms and maintain a moratorium on petulance.
Nobody ever talks about the long-lasting effects of all this fat man’s deceit; its worse than Jerry Sandusky for crying out loud. I mean, what about older siblings? What are we teaching them about truth and dissembling? We are teaching them that it is okay to lie. The six-year-old says to his eight-year-old big brother, “Is there really a Santa Claus?” and of course the big brother has seen the receipts or discovered the presents in the closet and knows that Mommy and Daddy have been lying (actually, he has been lying to himself for about three years), so he pauses for a second, but then realizes, as he says with a knowing expansion of his chest, “Of course there is a Santa Claus.” He knows that his path to adulthood wends its way through an apprenticeship of deception and lies to his little brother for the first, but not the last time. This, my friends, is the beginning… of all adult lies, all political cant and hypocrisy… a gigantic cabal of wrong thinking; beginning with the fat man. Are cigarettes bad for us? Oh no say the big rich tobacco companies, our research shows no ill effects from smoking. Does fracking cause problems for our drinking water? Oh no says Chevron, that report by the EPA was flawed and they must have introduced the ethylene glycol into the wells themselves. Why don’t we tax the rich? Oh no; we can’t do that because they give us jobs. Is Climate Change real? Oh no that is just a scheme so Al Gore can get rich selling solar panels. Is waterboarding torture? Oh no, our congressional experts have determined that just because it simulates drowning it is not torture. This is all because of Santa Claus. Innocent people asking very reasonable questions and the older siblings, the rich and powerful, the priests and the grown-up experts giving specious answers which they learned to do when they were eight years old.
By the way, nobody ever mentions the fact, as my old classmate Howard Gardner points out in his book Extraordinary Minds, that by seven years old most geniuses are well on their path to exceptionalness, reading, writing, playing Mozart, wrestling or investigating the fundamentals of sundry sciences. Think about all the time we waste on this Santa Claus fantasy; and not just the time but the avarice, the materialism, the greed we are inculcating? What if we used that time to set up an old fashioned model railroad or how about a gyroscope or a steam engine or set up a model of Foucault’s Pendulum and talk about the rotation of the earth rather than wasting time talking about a guy with a 60 inch girth who somehow squeezes down your twelve inch wide chimney so he can eat some Oreos and a glass of milk. Is it any wonder that American kids now rank last on all significant scholastic tests among industrialized nations?
Finally, I think it must be acknowledged that Christmas is one of those markers in our lives which, as we advance into the “sunset” reminds us of all that is lost, wasn’t accomplished, was screwed up with a hammer-like insistence we would rather do without. I mean all this intoxicating hearty ho-ho cheer, Rudolphs bounding, whiteness and merry everything is so depressing when it serves only to bring up memories of about sixty or seventy Christmases past and all the people we shared those Christmases with who are now dead! Enuf awready!
I would like to bring this back around to the Solstice; I mean, that is what it is really all about isn’t it? EVERY primitive society celebrated the winter solstice with good reason as they were beginning to really freeze their butts off and now finally, the days were gonna get longer presaging spring. What a wonderful thing to celebrate! And what do we do but profane it with a fat guy and flying reindeer which have absolutely nothing to do with the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to it’s orbital plane not to mention the silly Christ child.
I didn’t get any Christmas presents in 1962, the year I was in San Francisco after flunking out of Syracuse University either. But it was the best Christmas of my life. The year before I had had a pretty good collegiate wrestling season but working as an orderly 20 hours a week, not fully appreciating the importance of going to classes and discovering the gratifying effects of Seagrams products failed to impress any of my professors which resulted in the loss of my entire scholarship. The burden of academia was no longer mine. I was free for the first time in my life and the sirens called.
(After my sophomore year in high school I had became addicted to serious reading, knocking off at least one or two books a week. I assumed that many of these books by guys like Hemingway, Greene, Maugham, Conrad and London were guide books for my life. Now that I was old enough to do whatever I wanted I determined to go around the world hitchiking, shoveling coal on tramp steamers — not realizing that internal combustion engines had long since replaced steam boilers — sleeping with olive-skinned women, drinking Cuba Libres in seedy bars, smoking Camels, playing pool and fighting in guerilla wars. . . and then perhaps settle down to become a writer). I think the professional psychological expression for this sort of delusion is LOL as eyes roll.
So, after working construction for the summer I left town in a beautiful 1934 black and gray Plymouth coupe with a napsack, a sleeping bag, a gun and a passport and a couple thousand dollars. The universal joint in the old Plymouth broke somewhere in Ohio and stupidly I traded it for a 1951 Buick and a hundred dolars and proceeded west to a small town in Illinoise to visit my high school sweetheart at some now-defunct college near the banks of the Mississippi River. There is something wonderful about the heartland of America but I climbed my first mountain when I was five and for the rest of my life I have needed a landscape that rose into the clouds with snow on top. Nothing could assuage the urge for altitude and soon I was back on the road west non-stop to Denver.
I went to Denver because that was where my older brother was going to ski school, uauslly reffered to as The University of Denver. If you were a serious collegiate skier in the 1960’s Denver, with multiple national titles, was the place to be. Paul introduced me to the sister of his girlfriend and we hiked in the Rockies and rolled in the fall leaves of Colorado College as John Kennedy told Mr. Kruschev that if he didn’t pull the missiles out of Havana Moscow would become a heap of radioactive rubbish. The missiles sailed away and I left love in Colorado and headed west again only to break down in Ely, Nevada with a blown head gasket. Parking the Buick on a back street in Ely I stuck out my thumb on the outskirts of town on the right side of the road and immediately got a ride all the way to Long Beach, California, where I figured I could camp out for a few days on the beach. If you have been to Long Beach or heard about it you will have a good appreciation for the deficit in my mental faculties thinking that it would be a nice place to camp out. Along with the hookers, sailors and tourists I did ride the Cyclone Racer the one night I spent there.
For the first couple decades after the war hitchiking in America was easy notwithstanding the occasional guy with a wandering right hand so a few days later I was in San Francisco in front of a store called Skandia Design in North Beach and walked in and met the owner, Henrik Jorgenson, who got me a job as a carpenter’s assistant just around the corner. I worked with another Norwegian called Olav, a few years older than I and we became friends and I moved in with him and his brother Kurt.
Henrik called me “Popeye with a brain” and I carried sheetrock, cut wood and pounded nails all day and then hung out with a bunch of young vagabonds like myself from Germany, Norway, Sweden, Mexico and the UK. We were all working at crap jobs trying to navigate sexual identities and figure out our futures. That was 1962. Berlin. Cuba. Civil Rights. Southeast Asia. Kerouac and Ginsberg. We used to hang out at the Buena Vista down at the Marina and at the Cafe Trieste on Grant Avenue after work while the beats waxed raucously the narratives of their own narcisistic, hirsute lives.
Olav’s German girlfriend Brigitta moved in with us and I immediatley fell in love with her but was honor bound not to tresspass but soon found a beautiful Norwegian girl to take my mind off Briggita. For some reason we would all pile into Olav’s Austin Healy and drive down to the airport and just sit watching planes land and take off. Anyway, that Christmas, all of us far from home, struggling to communicate and make love in half a dozen languages, got together for Christmas Eve at our place, boys and girls bearing tribal dishes from disparite parts of the globe and copious amounts of beer, vodka, wine and tobacco…and that’s about all I remember … no virgins, no kings, no frankincense and myrrh, no Santas and reindeer…just…friends.