“Mamma, Christie told me I’m going to Hell again today,” Jenny told me matter-of-factly as I stood at the kitchen counter unloading groceries.
Don’t react, I told myself, but I’d already sighed loudly.
“Remember what we talked about, honey?” I said, putting the last of the cans in the cupboard. Time for the “Ten Worlds” chat.
“Hell’s not a real place. Hell’s how we feel when something bad happens to us.”
“Mmmhmm.” She began to twist one finger in her long straight hair. I wasn’t getting through.
“And Hell goes away. When you feel bad, like when your bike got that scratch on it, or when Christie teases you. After we have dinner and play a game of Monopoly you won’t feel so bad, right?”
“Mamma, why don’t we have a Christmas tree like all the other kids?”
Uh-oh. I swallowed nervously.
“We celebrate New Year’s, remember? We go down to the Culture Center for World Peace prayer meeting, and everybody gets dressed up. And later we have rice balls and black-eyed peas.”
“The other kids get presents on Christmas. And Santa.”
I took a deep breath and blew a stray lock of hair out of my face. I started simple. Or tried to.
“Sweetie, you know we’re Buddhists, and ...”
That was as far as I got. Jen bounded up off the chair, declared, “It’s not fair. If I can’t have Santa, I don’t want to be a Buddhist” and ran off down the hall. Slam! Gone.
I shook my head. Just then, the sound of the garage door opening told me Paul was home. I went to the fridge and opened a cold Shiner Bock beer. It was an old joke — bad news should always be accompanied by beer.
He walked in the door and I handed it to him.
“Hello, love. Bad day, hmm?” he said as he kissed me. “What’s wrong?”
“Christie told Jen she’s going to hell. Again. And she asked me about Christmas and Santa.” I plopped into a chair.
“Well, we knew this was going to happen.” He sat and kicked off his shoes. “What’d you say?”
“I didn’t get very far. She said if she couldn’t have Santa, she didn’t want to be a Buddhist, and she stormed off to her room.”
“Whew!” Paul whistled. “Pretty tough. Maybe the first time that Santa’s converted anyone to Christianity.”
I laughed. “Oh, stop, it’s not funny. I want to do the right thing for Jen.”
“Sandy, we can’t shield her from the world.”
“No, but we can try to explain why it’s hurting her! And I’m not doing well at that. Why shouldn’t we have Christmas?”
“We should celebrate the birth of Jesus because...?” Paul said.
“Oh, come on. We both know a lot of people who celebrate Christmas but don’t go to church. It’s like Christmas is two holidays...”
“I know, I know,” he interrupted. “The sacred and the secular. And the secular Christmas holiday is sort of a midwinter festival, and yadayadayada. We’ve been over all this.”
I ignored him. “So, let’s celebrate it as a secular holiday. It may be a little materialistic, but it’s a whole lot of fun.”
“Is it really?”
“Oh, just because one Christmas Santa didn’t bring you a Lite Brite....”
“That’s not it at all. OK, you say it’s a celebration of family. But how does giving each other a bunch of meaningless presents celebrate family?”
“Paul, you’re such a Scrooge.”
“No, now let me finish. If you’re going to celebrate family, why not get together and have an honest discussion about life? Instead of this exchange of trinkets. Where I have to pretend to like some ugly tie that Aunt Agatha gave me. That will sit in the closet until I send it to Goodwill.”
“You don’t even have an Aunt Agatha.” I rolled my eyes.
“Oh, you get it.”
“I get it.”
“We may still have to celebrate Christmas with our families, to keep the peace....”
“I want to celebrate it with my family, and you make it sound like we’re in a state of constant warfare with our parents....”
“...but we don’t have to... we shouldn’t... celebrate it in this family. Do you want to hang a crucifix on the front door and start going to Mass?”
“Oh, dry up. Neither one of us were Catholic.” I glared at him. “I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t see any harm in Christmas as long as we’re clear about what we’re doing.”
