Tag Archives: Christmas

The Summery Gift of ‘The Snowman’

10 Jun

“I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”
~ Dylan Thomas

Now that the thermometer has popped into the nineties a couple times, it’s summer. Forget the calendar. There’s sunshine and languid afternoons and a blessed freedom to do nothing, to expect nothing. It’s an ideal moment for a tribute to Raymond Briggs’s exquisite picture book, The Snowman (1978).

And when I say picture book, I mean picture book, for Briggs tells an emotionally rich tale without a single word. It’s the tale of a boy and his snowman – their friendship and adventures – and it’s related through a series of deceptively simple drawings. Despite their plainness and subdued colors, those drawings convey a narrative depth that is profoundly moving, and they subtly induce the reader to concoct and supply the missing dialogue – either silently in our heads or, as you’d find with your youngest readers, out loud. It’s a turnabout from what usually happens with storytelling, where words come first and mental images follow. To enter the world of The Snowman is to enter a world in which words are blessedly optional – a rare treat in our noisy age.

In 1982, Briggs’s genius on the page was more or less faithfully translated to the screen in an Oscar-nominated Christmas classic. Ironically, it’s the film’s yuletide theme that constitutes the “less” part of that translation, for there’s no Santa or Christmas tree in The Snowman book. In fact, the author has complained that the holiday special completely obscures his book’s themes of life and loss, death and grief. “The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die,” Briggs has said. “There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.”

Even so, the animated feature does fundamentally follow the book’s tacit storytelling approach. The wintry escapade is marvelously related by means of a gentle quickening of Briggs’s artwork, and then his art is seamlessly integrated with a similarly gentle score by Howard Blake. There are only two verbal exceptions. The first is the author’s placid introductory voiceover. “The whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness,” Briggs murmurs as he tramps across a frozen landscape. “It was a magical day, and it was on that day I made the Snowman.” (Later editions of the film replace Briggs with David Bowie doing a riff on the author’s preamble. Stick with the original.)

The second exception is “Walking in the Air,” a lilting, lyrical song – almost a hymn – that attends a spectacular flight sequence. Performed by a St. Paul’s Cathedral choir boy, Peter Auty, the song is lovely and unobtrusive – a delicate and welcome departure from the mute narrative. Auty’s voice is pure and ethereal, and he trills his Rs as he would for a Cambridge Lessons and Carols service. It’s a numinous performance, and it has been looping in the back of my thoughts of late, prompting this tribute.

But why now? Why snow and snowmen in this season of swimsuits and sunscreen? It can’t be a latent winter-envy, because I love summer’s heat and humidity, and I start eagerly looking forward to it as soon as January rears its ugly wind-chill head.

Wisely, I turned to Katharine, my twelve-year-old, for insight. “Do you know that Christmas video, The Snowman?”

“Of course,” she replied.

“What do you remember about it?” I asked. “What do you remember liking about it?”

Kath didn’t hesitate. “I like the monologue at the beginning,” she said (I nodded in agreement), “and the music. It’s so peaceful, and the music and pictures go together.” She elaborated further. “It’s like that scene in Ernest and Celestine, where Ernest plays the violin and Celestine draws the seasons.”

She was referring to another family favorite, a 2012 French production about a kindly bear and an artistic mouse. It, too, was nominated for an Academy Award, and it, too, tells a story of friendship and adventure.

I hunted it down in our DVD collection and fast-forwarded it to the scene Kath mentioned. The snow is piled high outside, and Celestine is painting her vision of the scene on cloth. She holds up the completed work to Ernest and announces, “Now I present to you ‘winter.’” Ernest smiles, lifts the violin to his chin, and replies, “If it was a song, it would sound just like this.”

Ernest and Celestine is far from being wordless like The Snowman, but for the duration of this particular scene, it perfectly captures the same spirit – just as Katharine suggested. Celestine’s creative two-dimensional interpretation of winter, followed by additional painted images of spring and summer, are simultaneously expressed by Ernest’s impromptu accompaniment. No speech is necessary. The passage of time and the contentment of a close relationship are more than adequately communicated by the shared and integrated media. There’s grace and peace.

