By Kevin Michael Derby
Word Count: 3302
Summary: Kevin writes of the paradox of Christmas time.
I am blessed with having both an older and a younger brother who are almost seven years apart from each other. Of course, being stuck between them during my childhood, I did not think they were much of a blessing since it meant I had to share a room with one or the other. Only when my older brother went off to college did I have the freedom of having my own room, and that was only for two years.
Of course, when my older brother came home for the holidays, we had to share a room again. To be sure, I came to resent him intruding in my room, but one of the few benefits of him being home was the books he would bring from his college classes. Being addicted to new books, I would devour whatever ones he would bring home for the holidays.
During his college years, my older brother became a fan of T.S. Eliot and, of course, I would read his poems and plays. I had some knowledge of Eliot since I encountered “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, “The Waste Land”, and The Hollow Men in high school, though I never bothered to read his plays until my brother came home with Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party. Almost a quarter of a century after I graduated from high school, I wonder how many public school kids today encounter Eliot, let alone read three of his plays.
While I thought–and still think–The Cocktail Party is dull, Murder in the Cathedral made an impression. To be sure, Eliot offers an engaging and thought provoking look at the martyrdom of St. Thomas Beckett in a powerful drama influenced by morality plays of the Middle Ages. Even better is Eliot’s verse. If we were to get in Doc Brown’s DeLorean to go into the past to meet Shakespeare, he would be disappointed in most of the plays we have produced in the English language over the past four hundred years. They simply lack poetry. Murder in the Cathedral is one of the few plays that Shakespeare just might give his seal of approval to. I can think of no higher compliment.
Still, in those days when Dan Quayle cast a long shadow and Tony! Toni! Toné! burned up the charts, my attention was drawn to “The Interlude” as Eliot offers a sermon that St. Thomas could have offered in December 1170–mere days before his death–as he explains the gift of myrrh, showing how birth and death are connected at Christmas.
“Consider also one thing which you have probably never thought,” Thomas says. “Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord’s Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.”
That struck me and I flipped through the old Catholic missals only to find confirmation of Eliot’s point. Of course, I knew the day after Christmas was the Feast of Stephen, the first martyr whose death is recorded in Acts of the Apostles. Supposedly on that day, “the snow lays ’round about, deep and crisp and even”, though as a Florida boy I wouldn’t know about that. Sure enough, Eliot was spot on. December 26 was the Feast of Stephen. Next up, on December 27, was St. John, the only one of the twelve Apostles who stayed at Our Lord’s side when he was on the Cross.
The next page proved chilling since December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, honoring the children slaughtered by King Herod in his effort to kill the Christ Child. Even as authoritative and lovably pompous as I am, I realize that I can’t compete with St. Matthew here.
“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’”
Traces of the nightmares humanity has inflicted upon itself throughout the centuries, far too many of them taking place not that long ago, can be found in that passage. The hopes and fears of all the years are met, once again, in the little town of Bethlehem as shades of Auschwitz, the Ukraine, Armenia, the killing fields of Cambodia, Languedoc, Carthage, and Bosnia can be found in the Nativity story. Herod’s legions have put away their spears in favor of gas chambers and terrorist bombs.
Eliot’s words hit home with me. Five years before I first read Murder in the Cathedral, in that same year when–somehow–the Mets and the Red Sox played in the World Series, my grandfather passed away right before Christmas. My mother broke the news to my brothers, my sister, and I right after we finished the last day of school and were ready to begin the Christmas break. For more than thirty years now, instead of watching the clock in the final hour before I left school or work to start the holidays, my thoughts turn to my grandfather and, for a moment, I am once again a pudgy sixth grader sitting in the front seat–I must have rushed out of school to beat my siblings to sit in that piece of prime real estate–of a blue Chevy Astro, tears running down my face.
Many years after my grandfather passed away, I encountered death again during the holidays. Even if I had been near useless for eleven months of the year, I could rectify that by working in a ham store in December. As I noted in the first of these Christmas sketches, while I may have only worked in the ham store for a few weeks a year, that time left a major impression and offered a great deal of insights on, if I can use a line from too many holiday specials and bad sitcoms, the true meaning of Christmas.
