Saturday, December 24, 2011

Angels and stars

Part I – The Conversations (a fictionalized account of two families and their tree-toppers)

Angel or star.  There are really only two options when it comes to what goes at the top of the Christmas tree.  Many of us don’t take a strict position on which one is better.  However, there are some out there that swear an angel is the only way to go, while others say that it just wouldn’t be Christmas without that star atop the yuletide tree.  I grew up with angels on our trees.  I can’t remember a year when we didn't have one.  

When Elizabeth and I first married, we were very young and without the kind of money that today would be labeled “discretionary income.”  We barely had indiscretionary income, although anyone who happened to see our W-2’s would surely consider our combined income an indiscretion.  As a result, we started our married life with some surplus Christmas ornaments donated from both families, and an old fake tree.  From this motley assortment of hand-me-down decorations, we pieced together our first Christmas.  One thing we got from Elizabeth’s parents was the frail, tinseled, silver star they used to use on their tree when Elizabeth was growing up.  Even though the plastic back was cracking, and the whole thing felt as though it were about to collapse from exhaustion, Elizabeth’s mom had had the foresight to see this day coming, and held on to it.  We gratefully accepted it from her as a gift, and placed it oh-so-delicately at the top of our Christmas tree.  That’s when the trouble started.

A few days before Christmas that year, my parents dropped in to see us. My mom brought a big platter loaded with cookies, fudge and all sorts of goodies, as she has done unfailingly every year since.  They walked into our apartment, full almost to bursting with holiday cheer.  The first thing they noticed was our spindly tree in the corner of the room.  They didn’t notice the way you could clearly see the green metal pole in the middle that was supposed to look like the trunk.  They didn’t even notice the awful plastic needles permanently bent in unnatural directions which made the tree resemble a creative display of discarded bottle-brushes more than pine branches.  No, their eyes were drawn immediately to the pathetic silver star, hanging on like a desperate cat to the bristled tip.  Their cheerful smiles locked up like the brakes of a skidding car, and they exchanged quick, dark glances.  They didn’t say anything, though.  Not immediately.

A short time later, while Elizabeth and my mom were busy in the kitchen, preparing dinner, my dad and I stood looking at the tree.  “That’s a fine-looking Christmas tree,” he said, pretending to admire it proudly. 
“Well, Dad, Elizabeth’s parents had it in their shed, and they gave it to us.  We didn’t really have money to get a real tree this year,” I explained.
“No, it’s a fine tree, son.”
“I wish you would have told me you needed something for the top, though.  Where did you find this?” he asked, gesturing by rocking forward onto his toes and nodding his head at the star. “Goodwill?”
“Actually, Elizabeth’s parents gave us that, too.”  His eyebrows lifted skeptically.  “It’s the star they used to put on the tree when Elizabeth was a girl.  It’s kind of an heirloom, I guess.”
My dad grimaced.  “I see.”  There was a pause before he added, almost to himself, “I didn’t realize they were a star family.” 
“Oh yeah,” I confirmed.  “They’re a star family from way back.” 
“Hmmm.  I imagine Elizabeth’s pretty attached to it?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure she is.  You know it’s not so bad, Dad.  I’m kind of learning to like it.”
My dad’s icy blue eyes fixed on me for a moment, as though I had just delivered a personal insult. 
“I see,” he said.  Then, suddenly turning to the TV, he said, “Well, let’s hope ASU can pull out a win here today.” He moved across the room to our white, overstuffed chair and sat down.  The two of us watched the game in silence, waiting for dinner.

After we finished eating, we chatted pleasantly in the living room for a few hours.   The tree in the room wasn’t discussed, and I thought the issue was behind us; however, as my parents were getting ready to leave that evening, I noticed a furtive, hurt look in my mom’s eyes.  “What’s wrong?” I asked. 
“Your father told me,” she said quietly, gripping my arms.  We hugged, and as we started to part, I saw her pained expression clearly.  She turned away from me, her head down.  “We’ve always been an angel family,” she said, hurrying through the door to where my dad was waiting.       

Several years passed, and my parents, even if they never quite accepted our Christmas heresy, seemed to grow increasingly content to ignore it.  Just when I thought things had returned to relative calm, Elizabeth came home with a large Christmas angel tree-topper.  “Our star was falling apart anyway,” she explained breezily on her way to the closet. 

