January 1, 2002
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A year ago, I was celebrating my first married Christmas in the United States.
Right after Thanksgiving, the first signs of Christmas started appearing. One, three, seven houses in the neighborhood then the whole street then the whole area Christmas lights started blooming on eaves and porches, strings of tiny colored fairylights festooned over window and threshold, garden paths lighted up with twinkling ice-white bulbs draped in long wire filaments held up with oversized replicas of the kind of striped hooked candy you hang in Christmas trees. From every uncurtained window blazed a glory of a Christmas tree, a series of living breathing Christmas cards implying the presence of presents wrapped in shiny paper and decorated with bows, and eager children counting the hours until Christmas morning.
My brand-new husband, wishing to share this unique piece of American Christmas celebrations with me, took me on several long drives around the town where we live. We visited a number of neighborhoods, some upmarket, some less so. This was Florida there was no snow but that was made up for in seeing spectacular lighting formations positively dripping off mansion-sized houses and reflecting in the waters of the many canals that ran through the more well-heeled areas. The houses which had the misfortune of not being on the waterfront made up for it in other ways ingenuous formations of lighted Santas, wire sculptures of reindeer ablaze with white lights, strings and strings of colored lights twined in bushes and trees and palm fronds, light-pictures in the shape of Christmas wreaths and stars and sleighs laid on rooftops. Houses with every opening door, window, dormer lovingly outlined in lights until they looked like something Hansel and Gretel might have recognized.
One house, in particular, stands out in my memories of that time just off an old covered bridge, in an established and long-standing community on the outskirts of town, it shone with such a concentrated glow that its presence was announced at the beginning of the street, long before the house itself came into view, by a sort of nimbus of light on the edge of the horizon. On closer approach it appeared that the house had emptied every Wal-Mart, Home Depot, local hardware stores, and probably still had to raid neighbors' basements for Christmas lights. They had a lighted sleigh and twelve lighted reindeer, complete with a red nose for Rudolph. The house was a shadow behind every kind of glitter, gleam, dazzle, sparkle, shine and shimmer imaginable. It being Florida, there was even a nod to the locale by having a lit-up and almost full-size figure of Santa Claus wearing an expression of utter bliss, sunglasses, and holding a surfboard.
This year, I was looking forward to another long drive through suburbia which the season had once again turned from drab workaday streets where commuting workers came home to sleep at night into bright and shimmering Faerie-land.
'Twas the week before Christmas, and by this time the lights had been in full swing last year. We got into the car for our tour, and drove off in search of glory.
A number of houses on our street and surrounds had done the requisite thing the house across the road from us had repeated its magnificent gingerbread-house look from the previous year, and glimmered in holiday garb of red and green and white light. A couple of others had done cute families of snow-people (although the Snow-Woman wearing a bright bikini boggled me for hours afterwards), and one or two had even given a nod towards the underlying reason for the Christmas season and chosen to go with a Nativity scene on their front lawns.
But many householders had put up a token string of colored lights, and still other houses offered no more than a coy glimpse of a Christmas tree with an odd air of having been sequestered inside a holy place and being, well, almost in purdah from profane eyes. The glory-house at the other end of the covered bridge was positively subdued, its garage decked out as a mock fireplace dimly-lit in moody reds and the surfin' Santa nowhere in evidence. One or two of the houses blazed, defiant, but on the whole the bright neighborhoods of the previous year were dark and eerily quiet.
What was different this year? Was this darkness merely a symptom of a less-than-buoyant economy flirting dangerously with recession, the same economy which had caused me to note, in the same period, that the great marquee tents selling live Christmas trees sturdy little spruces and small fat firs were depressingly full of trees less than a week from Christmas day? (This last was an impression confirmed, oddly enough, as I caught a glimpse of the TV news the other night, something I rarely do these days for fear of becoming terminally depressed at the state of the world I live in, and saw a worried-looking tree tent proprietor saying that people were buying significantly fewer trees and that the operators were likely to "lose their shirts" this year.)
It seems that the exhortation to the American public to fight terror in their country by opening their checkbook is not quite getting through. I remember greater queues at the gift-wrapping tables in the department stores and the mall passages at this time last year. This year, it was barely days before Christmas that the mall parking lots started getting packed out, and even then, even on the morning of the last Saturday before Christmas, there were whole areas of the gigantic parking area that were standing almost accusingly empty.
It might have been this that was fuelling, rather more than is normal at this time of year, a general mean-spiritedness that sometimes pervades those who seem to think that buying something anything at this time is the be-all and the end-all of Christmas. I overheard a remarkably depressing snatch of conversation between two shoppers in the mall, a hard-faced woman maybe in her forties with close-cropped iron grey hair and a resigned-looking white-haired gentleman with round glasses who was being dragged around the store in her wake.
"Come on," she snapped urgently, "maybe they'll have it in the other store. Come on, we don't have time..."
For someone as acutely sensitive to atmosphere and the aura of things as I have always been, I have no doubt that such urgency, such irrational haste, such dogged determination to plant a properly wrapped package in the right place at the right time, would bring me a sense of that anger and that joylessness rather than the simple pleasure of giving a gift. This year, the packages around our own little Christmas tree are many, but they are small things and lovingly chosen, not something snatched and grabbed and growled at and thrust at people with the snarls and the snaps of its purchase still attached to the parcel together with the bright tinsel bow.
It's a subdued season, probably for many different reasons, not least the fact that "peace on earth" seems to be a very distant and far-away dream in the prevailing madness of bombs and screaming jets and the cries of the people who got in their way. But whatever the cause someone has switched off the lights this year. Perhaps the lack of flash and ostentation might make people look harder for that star which once rose above Bethlehem, in the hope that God may have something else to contribute towards the calming down of this sad, chaotic world of ours.
All the same... I miss that surfin' Santa. 'Tis, after all, as the songs put it, the Season To Be Jolly. Somehow, the very fact of that absurd Santa's absence makes me almost feel uneasy to be smiling out in public.
Here, inside the haven of my own home and the sanctuary of loving and being loved, in the magical lights twinkling on our own small tree, I feel grateful that there are islands like this left in the world, and I wish with all my heart that others could come to know this same quiet peace.
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Last January, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Alma A. Hromic 2002. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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