One year, when I was in grad school, I was working the front counter of the store, presenting various hams and gushing over how lovely they were and how their fat lines made for natural places to carve them. One of my customers was a familiar-looking woman. She was well dressed and, if not for some rings under her weary eyes, would have been considered beautiful. Even so, she was certainly pretty.
Apparently my features–huge eyes, puffy cheeks, a waterfall of chins–were also familiar since she asked if I had gone to a certain school. It turned out she was the mother of Greg, a friend from junior high. We had been in the same classes in seventh and eighth grade, bonding over our love for U2, heavy metal, and professional wrestling while riding the bench for our school’s JV basketball team where Greg was a forward and I was a designated hitter. Yes, I know that is a baseball position but I can assure you I played that role in basketball since my main contribution to the team was fouling the star players of the other teams, usually through a quick chop to their wrists. Greg and I even shared some favorite wrestlers like Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake and Demolition, a tag team clearly inspired by the Mad Max films. We even made our own tag team based on Demolition called the “Scalp Hunters” with Greg taking the name the “Slasher” while I was the “Razor Blade.” For two years, the Scalp Hunters terrorized the halls of our school, especially when we started singing, in unison, our theme song. “Turbo Lover” by Judas Priest never sounded so bad.
Greg reeked of potential. He was into computers, often knowing more than the teachers who were stuck on TRS-80s while he was talking about Apple IIcs in that strange era before Windows and Macs. No real surprise, considering we lived in a military town and the glow of Tom Cruise in Top Gun enthralled all of us, Greg was also something of an expert on fighter planes, especially Navy ones. He would go on about the differences between F-14s and A-10s. Whenever a plane flew overhead, Greg would break it down and tell us all about it. Some kids are just born to be architects or engineers–Ben Hascomb in Stephen King’s It is the perfect example–and Greg fit that bill.
Best of all, Greg brought a sense of fun to everything he did. He was always interesting, whether he talked about music or wrestling or airplanes or football. Unlike too many kids in junior high, Greg wasn’t focused on being popular. He was lucky enough to learn at a young age to be himself and, more importantly, to like who he was. I distinctly remember another kid bullying Greg for weeks; eventually Greg had enough and thoroughly trashed him when the bully had gone too far.
While the word did not mean much to me outside being a stat in Dungeons and Dragons and a word used to describe JFK, Greg had charisma. He was inherently unique and likeable, someone who brought out the best in his friends. Over the years, I would watch people on TV–strangely enough Justin Timberlake comes to mind, so do British hero Colonel Tim Collins and Derek Jeter–and they reminded me of Greg. I tried to hang around with him as much as I could outside of school, which was tough since he didn’t live near me. Of course, the fact that he had a cute sister one grade above us did not hurt.
After eighth grade, we went to different schools and I did not hear anything about Greg. Every now and then–usually when a Navy plane flew overhead–I would think about him for a moment before being distracted with whatever inane part of my high school existence demanded my attention. By the time I started college, I had forgotten about him.
Needless to say, it took me a few moments to recall Greg when I served his mother at the ham store. I told her all about what I had been up to–academic competition state titles in high school, off to a prominent liberal arts college in Connecticut where I was an editor for the newspaper and wrote a senior thesis which went for more than 120 pages, focusing on 19th century American history in grad school–before I asked how Greg and his sister were.
The look on the woman’s face was the epitome of pain. Several years later, in a library in Chicago, I was flipping through a book on late medieval art and came across Giotto’s “Lamentation”, and the look on Mary’s face reminded me of the pain I saw from Greg’s mother. Blinking back tears, she told me that Greg, along with his older brother, was killed in a motorcycle accident years before.
There aren’t many moments of my life I want to take a mulligan on. Even when I shot myself in the foot–basically every day between when I graduated from high school to meeting the woman I would one day marry–I recognized that my missteps and misfires helped make the man I am today, and placed me in the little corner of the world I call my own. I froze up when Greg’s mother told me he was gone, and the rush of memories and the guilt of not thinking about him swept over me. I should have comforted her as much as possible. I should have tried to find the right words to say to her. Having just boasted about my ability to write more than 120 pages on early 19th century politics, I should have at least made the effort. Instead, I had nothing but shock, and she left thinking about the loss of her sons.
