Tuesday, 3 December 2019

The Ghosts of Christmas Past - Umberto Tosi


"Jonesie" decked out for the holidays
'Tis the season to be jolly whether your preference is secular or sacred, for one religion or another, one culture or a blend. 'Tis also the season to reflect on Christmases past, not all nog and figgy pudding. 'Tis the season of myths and symbols as well as good cheer, of endings and beginnings. Like the Christmas stories I love best, their layered meanings emerge silently from cold winter's darkness like the Bethlehem star.

Consider that the Nativity story - apocryphal or not - with its manger and Magi, ends darkly. Fade to The Flight into Egypt and The Massacre of the Innocents. From the Gospel of Matthew's perspective, Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees from unimaginable violence, the same as those families fleeing atrocities in Syria and Honduras. What distinguishes the modern era's genocides from the paranoid tyrant King Herrod's mass murder of Bethelem's infants?

"The past is never dead. It's not even past," said William Faulkner. As the Orange One prepares to light the National Christmas Tree on December 9, we bear witness to his regime's calculated cruelty in separating thousands of refugee children from their parents and incarcerating them at the U.S. southern border - one more crime against humanity, this one shamefully endorsed by an entire political party and likely to haunt America for generations to come.

I give Jonesie some Santa pointers
Don't get me wrong. I'm not a Grinch. I confess to a good measure of mawkishness when it comes to the season. I don't care for the novelty songs, but I am a sucker for carols and am always uplifted by Handel's Messiah. I've played white-bearded Santa, not only for the family but at stores and parties in years past, as I wrote about here four years ago.) I still love Miracle on 34th Street, particular the original 1947 film starring elfin Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara, and little Natalie Wood - so much so that I spun an alternative version of it into my 2015 novella, Milagro on 34th Street.

The plot of my 34th-Street Christmas tale involves two children asking a Macy's Department Store Santa to get their mother back from the clutches of ICE. (As a one-time Macy's Santa, I had heard more than one heart-tugging, out-of-my-league request from kids who really believed me to be Kris Kringle. Like my protagonist, I had sorely wished and nearly succumbed to the delusion that I possessed magical powers like the Jolly Old Elf himself.)

Five years ago when  I wrote "Milagro," however, I had no idea how awfully prescient its immigrant child separation theme would become. I intended it to be a readable narrative from the department store Santa's point of view, while socially conscious and compelling, taking in the ironies as well as the often-overlooked message of charity and compassion within Father Christmas mythology. Moreover, the novella's author proceeds again go to the American Civil Liberties Union for their untiring work on behalf of these refugee families.

Dickens achieved a perfect balance of conscience and cheer in A Chrismas Carol. It is darker than is often considered - playing on themes of conscience, mortality, and redemption. But of all the literary Christmas tales that abound, however, like many of us,  James Joyce's "The Dead" from The Dubliners, moves me most, starting with the exquisite grace and beauty of its Joyce's lyrical inner voicings.

Joyce's haunting tale conveys a sacred core of the Christmas season for me, not of Santas and lights and tinsel, but of mystery, transition, and transcendence. Each time I read it I am moved close to tears by the end, as Joyce's Gabriel awakens to the transcendence of existence.
"Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.
"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
Donal McCann & Anjelica Huston in The Dead, 1987
Like a Mozart concerto or Beethoven symphony, this transports me to a spiritual space every time I read it - or better yet, hear it read aloud. No matter that I  remain as was Joyce himself, a long- lapsed Catholic, and a nonbeliever. The Roman church's archetypal stories and symbology give it life along with the church's staggering sins and contradictions, These seep upwards into my own writing from parochial school days. You won't find me at midnight Mass this year. My inamorata, Eleanor and I have a cheerfully lit little Christmas tree, as well as her figurative artist's skeleton replica, "Jonsie" in the window, decked out in lights and Santa hat for the season. Finally, given all this, I will pause to reflect on the old Catholic, Feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28, which marks the slaughter of those Bethlehem babies. Whether we human beings can evolve beyond such barbarous acts remains in question. That's this year's darkest Christmas story. How will those incarcerated children in Trump's Texas and Arizona camps spend their Christmas this year?.

There is always hope. With that, I join Tiny Tim in saying "God bless us, everyone!" I wish you all the merriest of holidays and a happy new year better than the last in every way.

--------------------------------------------
Due to having artificial intraocular lens implants, Umberto Tosi is technically a cyborg who sometimes impersonates Santa Claus. He is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - nine grandchildren, three great-grandchildren. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com



6 comments:

Alicia Sammons said...

An excellent holiday meditation. This is a wonderful reflection on this season.. where as always we humans titter on the brink of destruction or transcendence. I love this qoute: “Joyce's haunting tale conveys a sacred core of the Christmas season for me, not of Santas and lights and tinsel, but of mystery, transition, and transcendence. Each time I read it I am moved close to tears by the end, as Joyce's Gabriel awakens to the transcendence of existence.’

Barbara Blades said...

Looking forward to holiday cheer with you and Eleanor. Enjoyed reading this. Let's hope for a new beginning free of the pretender in the White House and freedom for those poor children and their families who are his victims.🎄 🗽

Griselda Heppel said...

You mean to say you're NOT Santa Claus (or Father Christmas)? Alas, another glorious illusion bites the dust.

A wonderful post, with the Christmas atmosphere throwing into sharp relief your (absolutely justified) anger at the Trump administration's appalling treatment of immigrant families. I followed the link, and then more and more links - it is a horrific story. I'd no idea that the separation of children from their parents is a deliberate policy, to discourage other immigrants - which I'm guessing doesn't work anyway. Unbelievable cruelty, made worse by total lack of responsibility, no system in place for reuniting the families. Heartbreaking. As you say, your Milagro story 5 years ago was more prescient than you could have guessed.

Let's hope 2020 brings more charity and compassion everywhere (goodness knows we need it over here too). Happy Christmas to you both.

Susan Price said...

What Griselda said! There's nothing I can add.

Kara said...

Excellent write!
Love it!
Great job!
Makes the reader reflect on your what is really going on in our country and inspires and challenges us to think hard and do something about it!
You are a great writer!
Excellent talent with loads of experience to back your gift up.

Bill Kirton said...

Add my name to the list of admirers of your writing, Umberto, and my thanks for this elegant rumination on a season that brings out bad but mostly good in most. I only wish this appreciation of and gratefulness for transcendence were universal, but I'm thankful that it's still strong in plenty of us. I'm also envious of Jonesie.