When I was very young, Christmas was an exciting time. Of course it was – I was a child growing up in America and for many of the Christmases, we were not poor. For some we were, but even then there was sufficient money for new toys or games and books. I loved the colors of Christmas lights, something that flourished in college and persists about me today. I loved the delicacy and beauty of each glinting ornament, even (or especially) the ceramic dinosaur I broke in Washington DC and still feel guilt about to this moment. And I liked the religious implications too, at least for a while.
My first real encounter with the religious aspects of Christmas was the pageant at the Episcopalian church we casually attended that was associated with the school I attended well, religiously, for kindergarten and first grade. St. Paul’s Elementary in Visalia is still there today, but presumably without Father Cole and Mrs. Vickers and certainly without the wheeled TV for the Challenger explosion that changed the course of my career aspirations and provided the basis for essays that vaulted me into college. All the boys of my age (4? Maybe 5) were to be shepherds and all the girls angels. I petitioned ardently to be an angel on the basis that they were “closer to God” and “I have always associated Christmas with angels.” (Admittedly we had no shepherd ornaments I can recall, but plenty of small wooden angels.) Father Cole (never was quite clear why he went by that without being Catholic) was sufficiently impressed not only to grant my gender-bending request, but to retell the story frequently in subsequent years.
I enjoyed the role, enjoying even more my role that would become my defining experience with Christmas performances when we moved to Oregon. In late 1988, my mother wanted me to try out for a play, a musical no less, having high aspirations for her son that were left unfulfilled by his lack of instrumental talent and not even being enrolled in a choir as in DC and California before that. After a long argument, I finally acquiesced and we raced down to the Coaster Theatre to barely squeak in the door in time for the audition. In fact, it was too late and the casting directors were sitting around mulling their departed choices, but the piano player was still available to bang out the original tunes for the experimental hybrid of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist to be staged that December. I think my mother had her eye on Tiny Tim for me, given my stature as the shortest third grader, male or female, at Gearhart Elementary, and my textbook Dickensian bowl-cut. But it was Oliver Twist, perhaps the prize role for anyone younger than Scrooge or maybe Bob Cratchit, that I landed in The Dickens Play. The directors were sufficiently impressed by my plaintive soprano that they told me I was Oliver before we even left the otherwise empty stage.
Despite my initial misgivings about the role, I never enjoyed acting so much before or since as during what proved to be two Christmas season runs as Oliver in the seaside British mash-up. I had never before held an audience in such thrall, especially given that most of my prior experiences were in minor roles in plays designed to showcase much older children. It was there that my love of performance, something that carried with me to the present day in debate, was really born, there that I first realized I could control the experience and suspension of disbelief of so many with the mere use of my voice and a few gestures. There also my love of Christmas likely crystallized at its apex, at a time when I was still devotedly Christian and found a new angle on the joy of giving when we would, per Coaster Theatre tradition, circulate still costumed and make-upped to distribute holiday cider and Christmas cookies to the just performed-to patrons. It was also an exercise in receipt as well, given that we got back in praise thrice what we handed out in festive sustenance.
I rarely think of this phase in my life – it seems so distant from what my life became. We moved from Oregon and I’ve only returned to the Coaster once, for the summer 2007 trip that marked the end of Introspection and its eventual replacement with this blog. But Christmas dredges it up occasionally, as especially does spending the Christmas season reading a book about an actor and his youthful development, which Until I Find You (in part) is. At the time, I talked about a possible future as an actor or even a singer. I made fabulous friends those two Decembers, from the girl who played Tiny Tim to all the starring adults whose lives consisted of drifting between community theater opportunities (with the exception of Scrooge, already a local celebrity who owned several area businesses and donated his grandiose humbuggery each year). The second year, 1989, there was an older schoolmate with whom I carpooled from Gearhart down to Cannon Beach – I think she played someone in the workhouse or Fagan’s gang or maybe even Scrooge’s childhood flashback squeeze – and another peer in similar roles with whom I played seemingly endless games of War backstage while we mouthed the lines to the entire rest of the play, which everyone knew by heart by the season’s end.
There I learned how to play Twenty Questions and how to fight through a sore throat or other larynx maladies to still project clearly and cogently while under the weather. I learned how disciplined people can be when magic is on the line. I learned to take things less seriously sometimes, mostly through the Wednesday-night gag-rehearsals once the play was already running, wherein people would improvise slight alterations of their lines designed to make rival actors break character in laughter. It was a community I didn’t even appreciate sufficiently till I was out of it, as is true of most every community worth being in. At least when one’s age can still be expressed with a single digit.
It was January 1990, scant days after the close of my second Dickens Play, that I first enrolled in Broadway Middle School. There were even those amongst my tormentors there who’d backdropped me in Fagan’s gang on stage, no doubt eager to relive their portrayed jealousy in a real setting. They didn’t hold the Dickens Play eleven months later, but I probably wouldn’t have had the heart for it again anyway. I’d been a little too tempest-tossed in real life to reprise the innocent wonder of Oliver as he gets bounced around his own olders and wisers. Not long after, my voice began to change and I have never once been able to sing properly since. Somehow puberty took with it my ability to carry a tune, transforming my once angelic soprano into an uncomfortable between-range effort that fails to find true notes and always sounds like I’m making fun of myself.