“And I think you’re splitting hairs.” He sighed, and downed the last of the beer. “I’m sorry, Dee. We’re not doing very well here, are we? Maybe I do have some kind of ‘emotional issue’ about Christmas. I don’t know. I just think we don’t need to celebrate a tradition that belongs to another religion. We’ve got enough to celebrate ourselves. I’m going to go talk to Jen.”
He left, and I sat at the kitchen table, drained and wondering what to do for dinner. Well, we hadn’t had pizza in awhile. I reached for the phone and dialed Pizza Hut as I mulled the situation over.
OK, sure, he was right, in a lot of ways. In the logical ways. As much as I argued to myself about “sacred holidays” and “secular holidays,” perhaps I was splitting hairs. A little bit. I mean, no one really considered Christmas on a par with, say, the Fourth of July.
“Large pepperoni, extra cheese, olives, and, um, green peppers,” I told the kid on the other end of the line. I gave him our address and added an order of bread sticks. He promised dinner in 40 minutes. Good enough.
“Thank you for calling Pizza Hut. Merry Christmas,” he said in a flat, harried tone, and hung up before I could wish him one back. Or tell him that I didn’t celebrate it, thank you very much. I shook my head and said “Bah, humbug!” Not much Christmas spirit there. Maybe Paul was right.
But on the other hand, how wonderful everything about Christmas was. The tree, the stockings. The smell of pine. The red and green tree skirt blazoned with a grinning white-bearded Santa. Cards hanging on a string along the top of the wall. Wrapping paper. Chocolate and oranges. Being so excited that you couldn’t go to sleep, because you knew Santa was coming, and waking up on Christmas morning with the most wonderful breathless sense of anticipation. Even the needles in the carpet, pricking your feet and lingering around for months....
I sighed. Everything was so special because it only happened once a year. I propped my head in my hands. How could something so wonderful, that made children so happy, be bad?
“Well, I think she’s feeling better,” said Paul as he came into the kitchen. “I think she could ignore this whole thing if it weren’t for Christie.”
“What did you say?” I asked curiously.
“Oh, this and that. I explained things,” he said airily. “What’s for dinner?”
I shook my head a little. “That easy, huh? Humph. Anyway, I ordered pizza.”
“Great.” He came over and embraced me, wrapping his arms around my waist and gently nuzzling my neck with his chin.
“Paul. What are we going to do about Christmas?”
“I don’t know, Sandy. I know it’s making you unhappy. Let’s think about it. It’s almost three weeks away. We can come up with a compromise.”
“We have to do the right thing for Jen,” I said.
“We will, sweetheart.”
I sighed. “C’mon. Let’s go chant.”
Later that evening, we all curled up in front of the television. Jen voted for yet another viewing of Sonny Elephant and the Dark Jungle. Paul and I decided we could tolerate it one more time. We made a fire, popped popcorn, and started up the VCR.
Outside, the wind howled in the chimney and rattled the panes. Onscreen, Sonny Elephant and the Monkey King led a riotous dance number. A troupe of tigers pranced past as Bawak the Parrot squawked away in a grating falsetto. Jen sat in her beanbag in front of the television, her eyes
“I’m going to run up into the attic and get those extra blankets,” I murmured to Paul.
“Oh?” he said, his attention on the movie.
“I was kind of cold after the electric blanket went on the fritz last night,” I said.
“You’ve got me to keep you warm,” he growled.
I grinned at him. “You’re a lot heavier than the blanket.” I walked through the kitchen and flipped the light on. Outside, I shivered, pulled my sweater around me, and yanked down the attic door. Then up the steps and into the attic, a forest of shelves and boxes. Baby clothes... old yearbooks... a box labeled “stuffed animals.” I opened one flap. With a wry smile, I dipped my hand in and brought out my old, battered Tigger. What a hero that little guy was. Almost furless, one ear gone, but he still beamed up at me.
Then I spotted a shoebox marked “XMAS.” I shoved the other boxes aside. Inside, an unruly jumble of ornaments. I fished out a clothespin reindeer. I must have made you in the first or second grade! The hanger loop of gold thread was broken now, and the brown paint was faded, but its little plastic eyes still lolled merrily at me.