It’s the grace and peace that I associate with summer’s slowness and calm. Like Brigg’s snow story, and the wordless interlude of Ernest and Celestine, summer fosters leisurely quiet and reflection. It’s a lifegiving opportunity for wonder and basking in presence. When time and duty allow in the months ahead, shut out the streaming noise, and join me in giving in to the season. The adventure of rumination awaits.
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Pentecost in Action: Saint Cristóbal Magallanes

20 May

Lex orandi, lex credendi, goes the ancient Latin motto – loosely translated: The rule of praying is the rule of believing. In other words, our liturgical life reveals our faith life. What we do on our knees points to what we hold in our hearts as well as how we’ll act in the world.

The liturgical calendar itself reflects this notion. In late December, for example, Christmas – a divine birthday given over to feasting and fa-la-la – bumps up next to St. Stephen the Protomartyr on December 26. One day, the candlelit Christ child in the crib; the next day, a vicious stoning and blood red vestments. It’s a liturgical juxtaposition that sends an unmistakable message: Follow this baby King and be ready for martyrdom.

And isn’t that pretty much our Catholic lex credendi?

As it turns out, there’s a parallel message this Pentecost weekend as we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit. For nine days following the Ascension, Mary and the Apostles had anticipated Christ’s guarantee that they’d be “clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24.49). Then, in the Upper Room, there was wind; there were tongues of flame; there was a rush of exuberant speech in exotic languages. The Spirit had arrived in style, and his manifest intensity awed both the young Church and all the peoples of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 2.1-14, 36-40).

But the Spirit empowers for a purpose, and come Monday after Pentecost this year, we get a clear picture of what that purpose is. May 21 is the memorial of St. Cristóbal Magallanes and companions, martyrs in Mexico during the 1920s Cristero uprising in response to fierce anti-Catholic persecution.

Although St. Cristóbal himself eschewed violent rebellion and preached against it, he refused to allow official antipathy to interfere with his priestly ministry. When the government closed the seminaries, Fr. Magallanes opened one in his parish. And when falsely imprisoned for inciting revolt, he followed Christ’s example by forgiving his captors, absolving them and even giving them his few belongings. Before he was shot a few days later, Fr. Magallanes told his executioners, “I die innocent, and ask God that my blood may serve to unite my Mexican brethren.”

St. Cristóbal’s story of selfless sacrifice illustrates what the Church teaches regarding the Pentecost experience for us all. Christ “pours out the Spirit among his members to nourish, heal, and organize them in their mutual functions, to give them life, send them to bear witness, and associate them to his self-offering to the Father and to his intercession for the whole world” (CCC 739).

As we leave Church this Pentecost weekend refreshed in the Spirit, we do well to keep St. Cristóbal in mind as we claim the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts – especially fortitude – and head out to bear witness in the world.
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A version of this reflection appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mishawaka, IN. Fr. Cristóbal was executed on May 25, 1927. Pope St. John Paul II beatified him on November 22, 1992, and then canonized him on May 21, 2000. To read the Holy Father’s homily on the latter occasion, follow this link.

The Christmas Dilemma: An Elegant Solution

21 Dec

The best way to shorten winter is to prolong Christmas.
~ G.K. Chesterton

1950 Merry Christmas grandma... PlymouthIt’s December 21, and we just today procured our Christmas tree – finally!

Considering that most families have had their trees up and decorated since late November, you’d think we were just über-cheapskates who stall until merchants start giving them away free. Or, worse, maybe we’re somehow anti-Christmas – a household of Scrooges muttering “Bah” and “Humbug” at every turn.

Nope, innocent on both counts – we’re actually Christmas spendthrifts and fanatics! Untold number of decorations, special linens, and other seasonal paraphernalia are starting to reappear after their yearlong absence, and I know we’ll be buying more – we always do! And not only do we relish the celebrations, we like to let them linger as long as possible into the new year. In fact, if it were up to me, we’d leave a Nativity scene set up on the mantle year round to foster a perpetual yuletide groove – why be extravagantly cheerful and generous once a year?

Nevertheless, in terms of Christmas trees, we’re almost always the last ones on the block to get one, and it’ll stay bare until Christmas Eve. We’ll decorate it that night before departing for Midnight Mass, and we’ll spread out the gifts underneath when we return. Then – and here’s the real kicker – we’ll leave the decorated tree up until well into January!

This is the heart of what I call the “Christmas dilemma” – a phenomenon Catholic parents know all too well, and it’s only tangentially related to Santa Claus.