I didn’t give up on acting completely, though it was also in 1990 when I settled on being a writer, the first career aspiration I acquired that didn’t shake after a few years. Indeed, I drifted through minor community theater efforts for the rest of my time in Oregon, culminating with my last known role, that of the father in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Most of the humor in the play, or at least my scenes, revolved around my laid-back attitude foiling my intensely high-strung partner, the mother whose overbearing attitude leads to unending hijinks in the play. It was at the Catholic school where I spent seventh grade, Star of the Sea, and it was a fitting send-off being both a meta-play (most of it is, itself, about a play) and of course, about Christmas.
Somehow when I moved to Albuquerque, the acting bug had unbitten me. I took some theater classes, but most of my interest was from the creation end of the script, not its fulfillment. This of course culminated in writing the one-act Before They’re Allowed to Be Free, performed under co-direction with Fish twice to ultimately depressed audiences. This somehow was the last time I set foot in a theater to do something other than merely watch. It occurs to me that acting, like writing, is something one need not start young or succeed at young in order to do for the long-term. It has probably never occurred to me until the last couple days that I could just start this back up again. Sure, as a hobby at first, or maybe forever, but it’s something I loved and dearly miss. I think debate replaced it somehow, the performative and persuasive aspects finding coincidence in both events, but the intellectual leverage and lack of repetition (let alone face-painting) winning the day for the overtly competitive speaking. The competition probably didn’t hurt, either. One doesn’t exactly win in the theater, only run the risk of losing.
What this post was going to be about initially, somewhere a thousand words ago or so, was the other Christmas tradition I picked up, the only one that stuck from New Mexico and still sticks, in New Mexico, to this day. I parted ways with Christianity at the Catholic school, finding myself intimidated and even frightened by the historical behemoths of said faith in my new state when we moved here shortly thereafter. I couldn’t get over the cross as a figure of execution, the deification of Jesus as a misinterpretation of his very egalitarian and humanizing underlying message. Because of other religious experiences at Star of the Sea, I remained (as I do even now) inextricably faithful to God as a concept, but Christmas lost most of its force when the much-altered story of the birth of a good man no longer carried the significance of God’s one sacrifice to try to save us all. I don’t mean to get lost in parsing what I do and don’t believe from now until Christmas actually dawns this year, but it should be easy to see why the fall of Decembrist mythology carried with it a reduction in excitement about its 25th day.
Luminarias, however, recaptured my imagination. Like so many New Mexico traditions, including the Frontier and probably even green chile, I didn’t discover lumis at all until I’d been here a few years. I resisted assimilation into the local culture for a while, or maybe I was just really isolated. But once I started making luminarias, in mid-to-late high-school, I never wanted to stop. And each subsequent year, I’ve discussed breaking the personal record, expanding locations for the candlelit bags to glow, and part of this has always relied on the idea of actually laying out some lumis on the 23rd.
Though I’ve discussed this frequently, luminarias, in short, are a tradition on Christmas Eve designed to commemorate Mary & Joseph’s legendary search for a labor-friendly place of lodging. While there was famously no room at the inn, these humble sandwich bags of sand and a single lit candle each are meant to light the way of said couple along the walkways and up to the doorways of every participating home, as though to rewrite history and offer every house as the birthplace of a wayward child. It’s a beautiful custom, not just in the actual manifest visuals of breathtaking simplicity and charm, but in the retelling of the old story, in the offering up of hope and light and hearth to those who’ve lost their way or run into a patch of bad times. It still defies imagination that there are Christians of any stripe who believe in capitalism.
This year was that year, finally, when I had enough time in Albuquerque beforehand and enough planning to actually get everything ready to start laying out bags on the 23rd. Today. There was a bit of morning rain and we attended the funeral of a neighbor of my parents whose windblown display of lumis I helped salvage the winter of 2007. Like so many important ceremonies of our culture, it was hollow and empty, strangers to the deceased trying to proxy themselves into understanding her wishes and hopes with overused verses and platitudes. Despite the disappointment of the occasion, I was heartened later when the sun emerged and appeared triumphant, salvaging the day for layout.
It was after I got about 200 or so of the slated 610 for display settled in place, candlewicks erect and centered within each bag, that the raindrops returned. And they’ve persisted since, mangling bags and soiling sand and probably combining with wind to topple some of the display altogether. I won’t be able to survey the full extent of the damage until tomorrow morning, when I alight as per usual with dawn not only to lay out the arrangement but, this year, to repair the head-start I thought I’d gotten on the 24th.
We can’t outsmart the weather or the calendar. We can’t predict anything – this year appears perpetually determined to illustrate that for me. No matter what the script says, how many times we read through it and make alterations or amendments, what we’re doing on this planet is almost entirely improv. And everyone else, be they people or God or forces of nature, they’re improvising too. Maybe debate is a more fitting activity for these lessons of life than stage plays, since they better prepare one for the unpredictable twists and turns of existence, to say nothing of their often adversarial nature. At the same time, perhaps there’s more beauty in the theater, for, like any tradition, the order and predictability of the layout provides its own form of comfort. We love our old stories, be they of Jesus or Oliver or Tiny Tim, in no small part because they are so familiar and worn and we can find small differences in the nuances of one retelling or another.
In some form or another, I guess I have more stories yet to tell, be they old or invented. But for now, I have to get 200 new bags and start folding all over again, hoping all the while for dry skies and wet eyes on the morrow.