I grinned. A bit of thread and you’ll be good as new. My smile faded. For what? There would be no tree to hang him on. No more of the rapture of Christmas morning for him.
I dug through the shoebox some more. A Styrofoam egg, with crushed velvet and sequins pinned crookedly around it. An angel, cut out of brass -- well, probably some cheap brass-like metal -- with “Xmas 1975” engraved on it in an awkward hand. A yarn cross-stitched stocking, one corner unraveled to reveal its plastic underpinnings. A cardboard circle -- I turned it over, and on the other side was a vaguely birdlike shape made out of macaroni. Ah yes, it had been one of a set. The Twelve Days of Christmas, in Magic Marker and pasta.
Then, at the very bottom of the box, my hand touched felt. I dragged it out. A stocking — my stocking. I’d made it in Girl Scouts. The fabric was thin and worn now. I brushed off stray bits of glitter. “Sandy” was blazoned across the top in my best cursive. The white stocking top was streaked with red — the two colors had faded into each other. Underneath, a beaded felt Christmas tree, attached by a few scraps of glue. A reindeer with half a head of pipe-cleaner horns winked at me. And a Santa with one black sequin eye leered wickedly.
“You devil, you,” I said, then caught my breath for a moment, struck by inspiration. Twelve days of Christmas... ten days of... of New Year’s! Why not? I grabbed the box of ornaments and rushed downstairs.
Back in the den, Bawak was biting Sonny’s ear. Jen was mostly asleep, but I knew if I tried to stop the tape, she’d wake up and squawk like Bawak. So I touched Paul gently on the shoulder and hissed, “Come into the kitchen. I need to talk to you.”
“Whass wrong?” he grumbled, almost asleep.
“Come on,” I said.
In the kitchen, I plopped down the box and grabbed the pad of paper that sat by the phone. I glanced up for a second... yes, I could keep half an eye on Jen from here, make sure she stayed safely asleep in her beanbag. My mind started whirring.
“Hey, you forget the blanket,” Paul said, scratching his disheveled mop of hair.
“Oh, never mind that, I’m thinking,” I said. “Hell, that’s an easy one. Something Halloween-ish ... nah, gotta make sure that the kids understand it’s all a metaphor. Work with, you know, sadness or despair. The Devil of the Sixth Heaven, maybe? Make little cookies with devil faces?”
Paul poured himself a glass of milk and pulled up a chair. “Slow down, slow down. What are you rattling on about?”
I ignored him. “The Ten Days of New Year’s!” I said. “Like the Twelve Days of Christmas, you know, only Buddhist-style. The Ten Worlds of New Year’s. A different theme for each day. We can decorate, do games, food, whatever. And the tenth day is New Year’s Day, which is also the Day of Buddhahood. What d’ya think?”
“It’s late... can’t this wait til morning?”
“No, it can’t.” I put the pen cap in my mouth and began to nibble on it. Why can’t he understand how important this is? It could be really great!
“OK. So you want to invent a holiday?” Paul said.
“Why not?” I said. “Didn’t you say ‘We’ve got enough to celebrate for ourselves?’ Well, let’s celebrate it.” I flattened my palms against the table.
Paul said, “It seems kind of... fake... making up a holiday like that.”
“Why does it matter?” I said, leaning forward in my chair. “Look at Kwaanzaa. That’s an invented holiday.”
“Yes, in the sixties, I think. It’s based on African harvest festivals, you know, it’s got, um, authentic roots. This is the same way. It’s our idea, but based on philosophical concepts — the Ten Worlds.”
“Think of it as a teaching tool,” I pressed, drumming my fingers. Why won’t you understand? “A ten-year-old isn’t going to understand if you say, ‘The world of Rapture is a metaphor for the transient joy we feel when our earthly desires are fulfilled.’ If you explain it. But if she experiences it somehow — in a skit, or a story, or a drawing — it becomes real.”
