[First published in the Broad Street Review, 16 Dec 2014]
The reindeer antlers, protruding from the car we had been following for some blocks, led us down Castor Avenue. I said to my daughters that this was an excellent example of something I would never, ever, do—stick antlers on a car—but was happy that someone else would. I said that it was good to look for such things.
We were driving to a Christmas concert at St. Anne’s. People will tell you that St. Anne’s Church is in Kensington, or in Port Richmond, or in Fishtown, but in any case, it’s on Lehigh at Aramingo, and I had guessed Castor as the way to get there. But I wasn’t sure if Castor kinked somewhere, so I checked with my buddy, who worked for PECO and knows Philadelphia streets like his own driveway. He said yeah, Castor’s best, it turns but don’t worry, you’re good once you’re on it. But take Oxford to Summerdale to Castor, and as soon as he mentioned “Summerdale” I remembered Betty and knew I was in good hands.
Years before we moved to our part of Northeast Philadelphia, Betty let me in on the secret: “Summerdale will take you anywhere.” Betty brought Cheerios in a baggie to church for my daughters to nibble on, so she’s, well, you could leave $50,000 with her and pick it up a year later, that’s who she is. And of course my buddy of his own accord has crawled under my car and he’s cried during Bruckner, so this is somebody, a policeman once put it to me this way, this is somebody you’d go through a door for.
So you bet that’s how I drove down there.
The antlers reminded me that I was to narrate “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” with the Delaware Valley Wind Symphony in a week. I was surprised by how good the poem was, after being reacquainted with it. Odd, also. (I’ve seen that some people don’t think Clement Clarke Moore is the author, but I don’t buy it any more than that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, but that’s for another time.)
The poem is earnestly odd. It’s a Christmas poem without religion, a mythical poem careless of myths, a popular poem filled with archaic references, a moral poem without a moral. But it is filled with emotion and acute observation and, most of all, love. It’s a father telling a story to his children, which is why Clement Moore wrote it.
All on the good Earth
Earnestness is also a major part of what attracted me to the message of the Apollo 8 astronauts on Christmas Eve 1968. At the end of their televised broadcast, showing the Earth rising over the moon, they closed with: “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you…all of you on the good Earth.” I set it to music in The Consolation of Apollo for The Crossing, combining astronaut words and Boethian philosophy. One element I tried to evoke in it is Clement Moore earnestness, with visions of the creation of the world and TV Christmas specials dancing through my head. In 1968, I was 12.
I don’t know when I stopped believing in Santa Claus, but I do remember exactly when I stopped being a child. It was before one of our visits to my aunt and uncle’s, which meant playing with my cousin Walt. These were highlights of my childhood. At some point, though, years before age 12, a gloom descended on the anticipation. It arrived one afternoon before leaving for their house. In the midst of the giddy imagining of what games we would make up, the knowledge dawned on me, the knowledge that the fun would end. And at that moment I knew that my childhood was over.
Perhaps we write poems or compose music or stick antlers on cars or say “Merry Christmas” because we’re trying to go back to when it was just us and Cousin Walt, before games would end and we would have to go home.
All the meanings of “all”
If that’s so, then we’re wrong. We’re wrong because ignorance doesn’t create happiness any more than knowledge creates despair. After the initial shock (which I’ve forgotten) of losing Santa Claus, I went back to loving Christmas (if I’d ever stopped), because Christmas doesn’t depend on Santa Claus. Clement Moore, a theologian, knew exactly what Christmas was, but he wrote his poem about St. Nick because he loved his children. He ended it with “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” because he loved “all.” The astronauts said, “God bless all of you” for the same reason.
The “all” is that person on Castor Avenue with a belief in Christmas so earnest it requires antlers on a car. It’s my buddy, who places me there as nice as you please—Betty and the secret of Summerdale—a wind symphony playing behind “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”—Cousin Walt, during and after childhood—The Crossing and astronauts and Boethius and 1968 TV specials—a Christmas concert in Kensington or Port Richmond or Fishtown. It’s my girls.
And I love music so odd you wonder what neighborhood you’re in, music with reindeer antlers sticking out of it. It’s good to look for pieces like this, weird Messiaen music on the Trinity or the end times, wild-eyed Bruckner motets praising the Virgin Mary, and Bach, always Bach—Bach with kinks but don’t worry, you’re good—with impossible music rising, like the Earth, over a party that will end when the knowledge dawns on you that where you want to be is home.
Merry Christmas to all.