by Douglas Penick
For those who are followers, in one form or another, of the deity Jahweh, their inescapable imprisonment in continual sin began when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge. When the primal couple committed this first of all forbidden acts, the deity expelled them from paradise. Henceforth, humanity had to labour for its material survival. The time when all needs and wants were satisfied immediately and without effort was ever after a mere myth. All desires, necessities and wants were henceforth the ineradicable mark of every human being’s continuously sinful propensities and corrupted nature. The birth of Jesus is, for all Christians throughout its long history, the demonstration of the Creator’s intention to allow humans to find release from this iron chain of causality.
Christmas, the day when Jesus, the son of Jahweh, was born, is most frequently celebrated not just by feasting but by exchanging gifts. Presents do not just represent the Creator’s offering to human kind, but embody a moment in which the obligation to work for every material joy is suspended. Nativity scenes of varying degrees of elaboration – most minimally, with the parents, Mary and Joseph, praying beside a manger which holds the son of God – invoke the presence of this being sent to reverse the course of lust, greed and inevitable retribution as the engines of history. Less abstractly and particularly in northern Europe, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Santa Claus are overlapping figures who will give virtuous children the very things which will fulfil their desires. And these merry figures of generosity and mirth restore for a moment the prelapsarian time when desires and their fulfilments had not become separate, when even an unreasonable wish might be granted. Their presence is beloved by children, and parents all over the world put out milk and cookies by the chimney or window through which the saint will bring gifts to preserve this kind and sad illusion, this longing.
A very long time ago, late one Christmas Eve, I was taking the bus to New York. The bus was not very full and behind me sat two elderly black women chatting quietly. They had just gotten off work, I overheard, cleaning and cooking in a suburban household. Each was going to join her own family to go to church, one in Manhattan, the other in Brooklyn. Their soft Southern voices were just audible, speaking slowly, stopping in companionable pauses.
“Remember when you found out there was no Santa Clause?”
“Oh, oh yes.”
“We lived in Virginia. Bare wood, one room share-cropper cabin. My father, he farmed, my mother cleaned house.”
“North Carolina, same thing.”
“And you know, I could never figure out where my parents hid all those presents. There were six of us, and that place, it had one room… I can’t even guess how they did that.”
“For us too. And there they were, wrapped and everything, in the morning. A miracle.”
“Indeed. Indeed, it was.”
“And when my older sister told me there was no Santa Clause. I cried. I cried and I cried.”
“Me too. I cried. My brother told me. That, oh that was the saddest day of my life.”
About the Author
Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.
Photographs taken by the author.