As might be expected, my parents were thrilled by our change in direction. They reacted as if the salvation of our very souls hinged upon what we placed at the top of our tree.
“That’s about the prettiest Christmas angel I’ve ever seen,” my dad said, grabbing me by the shoulder and giving it a vigorous shake as we stood around the exposed side of the tree. 
“Oh, she’s beautiful,” my mom gushed.  “Elizabeth, that’s a gorgeous angel!  She’s looks like fine spun gold.  Such beautiful auburn hair.  And she’s such a good size, too!  And that expression she has on her face, it’s so delicate, so, so…”
“Angelic?” I offered.
“Yes,” she nodded, her eyes twinkling with delight.  “Angelic.”

Things didn’t go so well with Elizabeth’s parents the next day, especially her mom. 
“What is this?” she demanded to know as soon as she saw our tree, a grand nine-foot fir that fit only because of high-vaulted ceiling in our new home.
“What is what?”  Elizabeth inquired nervously.
Elizabeth’s mother arched an eyebrow, a signature move she had perfected that said, You know exactly what I mean, and if you know what’s good for you, you won’t make me come right out and say it.  That eyebrow was set to a hair-trigger; I almost expected to hear a ricocheting sound whenever she unleashed one.
“Oh, the, um, angel, you mean?” Elizabeth fumbled.  “It’s nice, isn’t it?”  The eyebrow didn’t budge; it stayed glued to a spot halfway up her forehead.  I couldn’t help but marvel at her remarkable muscle control.  If I tried to do that for longer than five seconds, I would get a spasm for sure. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was cracking under the pressure.  “Mom…our old one was broken, you know how bad it was, and I’ve never had an angel before, and I saw this one and it was just so pretty…”
Elizabeth’s mom ignored her clumsy efforts at explanation, and turned to her husband.  “Do you see this, dear?  Doesn’t this upset you?”
“Oh,” he scowled. “Why should it upset me?  It looks fine.”
Astutely sensing that she wouldn’t be getting any assistance there, she went right back to Elizabeth.  “Mami, why didn’t you tell me?” she said, switching to her most solicitous tone.  “I would have helped you pick out something…appropriate.  Instead, you went out and got this enormous . . . It’s no wonder you had to get such a big tree.  A smaller tree would probably fall over-”
“It’s their tree,” her father growled.  “Let them do what they want with it, for Chrissakes!” 
I hid my mouth and smiled.  She noticed, of course.  She turned an angry eyebrow on me.  “I’m not surprised that you’re happy.  You probably talked her into replacing that beautiful star with this…this…angel.”  Somehow, when she said the word ‘angel,’ it came out sounding like a bad thing.
“Leave the poor boy, alone, dear,” my father-in-law interjected. “He didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“How do you know that, dear?” Elizabeth’s mom responded sharply.
“Because I know you, and I know my daughter.  When it comes to things like this, you’re both the same.”  She looked indignant, but really couldn’t argue with his point.  Instead, she sputtered incoherently for a few moments as she regarded the abomination atop the tree. 
“Well, I’ll bet his family had something to do with it.  They probably guilted her into switching.  Well, go ahead, keep that silly thing.  Don’t worry about your poor mother’s feelings.  We have always had a tradition of trimming our tree with a star, but I can see that doesn’t mean anything to you…”
“And it was his family that guilted her,” her father chortled. 
“Oh, dear, how can you make jokes? This is serious.” She was now rummaging through her purse.  She found an open pack of Virginia Slim cigarettes.
“I didn’t know I was,” he shot back.  Then, nudging me, he said, “Kevin, would you get her a Coke before she goes into complete hysterics?”
“Sure,” I said, quickly turning to the kitchen.
“I’ll be outside,” she called after me. “I need some air.” 
As I was filling her glass with ice, I overheard Elizabeth say flatly, “I’m not changing it, Mom.”
I also heard her mother’s response: “But mami, we’ve always been a star family…”

That golden angel topped our Christmas trees for the next fifteen years straight.  I would have believed it was purely out of spite on Elizabeth’s part, but it remained a Christmas fixture for years, even after her mother passed away.  Eventually, though, time took its toll.  The wings broke off, victims of one too many falls onto a tile floor, as did her nose, ruining her fine-featured face.  Most of the gold leaf gradually flaked off of her stiff, paper body.    