Instead, the Christmas dilemma is rooted in the utter collapse of Advent outside of the liturgy. I mean, you know and I know that Christmas is preceded by four weeks of preparation, and that the eight-day feast itself begins on the evening of December 24th. Likewise, you know and I know that the Christmas season continues on until the Baptism of the Lord – this year falling on Sunday, January 11th. The dilemma, the problem we parents face, is that nobody else knows those things, least of all our children, and the culture at large is determined to keep it that way.

bizholidays-analysis3daConsider the obvious: Wal-Mart and Walgreens start hawking Xmas merchandise as early as Halloween, so our kids are already salivating over holiday treats and gift possibilities long before Advent is even on the liturgical radar. Up next, Thanksgiving – the faux Christmas Eve, with St. Nick himself, sitting atop his Macy’s sleigh/float, ushering in the “real” Christmas season (read: “shopping orgy”).

Then, the High Holy Day itself arrives: Black Friday! With sales and Santa blasting us from dawn until dusk, and omnipresent Christmas music 24/7 on radio and overhead Muzak wherever we go – there’s no escape! Even if conscientious parents want to preserve the Advent illusion throughout the month of December, the schools hammer the Christmas theme from Thanksgiving on, right alongside Target and Kohls and the Chamber of Commerce.

Advent-wise our kids don’t stand a chance, and then December 25th arrives almost as a disappointment – an idea that Dave Barry captures so well:

I really like Christmas Eve. I think I like it even more than Christmas Day. On Christmas Day, you get to open your presents and see what you got, but you also know that Christmas is starting to be over for a year, and by nighttime some of the stuff you got is already broken. On Christmas Eve, all the tree lights are on and carols are playing and people are saying “Merry Christmas,” and everything is about to happen, but it didn’t happen yet. That’s the best time of the year.

christmastreerecycling400And, just in case we didn’t get the point, there’s the holiday coup de grâce: The universal Christmas tree dump on December 26th – the very day that the feasting should just be getting underway. My kids are already pretty sensitive about being Catholic weirdos – Mass obligations on the weekend, confession from time to time, meatless Fridays, movie restrictions (what, no R-rated flicks?!) – so they’re always on the lookout for opportunities to, say, blend in a little more. Putting up the tree in mid-December and then leaving it up until mid-January is like asking for trouble from their vantage point: “Can’t we just be like everyone else for a change?”

What to do? I’ve given it lots of thought, and it occurred to me that the solution has been staring us in the face all along – it’s so obvious, so simple! Yes, it’ll also seem radical – off the wall even – but I’d like to propose it all the same, although I imagine it’ll take some time to implement, and we’ll have to run it past the Roman Curia, if not Pope Francis himself.

Here’s my idea in a nutshell: Let’s admit defeat with regards to Advent, cut our losses, and move the celebration of Christmas to the day after Thanksgiving – genius, right?! Consider the advantages:

  1. On account of the long Thanksgiving weekend, most Americans already have Black Friday off – check! Plus, sane people would welcome an excuse to stay home and away from the malls that day anyway – check, check! And football? Yes, of course. But that comes later in the day, leaving plenty of time for Mass and unwrapping gifts and sharing a cup of cocoa around the fire before the afternoon games begin – check, check, check!
  2. Then, there’s the shopping advantage – I’m no expert, but I’ll bet those October early-bird sales crush the tepid deals you’ll find after turkey day. Moreover, if Advent runs from All Saints until Thanksgiving, you’d be able to actually focus on preparing for Christmas instead of merely enduring what has become a preemptive holiday onslaught.
  3. Finally – and the clincher as far as I’m concerned – a Black Friday Christmas can usher in a true octave of feasting and festivity that accords with what everybody else is already doing! Christmas cookies, secret Santa gift exchanges, holiday parties, and hearty “Merry Christmas!” greetings could be embraced with gusto. We could go caroling – real caroling – any time in December free of liturgical guilt. And, the best part? The tree! We could put up our Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving, and then toss them out on the curbs first thing on St. Stephen’s day, just like the neighbors. No more furtive curtains drawn on our January tinsel and lights, skulking around in the new year with our dried-out Douglas firs. It’ll be “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and all that.

The objections, I know, are legion, but at least we’ve all developed a tolerance for this kind of liturgical shapeshifting – Ascension “Thursdays” celebrated on Sundays is my favorite example.

Anyhow, maybe my proposal could be the basis for further discussion. The key, I think, is to make it easier for American Catholics to practice their faith, don’t you think? Sure, the Holy Father wants us to reject a culture of comfort, but let’s be reasonable. Nobody wants to stick out; better to blend right in – where’s the harm in that?