“Humph,” Paul grunted.
“And think of all the things we could do with the Ten Worlds!” I picked up my pen and began to make a list. “Hell, hunger, anger, animality, humanity, heaven, learning, realization, bodhisattva — that one’s easy. Take the kids out and do some volunteer work. Anything would do, as long as we
have that bodhisattva spirit.”
“For hunger, we could talk about, um, about wanting things. We could have a “wanting tree” and draw pictures of the things we want, and hang them up. Then on Rapture day we could “get” those things and then “break” them... maybe run a toy car off the end of a table or something... and talk about how things don’t make us truly happy, that happiness is something that comes from inside of us. Hey, we could do Santa for Rapture day. Some real presents. Why not? A few, as long as the kids understand that that’s not the whole point.”
“You’re... you’re copying Christmas, you’re trying to make up a substitute holiday here,” Paul said.
I looked him right in the eye. “Yeah, I am. So what?”
A moment of silence.
“Paul, everyone wants to celebrate. That’s why we have holidays — to remind us about joy. That’s what I want to borrow from Christmas — doing something special. The celebration. Connecting us to each other, to our past and our future.”
I rummaged around in the box of ornaments and brought out the stocking. “Look, Paul. I made this, in Girl Scouts.” Santa leered up at us. “And...” I dug deeper in the box... “the day I brought it home my mother gave me this.” I produced a bulky envelope. “If this is what I think it is....” I undid the clasp, and out slid an even older stocking, hand-sewn, with faded red and green cross-stitch designs. I ran my finger over the tree, the star, Santa’s dingy beard. “She made it when she was a girl.”
“We don’t need to do Christmas,” I said, “but I want to start something like this now. Make something like this now. For our fortune baby. To give to her fortune babies someday.”
Paul got up to refill his glass of milk.
“I think... it’s a good idea, Sandy,” he said. “I guess... we’d better get to work. Not too long and it’ll be... Hell day.”
I gave him a big smile. “We’re going to have a blast!”
New Year’s Eve Day. Jen bounced up and down in her seat as we pulled into the driveway. “Mamma, is everyone coming over to chant tonight?”
“Of course, darling, we always do that.”
“And we’re going to the Culture Center tomorrow for World Peace Prayer?”
“Can I stay up ‘til midnight? Huh? Huh?”
“You can try.” I grinned wryly. She’d tried last year, too, and wound up a lump on the couch well before ten. “Did you like the nursing home?” I asked her.
She nodded. “I like to sing.” We’d gathered together an impromptu chorus of children and taught them a few songs. After the recital they visited the residents — well, mostly ran, jumped and played around the residents. Still, though, they seemed to enjoy the kids. Then we’d dropped a big batch of clothing and toys off at Goodwill. All right in swing with Bodhisattva Day.
“We’re home!” Jen squealed. “Daddy’s home!” as she spotted his car in the garage. Her door flew open and out she went, almost before we’d stopped.
“Hey! Careful there!” But she was already gone. I sighed, exhausted. I wonder if any of this sunk in? I thought to myself. Well, Sandy, you wanted a celebration, didn’t you?
Yes, but a celebration with a reason.
In the kitchen, I found Jen comfortably wrapped in Paul’s arms, requesting a glass of milk.
“Do we have any more devil cookies, Mommy?” she asked.
“Nope, you ate the last one, remember?”
“Aww.” She stuck out her lower lip.
“We’ll make some more next year.” I put my purse down on the kitchen counter.
“Did you have a good day?” Paul asked me.
“Well, I guess. The kids seemed to enjoy it, but I’m not sure they got the point.”
“I think they did,” he said. “Hey punkin’, tell Mommy what you told me. About tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” I asked. “What about it? It’s New Year’s Day. “
“No! It’s Buddha Day. The best day of all, ‘cuz we’re all learning how to be Buddhas.” She squirmed out of Paul’s arms and charged off into the den. I looked at Paul.
“I guess she got it!”