James’ note: Merry Christmas, Daily Cut readers!
It’s no secret that I think Bill Bonner is the best newsletter writer in the business. So I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the Yuletide than with two of his finest Christmas essays.
Today and tomorrow, we bring you two tales of Christmas from the Bonner family homes in the French countryside. Enjoy…
We spent a stormy, but otherwise tranquil, Christmas at Ouzilly. Just the family, plus Beirne, my young assistant in Paris.
Churches all over Christendom were decked out and well attended on Christmas Eve. St. Maurice, our little church in little Lathus, France, was no exception. It celebrated the coming of Christ pretty much as it has done for the last millennium. Lit by candles, crowded by parishioners, most of whom only attend church a few times in their lives, the annual Christmas Eve service is one of the longest-running shows in the world. And still popular.
We are no strangers to Christmas pageants. Every year, they turn out to be a mixture of solemnity and hilarity. The story has not changed in 2,000 years. The same script. The same lines. The same plot. The same dramatic tension.
And yet, each year, there is an element of spontaneity too.
The promise is so big – to have life, more abundantly… and for all eternity – it is sure to bring in the crowds. And the costumes, lighting, and music have been worked on for hundreds of years, to the point where the pretensions and artistic fads have been worn smooth – like the stones you find on a beach. It is both extremely naive and extremely sophisticated at the same time – light as myrrh and heavy as gold.
But the real crowd-pleaser is the participation of the children. Parents never tire of seeing their children perform. They get a vicarious thrill from it. And the crowd gets the thrill from the unexpected too – as you can never be sure what the children will do.
Put the little kids in angel outfits and let them walk up the aisle. The littler the better. Sing “Silent Night.” Light the candles. It is a hard act to follow.
One year, when our son Jules was very little, he wore his angel outfit and sat on the steps in front of the altar. The minister (this was at the Episcopal Church in Maryland) was delivering a sermon, and everyone was very quiet as he hit upon a particularly hallowed point. But Jules’s halo had fallen off. And reaching for it, he tumbled head first and rolled in the aisle.
Jules redeemed himself in pageant history about seven years later. It turned out that he had perfect pitch and a boys’ choir kind of voice. So, the choir mistress had him sing a solo of “O Holy Night.”
Anyhow, when Jules opened up on “O Holy Night,” he gave it everything he had. His voice was so strong, so perfect, and so pure – it brought a tear to my eye. And I wasn’t the only one.
Jules has grown up a bit since then. Thom [who managed the precursor to the Diary and was later killed in a traffic accident in Africa] came to visit in the spring and taught him how to play the guitar. But Thom leans toward blues and rock and roll, rather than hymns – so Jules has moved on from “O Holy Night.” In fact, he asked for an electric guitar for Christmas. (Which he didn’t get – I’m not crazy, after all.)
All the boys had little parts to play in Friday’s pageant. Edward, 6, was one of the angels – approaching the straw-stuffed manger with a lit candle. (I looked around for a fire extinguisher.)
Jules, who celebrated his 12th birthday on Christmas Day, took up the collection, looking angelic. And Henry was the star of the show. He had a costume that I couldn’t identify – one of the three kings, perhaps – and read a letter from St. Paul, whose message passed me by like one of the Christmas decorations blowing down the street.
Henry read without hesitation, accent, or mistake, making his parents, and grandmother, feel very proud.
The service continued with a sermon from Pere Blot. Again, I had trouble following it. But I fear the good priest has fallen into Bishop Tutu’s pit of politics. Jesus made it very clear what his message was – love thy neighbor. This private responsibility Pere Blot turned into a vague, social charge. It was no longer enough to improve ourselves; now, we were meant to make over the entire society.
He urged us to act in “solidarity” with those who struggled against oppression and want. He was referring, I suppose, to the truck drivers who were striking for the right to retire at 55 with full pay. Or perhaps to the unemployed who demonstrated for a Christmas bonus. I doubt he had in mind the small businessmen, or taxpayers, who demonstrated recently against the high tax burden and government interference in business.
Christ’s personal message – which you carry around in your heart – thus became a political message, which you can wear on your sleeve, like the stripes of a corporal in the SS.
But no matter, it was Christmas Eve, and damned if I was going to let it be ruined by a dim, though nice and well-meaning, cleric.
Back at home, a roaring fire, and a CD of Tammy Wynette singing Christmas songs, contributed to a festive and cozy atmosphere on Christmas Eve. Jules and I tuned up our guitars and did a few Christmas tunes. We were pleased to see that Jules’ voice had not yet changed – he still hit the high notes of “O Holy Night,” while the rest of us screeched.
“I’m tone-deaf,” Beirne announced. “They made me lip sync in my high school choir.” In school, Beirne was a member of the school chorus. He had figured out that the chorus members got into line first at the cafeteria. When the music teacher heard Beirne sing, he let him stay in the group but asked him not to sing.
It was nice having Beirne over the holidays. He’s a family friend as well as an employee. His mother called to see how he was doing. She feigned worry that Beirne might slip into one of the traps of sin, lassitude, and debauchery that abound in Paris. I reassured her that Beirne was safe with us out in the country.
“I’ve looked all over Paris for those traps,” said Beirne, “I just can’t find them.”
After the children went to bed, Santa and Mrs. Claus went to work. Stockings were stuffed. Presents were tagged and placed under the tree. Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Claus were able to retire too… and then, all through the house, not a creature was heard… not even a mouse.
Actually, you wouldn’t have been able to hear a rhinoceros either… not over the gale-force winds! There arose such a clatter that I had to get up and see what was the matter. It was shutters blowing and clacking.
But after a half hour of roaming effort, they were secured. And all was well. And soon, it was Christmas.
December 27, 1999
James’ note: Tune in tomorrow for the second holiday installment from Bill… “How Christmas Was Nearly Canceled – Permanently.”
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