I spent much of that Christmas season thinking about Greg. I walked around the old strip mall where we used to hang out after classes. I even walked around where we had gone to school, trying to make sense of it all. Perhaps those melancholy days were my attempt to do penance for not thinking about him all those years. Regardless, learning he died only reinforced my determination at Christmas not to forget those who have passed.
While I might have associated Christmas with death, thankfully there have also been reminders of life. Despite the passage of almost four decades, the first Christmas I remember was when I was five years old and my mother was about to give birth to my younger brother. We attended Christmas Eve Mass on a cold night and we sang “Joy to the World” at the end of Mass. It still ranks as one of my favorites, and even now I can sing all the lyrics including the odd ones about “far as the curse is found.” We came home from that Mass and, in the back seat, my older brother and I spotted the red light from a plane in the sky and naturally assumed it was Rudolph’s nose lighting the way for Santa’s sleigh. I remember some of the gifts from that Christmas–action figures and, strangely, subscriptions to Ranger Rick and Children’s Digest, which introduced me to Tintin and his adventures. But my brother was the best gift of them all, and he was kind enough to hold off until the day after Christmas before sending my mother to the hospital. He just missed being born on the Feast of Stephen by a few minutes.
The day my little brother first came home from the hospital is still etched in my mind after all this time. I was sitting in my father’s chair in the family room, reading my first issues of Ranger Rick and Children’s Digest, when my parents came home. My grandparents were babysitting us and they had brought a cake bearing–at least to my five-year-old mind–strange designs on it to celebrate a new year and a new decade: a monocle, a top hat, a champagne glass. While the world held its breath in the last week of the 1970s as the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, I tried to figure out what these odd items that I associated with Mr. Peanut from the Planter’s jars had to do with a new year.
So I was sitting in my father’s chair, reading about Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, and Professor Calculus when I saw my parents’ car pull into the driveway. I stood up and ran to the door to see my parents and a wizened little face wrapped in a blanket. In that moment, I learned more about the Nativity than all my years of reading theology and history could ever match.
So, as Eliot has St. Thomas Beckett say, life and death walk hand in hand at the Christmas season. I try to remember that each and every Christmas. My wife has helped me considerably on that front. A few months before I met my wife, her mother Sara passed away after fighting cancer for three years. She died in early January and the last time she left her bed was to celebrate Christmas with her family just as she had for decades in her house, managing the entire affair. Even as she was dying, Sara offered a powerful reminder of some of the most important parts of Christmas: family, tradition, celebration, hope, and an affirmation of life. My wife and I met that April and, to my eternal regret, I did not invite her to my spend Christmas with my family that year. It was simply too soon. A year later, I rectified that mistake and put a ring on her finger two months later.
Eliot also writes about the meaning of Christmas in “The Journey of the Magi” in those haunting and mysterious words that close the poem.
“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
It’s something to keep in mind each and every Christmas, and there is a stark reminder not too far from the Church of the Nativity. Just to the north of that little town of Bethlehem stands one of the holiest sites in Judaism, as is explained in Chapter 35 of Genesis.
“While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, ‘Don’t despair, for you have another son.’ As she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb.”
Millenia later, Rachel’s death can still sting. Her passing fundamentally changes the tone of Thomas Mann’s masterful Joseph and his Brothers. Jacob is easily one of the most relatable figures in the Bible–who doesn’t know a trickster who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room but gets redeemed thanks to the love of a good woman (and her sister, but that’s another story)? The death of his beloved wife, whom he worked fourteen years to obtain, cut Jacob deeply. It’s fitting that her monument remains in Bethlehem, close to the fields where certain poor shepherds tended their flocks one memorable night, close to where the blood of children was spilt by Herod’s men, close to where Jacob’s beloved Benjamin was born, close to where the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us.
The promise of new life and the memories of loved ones no longer with us walk hand in hand at Christmas. Our departed friends and family are just as much a part of our holidays and joy as the ones who sit around the dinner table with us, who gather around the tree to open presents. That’s the ultimate lesson of Murder in the Cathedral; the gift of myrrh; the martyrdoms of Stephen, Thomas Beckett, and the Holy Innocents; and the amazing woman who has slept in Bethlehem for 3,500 years. My grandfather, Greg, Sara, and countless others are as much a part of my Christmas as the family with whom I am looking forward to celebrating the holiday.