Thursday, November 23, 2006

It's that time of year ...

Today His Holiness stayed home sick from Kindergarten. The truth is, I was feeling poorly and he had a runny nose and today was the first day in a long time that I didn’t have a deadline or something I had to do or someone I had to meet so I called the school and told them HH wasn’t coming in. We took a long bath together, he washed my hair, and I washed most of him. It was great fun, there won’t be many more days like these, when Papa and HH can jump into the tub with each other and feel totally at ease. I don’t know this for a fact but I can only imagine that at some point he won’t feel comfortable having his nude father in the same bathwater with him and I will begin to feel a little self-conscious as well. But for now it’s all good and he is learning all about the male anatomy and how he has the same gear that Papa has and that Mama has different gear. I call our gear our “genitals” and I won’t even try to reduce his interpretation of that term to some phonetic equivalent. Those of you out there with children and those of you who have never really grown up, can just imagine how marvelously he mangles the word.

This point in his life is all about choices. Choices that I have to make about what to call something – like our gear for example – and more important choices like: What in the world do I tell him about Santa Claus? This is a big one – one of the bigger ones – up there with the birds and the bees. Christmas and Santa Claus and God – they are all wrapped up together in one neat and nasty little bouquet. I’ve decided for now to tell him that Christmas is the biggest birthday party in the world – that it celebrates the birthday of the baby Jesus and that all the churches here in Cologne, including ubiquitous Dom Cathedral, were built to celebrate this person. That explanation may (for the short term at least) deal with the issue of Christmas but it doesn’t touch the subject of Santa Claus.

Today was music school day – and even though we called in sick for work, we went to music school and to my horror the teacher’s first prop was a book with a story and a song about St. Nicholas. All of the children in the class had gathered around the teacher as she opened the book to the story about the sainted Elf and as she did HH looked back at me as if you ask: “What am I supposed to make of this Papa?”

During his first Christmas we were living in the West Village of New York, in an old 1840 brownstone with a fireplace and wide pine floors and in his bedroom was a beautiful double-hung window with panes of ancient glass, swirling and whirling glass that captured the snowy nights of late December and broke them into a million shards of dreamy light. When I was still sleeping in that room alone I used to lie there at night and stare out at the stars and try to imagine the other dreamers who had come before me, who had gazed out that window and dreamed or despaired. It was in that room, in that light that I first read “Twas the night before Christmas” to HH when he was not even close to understanding a word I said. I know I was reading to myself, I knew it then and I and not ashamed to admit it now. The story had been written well over a hundred years before, in a brownstone much like the one we were living in and only a few blocks away from our house. I could actually imagine the writer, sitting by his fireplace after his children had finally gone to bed, scratching out the poem that would mean Christmas to millions for evermore. That’s one reason why the decisions I am facing now are so difficult. I believed in Santa for a season, maybe two, but those Christmases were the most beautiful in my life, they are to this day some of my fondest and only memories of childhood. I don’t recall any terrible disappointment either, at learning that Santa was really Mom and Dad, it didn’t shatter my beliefs or make me hate them. I would hate them for no reason at all only moments after reaching the age of 16, Santa notwithstanding.

The Germans have a different tradition, an older one, where St. Nicholas comes to the house in early December and leaves small things for the children. The day isn’t all wrapped up in the religious celebration of Christmas. It is a separate day, when a bit of magic is allowed. I don’t know where we will fall on the scale of full-fledged Santa lust or dark Humbuggery but there must be a way to retain enough enchantment to light a young boys eyes without completely divorcing the holiday from it’s true meaning. We will see. As with all of this, it is a learning process, for all concerned.

The poem that started it all …

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.

And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!
"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid!, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.

Clement Clarke Moore (1779 - 1863)