For someone like my father (a man who traditionally has the appearance of being socially distressed except when things are strictly on his own terms), Christmas (or indeed any other merrymaking) is at first blush an inconvenience. This at least is the situation if he harbours (or my mother seeks to enforce) the remotest idea that his participation in the event is either required or expected. It’s the presumption of charity that kills him. To succumb to the social convention which attends such ceremony is for him a grave irritation, though I suspect it would be closer to the truth to label it an awkwardness or disenchantment. Whatever the limitation, there is no question that the nuisance value is high.
When however my father at last resolves like a relenting child to make his ineluctable contribution to the foregathering, the dynamics are considerably stimulated. Consider for example the year, many years ago when I was still young and svelte enough to buy clothing at a store other than Mr. Big and Tall, I discovered my father early one Christmas morning engrossed in personal application to a rummy task. From a casual distance (one never presumes to interfere in anything resembling preparation on a Christmas morning, much less when my singularly independent father is at work upon it), he was absorbed in rolling paper. Upon closer examination (the purposeless kind, a blasé over-the-shoulder glance) I saw that he was rolling dollar bills of various denominations and tying them with narrow strands of shiny red ribbon and do-it-yourself name cards. It didn’t require painful inference to conclude that his earlier failure to address the matter of Christmas gifts, and the unfolding and overwhelming prejudice of the day itself, had combined to foster this explosion of commitment, the industry of which appropriately afforded its own epiphany. When all was accomplished, he proceeded to hang the dollar bills upon the tinseled branches of the Christmas tree under which my mother had overnight deposited mountains of colorfully wrapped gifts surplus to the bulging stockings hung by the fireplace. The view into the large and copious room from the threshold was hardly one of deprivation, and the religious theme of the day was commensurately diminished.
Once he was on a roll, my father’s enterprise burgeoned. Whatever one may say about my father it is not that he lacks the philosophical element. The once nettling dimension of Christmas had for him undergone inscrutable transition. The celebration of the nativity now included a figurative makeshift stand from which he determined to air his views for our collective benefit. The synthesis of factual knowledge garnered from the world in general and from our family in particular was about to materialize, couched in my father’s hallmark language of vagaries and platitudes. Being substantively a reclusive man, or more accurately a master of disguise by the employment of endless bromides, the providence to dwell upon something of substance and particularity was tantalizing for him. You may be old enough to recall the once popular byword developed by the late Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message”. In the context of my father’s Christmas message, the truth of that adage could never have been more manifest. As an illustration of the concept, McLuhan described the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind; meanwhile, while focusing on the obvious (which is the content), we miss the subtlety of the conveyance. In this particular instance, my father employed as his medium an unassuming collection of foolscap lined paper on which to collect his thoughts. The supply of paper was seemingly limited as he was obliged to use not only both sides but also all four margins of the respective pages. Not surprisingly this of necessity enlarged the skill required to decipher the communication, a challenge made all the greater by the difficulty of having to read my father’s scribble. Nonetheless – to return to the McLuhan theme – the message was loud and clear. Against a backdrop of spiritual rebirth and the rustic modesty of the scene in the manger, not to mention the current affection for environmentally friendly anything and the decidedly provincial nature of my father’s appearance, his crude but heartfelt production was a zinger! One couldn’t help but recall the similarity of the drummer boy story with its thesis of immateriality and sincerity. It did of course make for a crashing contrast to the range of other gifts being exchanged. But as I say the medium carried the day. While admittedly none of us was particularly distracted by the content of the delivery (which after all was about good wishes and the inevitable abundance of misery in the world), we were nonetheless captured by the authenticity of the bequest, mindful of its patriarchal significance and long-term fodder for future reflection.
Eventually the medium and the message were diluted by the tangibles of gifts and food which flooded the remainder of the day, but in spite of it all the voice of the Christmas letter from my father lingered long into the evening when the dying embers of the day at last brought upon the proceedings a welcome somnolence.