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It Ends, It Begins: The First Sunday of Advent

30 Nov

 Behold, I am coming soon (Rev. 22.7).

Do you like movie trailers? I do, although my family would tell you otherwise.

I admit that when we sit down together to watch a DVD, I’m usually the one who is anxious to skip through the commercials so that we can get right to the “feature presentation” (as they say). And when we have a chance to go to an actual theater to catch a new release? It’s true that I like to arrive late 1834361in order to miss the interminable trailers that precede the main event – tacking on ten minutes to the posted showtime used to be enough, but fifteen is more realistic these days.

All that being said, it’s nonetheless true that I do enjoy watching movie trailers. I only wish they actually trailed – which is the origin of the word, did you know that? The earliest sneak previews were appended after a feature film was over, not before it began. That way, the folks in the theater – the people who forked over for tickets and seats – weren’t forced to sit through a bunch of ads before they got to see what they’d paid to see. “First things, first,” was the original (short-lived) idea: The main attraction appropriately took precedence, and then those who elected to stick around could look ahead to what was coming up.

The First Sunday of Advent is like that I think. I mean, today was almost like an old-fashioned trailer that essentially gave us a peek of what lies ahead, but it came on the heels of a main event: The liturgical year just concluded.

And what a main event it was!

There was the opening credits and anticipation leading up to Christmas and the Incarnation last December, followed by a period of Ordinary Time that gave us a chance to catch our breath and take in what had just occurred: God himself becoming a baby!

Then, pretty quickly it was on to Lent and an intense time of interior preparation – sprucing up our souls and looking forward to the literal crux of our salvation. After several weeks of that, Holy Week arrived and we witnessed the horrible drama of that divine baby from Bethlehem, now the grown-up Jesus, enduring a trial and execution that was directly tied to our own sin – my own sin.liturgseason

Another time of waiting followed – this one much briefer, only about a day – and thereupon…an explosion! A shock and a shove, as Jesus rose from the grave – can you believe it? Yes, it’s really true! That stone dead God-man was alive again, bulldozing his way back into our story and giving us hope of heaven.

An event like that deserves a party, and it got one – fifty days of celebration until the feast of Pentecost. After that, it was more Ordinary Time and lots of green – the color of plants and the ordinary growth they undergo. That kind of growth takes time and patience, just as any farmer or gardener will tell you: Water and fertilizer, tending and protecting occupy their time, although there is little sign of the flourishing going on beneath the soil. It’s happening all the same though – just like it does in us throughout the quieter times of the church year.

Finally, November, and the liturgy grinds down to the end. There was lots of imagery of the end of the world this past month, things coming to a finish – which they did, quite literally and spectacularly, on the Feast of Christ the King, a day honoring Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth, and one directing our attention forward to the Second Coming.

But, even then, we weren’t done quite yet. There’s was a week of closing credits, as it were – the days between Christ the King and the start of Advent – which led up to the very last expression of the liturgical year, the Saturday before the First Advent Sunday.

Now, that last Saturday morning of the church year – the very last image on the liturgical screen before all went dark – do you know what’s amazing? As Fr. Martelli pointed out ADVENT CANDLEat Mass yesterday, the Gospel reading that day, the last of the year, basically parallels the one from today, the first. In fact, there’s more than a parallel – there’s actually a repetition. Here, listen: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy,” St. Luke had Jesus saying on Saturday, and “be vigilant at all times.” And then, today, St. Mark presented Jesus saying pretty much the same thing: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come…. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”

What’s going on here? It’s like the very last scene of the church year yesterday led into today’s liturgical trailer that previewed…more of the same!

Why?

You know the answer, I’m sure. It’s because the new liturgical year is more of the same, and that “same” is Jesus himself who’s always showing up at unexpected times. For Christians, there’s only one show, and it’s perpetually new. As St. Patrick put it, it’s “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me; Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me; Christ on my right, Christ on my left,” basically Christ all over the place. He’s the director, cast, and crew; he’s the dialogue, the plot, and the script; he’s the special effects, the soundtrack, and the cinematography.

The whole shooting match, the whole shebang! And we always have to be ready to receive him, not just at Christmas!

So, yes, take a deep breath – one screening has past; the next is just about to start. Sit back and stay awake: The adventure is about to begin all over again.

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