When I was a kid, Christmas was the best. It had everything:
Cookies. Candies. Presents. The fanciest dresses and shoes of the year. Special songs. Lights. Sparkles. Decorations. Santa. Elves. Myths. Stories. Parties. Feasts. Family dinners. Time off from school. My Dad and Papa playing Christmas carols on their guitars while we all sang along. The Sears Wishbook. Making crafts. Sending and receiving cards and stringing them up on the walls. Staying up late. Cousins. Stockings. Excitement. Magic. Mystery. It was the best time of the year.
And then I became an adult. And a Christian. And a parent. And a socialist-type. And somehow, all of those things that really, you would think would make Christmas better, but have really just made it more complicated.
Now these are some of the things I have come to expect:
Guilt over the amount of money I spend. An awareness of all the children in my town that won’t get the happy Christmas celebration they deserve (see above). Awareness of all the children in the world that won’t get the happy Christmas celebration they deserve (see above). Guilt over the fact that I love all of the things about my childhood Christmases because now that I’m a Christian it is supposed to be about baby Jesus and that is all. Guilt about wanting to give my kids all of the glee I had (see above) when I’m also trying to raise them to be focused on Jesus, and not obsessed with consumerism. Guilt about not being more creative about the gifts I give, and not making more things by hand and from scratch the way some of my friends do and the way my Mom did.
Guilt about not feeling as joyful as I did when I was a child, even though I should be more joyful because now I know the true meaning of Christmas. Generalized guilt, is what I feel, is what I’m trying to say.
Please don’t misunderstand. I still love Christmas and I try and make as much magic happen in our home as I possibly can. I still enjoy singing carols and baking cookies and all that traditional stuff. It’s just that these other things have come to tinge the holiday with a certain grayness. It is what I’ve come to expect.
But something happened this year that has given me a new perspective. And I have to say, I had no idea that it would change my feeling about Christmas. I took a course in Prison Literature.
It started off in September, the way courses do, with a pile of books and a vague curiosity and a blank slate, ready to learn something new. We started off reading some literary works, mostly personal essays and poetry written by inmates in a nearby maximum security prison. It was a bizarre experience to read all these incredibly astute and moving pieces of writing and also know that the writers were murderers, every one. We learned a lot about the penal system here in Canada. (Which was very sad and kind of made me want to become an activist until I remembered that if I were to become an activist for real, there are probably other causes I would take up. Sad but true.) Anyways.
As the course progressed we moved on to other kinds of prison lit, including works written by political prisoners of all kinds. We read Men In Prison by Victor Serge, which is some of the most incredible writing I have ever read. It has the feel of a classic, like something everyone should know, you know. This is a bit of what the biography bit at the beginning of his book says about him:
“Victor Serge is an authentic witness of the revolutionary politics of our century. Participant in three major revolutions, political activist in seven countries and seasoned inmate of prisons East and West, Serge never ceased throughout his life to do battle for the ideals of socialism and freedom.”
He was imprisoned in and then chased out of most of Europe and died in exile in Mexico without any possessions or even a nationality. Because he never landed in particular political camp he sort of fell between the cracks and his writing has now out of print since the 70’s. His book was only part of our course because my prof had found a copy on the floor of a library in a prison he once worked at (teaching college English to inmates) and pilfered it. I read this man’s amazing writing from photocopy, being amazed at what I was reading because of what it was, and also amazed that I might be among the last people on earth to read it. Bizarre.
That has nothing to do with Christmas. But reading Serge was a transitory time in the course because he was the first author we read who wasn’t a “criminal” per se. He was a revolutionary imprisoned for political reasons. He was incredibly idealistic and his ability to hang on to hope and a sense of purpose helped him to survive some incredibly brutal circumstances.
But that was nothing compared to what came next.
In early December I found myself digging deep into a collection of short stories, trying to write a good paper in exchange for a good grade. The collection was titled Kolyma Tales. Because all of the stories came from experiences of a man who spent years and years of his life in Kolyma, better known as Siberia, in the Soviet Gulag forced-labor camps. The author, Varlam Shalamov, was the son of a priest and a law school student when he was first sent to the camps in 1929 at the age of 22 for his political associations. He wound up in the camps until 1961 when the Soviet government deemed him ‘rehabilitated’ and he was allowed to return to Moscow.
He wasn’t able to write about life in the camps for years afterward, and when he finally did and had the stories smuggled and printed in the west, he still had to disown his own work in order to prove himself a loyal citizen. The tales were absolutely horrifying. The attitude in camp was utter hopelessness as I have never imagined. Kolyma was a death camp. The people sent there were forced to work hard labour in the freezing cold without adequate clothing. They were simultaneously starved. Shalamov himself, at six feet tall, dropped to 90 pounds. And still worked, for all those years, in the frozen, freezing cold, watching everyone around him die. It is estimated that half a million people died in the camps, but no one really knows.
I’ve been a student of history my whole life. And I’m no stranger to statistics, and to the details of horrifying things that humans have done to one another over time. But it was an entirely different experience to be immersed in the stories. In the names and the personalities and the details of daily existence. I felt indifference coming over myself in way, which is what happened to the prisoners because it was the only way to deal. I had a difficult time sitting down to dinner everyday, when I was reading about starvation rations. Once, he did some work for an officer and was given six meal tickets as a reward. His friend was dying, and he himself was doing alright at the time, so he gave them to his friend, who cashed them in all at once. All six portions of the thin soup did not fill a a single bowl. At another point someone sent him some money. He knew it would be stolen, so he bought a pound of butter for its caloric value, intending to melt it into the evening’s “tea” (plain hot water) and share it with his buddy. He was bashed over the head from behind, knocked unconscious, and he awoke to find his butter had been stolen. They had to take the clothing of people who died to try and keep warm because there was never adequate covering against the cold. There was no possibility for them of holding on to hope of anything like there was for Serge. It felt important to be reading these accounts, lest they disappear into history, forgotten forever. But it was draining to be spending so much time thinking about it too.
But then on Monday afternoon I handed in my paper, ending the course. Tuesday found me traveling to Vancouver with my spouse and as we drove through the mountain passes I felt like I was exhaling all this pent up sadness.
Wednesday was the most joyful day. I was alone, on foot, in one of my favorite places – downtown Vancouver, from about 9am until 6pm, when I met up with him after his conference. The shopping! The displays! The people! The sounds! The traffic! The sights! The drizzle! The ocean! The skyscrapers! The food! The art! It was all wonderful. I had new eyes. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Kolyma, but of course it came to mind at moments. What a world apart. And I was thinking about Christmas a lot because of all the reminders around me and because I was shopping for stocking stuffers.
I had this overwhelming feeling that all my usual worries were pointless. How blessed I am! I decided on the spot to simplify Christmas this year. And not in the sense of cutting back the presents and the activities and things that people always talk about. No. I’m going to simplify my attitude. My over-thinking. My constant analysis. I’m going to hang out with my family and have my friends over and celebrate with abandon and lights and cookies and music and I’ll buy too many stocking stuffers if I want to and I’ll give as much as I feel like giving because there’s no such thing as too much giving.
And if I read any rants about consumerism or hear any speeches about the ‘shoulds’ that other people are feeling about the season I won’t argue. I’ll just shrug and let it go, because I get that. I’m just not going to live that. Not this year.
This is Christmas. The most wonderful time of the year.