When Elizabeth did finally replace it, to my surprise, she brought home a new, silver-tinseled star.  “It kind of looks like the old one, doesn’t it?” she said, smiling, as she held it up for me to see.
Here we go again, I thought.  I was inundated with visions of what would happen the next time my parents saw the tree.  But they actually took it well, far better than I had anticipated.  It turns out they were never fully convinced that our conversion would hold, and therefore had been preparing themselves all along for this eventuality. 

Part II – The Meaning

We’ve now had that star now for a few years, and every time I see it, I wonder if there truly is a difference between a star and an angel.  Does it matter?  Why should it matter at all?  The basic symbolism, as far as I could tell, is almost the same.  The angel, as everyone knows, represents the heavenly host proclaiming the birth of the Christ-child, and the star represents the Christmas star that guided the magi all the way from their distant homes to the manger bearing the King of Kings.  Both represent slightly different aspects of the same seminal event.  For a long time, the difference to me boiled down essentially to personal preference, kind of the way people seem to choose which Nascar driver to root for. 

Then one day I was sitting in the kitchen, listening to Christmas music and eating tamales, as I am prone to do this time of year.  The song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” came on.  It’s a song we’ve all heard a thousand times, but something about my mood that day caused me to listen, really listen to the song, and when I did, I started to see that there was a difference between the star and the angel.    

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” like many Christmas carols, is a song about hope.  But it’s the only carol I know that focuses on a very particular kind of hope, the hope that time and the course of human events won’t be cruel to us, that it won’t tear us apart from our loved ones, not at least until we’ve had just one more Christmas together.  It’s a very real hope, the kind that gains in poignancy as we grow older.  Maybe that’s why I had never really regarded the song as anything more than another run-of-the-mill carol until recently.  But it’s one of my favorites now. 

The song’s meaning comes together in that last stanza: “Through the years we all will be together/If the fates allow/Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”  That shining star represents hope; most importantly, our highest earthly hope that we all will meet again this Christmas, and maybe next year, too.  But it also contains a multitude of hopes:  the hope that our hearts can be light, hope that we can forget our troubles and experience real happiness, however briefly, hope that things can be as good again as they once were.  It’s a wishful plea born of the recognition that so much of what happens in our lives is imposed upon us, so much of what occurs exists beyond our control, and that even in the scattered areas where we do get to make our own decisions, we seem to screw up far more often than we get it right.  But we can always hope for good and better.   

Angels, on the other hand, represent hope in its ultimate sense.  The angel on the tree is there to remind us of where our final salvation lay, the hope of life after death, and of heaven, and God.  Like the stars, angels symbolize a celestial hope.  Unlike the stars, which are an integral part of our physical reality, angels hail from a mysterious, unknowable Great Beyond.  Angels represent Hope with a capital “H,” that Hope of all hopes. It is the Hope, of course, that’s at the heart of the Christmas miracle; it is the reason, as they say, for the season.  It is the specific Hope that almost all Christmas carols focus on, and rightly so.

For some reason, though, I am partial to the small hopes in life. Those small hopes are vital too, to help us counter the long, havoc-wreaking war of attrition which life can so often resemble.  We need them to be our earthen rampart against what Shakespeare so aptly named “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”     
More than any other song of the season, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” captures that peculiar pain of knowing the future is uncertain, that all the guarantees we once thought we had are nothing more than insubstantial films, cobwebs from a distant past.  Yet, knowing the uncertainty of things to come is what gives this moment, this day, this Christmas, its great power.  Because all we have is now, and now we are together, so we should have a merry little Christmas, and it should be now.  Don’t let the worries about the future, or the present distractions, keep you from enjoying this Christmas to its fullest.  Enjoy everything, love everything, regret nothing. The song tells us that we can choose to do this.  So do it.  Don’t wait.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

And that goes for all the star and the angel families out there. 

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on our troubles will be miles away

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of Yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

1 comment:

  1. Wow! This has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols. I especially love the original version by Judy Garland, but many others are great as well.
    This particular song always appealed to me because it felt more personal than other carols; more a good friend singing their best wishes to me. It was less a commercialized christmas wish and more a warm christmas sweater and a cup of cocoa by the fireplace.