COPP’S HILL MOMENT: Christmas in the City

We once had a neighbor on our street in the North End who annually went bonkers over holiday decorations far in advance of yuletide. Each year she pushed the envelope further and further while the yellowing elms of Copp’s Hill still wore their autumn colors. We knew that she had finally fallen off the deep end when we spied the lights of a Christmas tree in her third-floor apartment window only days before Halloween. But, the really crazy thing was that as soon as December 25 morphed at the midnight hour into the 26th, she would immediately disassemble her festive decor and toss the Christmas tree onto the sidewalk with the rest of the trash. It looked so sad and lonely there –an extinguishing of green growing life once clothed in light.

So it goes for Christmas — ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’ when gaudy displays of consumption and wretched excess collide with ‘peace on earth’ and ‘goodwill to all’. When we push and shove and buy and wrap and sing and eat our way on a doomed march to recapture the mystery and wonder of childhood.

For some of us in the darkest hours on the calendar, the holidays are a time of survival. Literally, an exhausting, emotional journey through a period of forced merriment intensified by the juggling of familial obligations, work schedules and financial constraints. This creates stress and strain that weigh us down and can often seem unbearable. And at that point, Christmas becomes an endurance contest drained of all the mystery and contemplation that this season inspires.

In our household, a Celtic Christmas crèche is prominently displayed throughout the year. We originally forgot to take it down soon after the feast of the Epiphany and then decided that, since it looked so striking, it would permanently remain in its place of honor. I have gazed hundreds of times into that Irish-handcrafted tableau of the Virgin and Child with St. Joseph, shepherds attending their flocks, and the three wise men. Amidst the beauty, simplicity and splendor of Christmas, I can only identify with the magi — not because I possess their wisdom or own shares in gold, frankincense and myrrh commodities, but because I can relate to their journey. The wandering in the desert. The caravans. The camels. Always in motion. Always on the road. Making tracks in the sand. Never staying in one place long enough to get comfortable. Stopovers here and there. They briefly meet Herod. Then on to Bethlehem where they finally find the Christ Child, but are awakened in the night by an angel who warns them to get out of town now.

Before a child came into our lives, my wife and I would spend Christmas Eve with my family in Massachusetts and then leave at midnight for her parents – 300 miles away – in New Jersey. The three kings had the desert. We had the MassPike and Garden State Parkway. The magi had     marauders and sand storms. We had 18-wheelers on our tail and occasional snow squalls. We seemed to be constantly in motion and could hardly get comfortable anywhere as we girded our loins and filled the tank.

When Christina was born, we continued this ‘tradition’. I can remember once upon a time arriving at my in-law’s house at 5:30 a.m. and carrying our infant daughter to the front door where Grandma Natalie excitedly pulled her from my arms and left me standing out in the cold. This continued several more years even though the logistics of leaving work early, wrapping presents, packing bags and hitting the road on Christmas Eve became an exhausting, dreaded, stress-filled ordeal. Little spats arose as we fell helplessly behind a self-imposed departure schedule and as well-intentioned telephone calls from both households tracked our estimated times of arrival. Santa Claus always knew where our little girl would be sleeping during his flyovers. And, somehow we kept all the balls in the air without losing our balance with logistical skill. But, truthfully I began to hate – I know that is a strong word – Christmas. I felt anguished and even guilty for harboring such an attitude. And then a miracle happened.

During a return trip to Boston from New Jersey, sitting in her car seat, Christina suddenly piped up: “Hey guys, will we ever spend Christmas in our own home?” Talk about ‘out of the mouths of babes’. I felt such a weight instantaneously removed from my shoulders. Like a back-breaking yoke finally loosened. Thereafter we would spend every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at home in the North End and arrange for visits with our families on one of the other of the twelve days of Christmastide. We began to celebrate Little Christmas on the feast of the Epiphany and incorporated the Italian tradition of La Befana leaving a small gift token of our bondedness – maybe a book or CD or trinket. Our tree would remain up until at least January 6. And, bit by bit, our families came to understand and accept our refashioning of the Christmas cycle to fit the pace and temperament of our own family. And, little by little the spirit of Christmas and the New Year crept back into my life.

On Christmas Eve, Copp’s Hill will be steeped in starlit tranquility as the peace of the season settles over former brick tenements and pavement liberated from automobiles well on their way to the suburbs or cape or mountains for gatherings with family and friends. The rest of us will be left alone, but not lonely, when a healing solitude descends upon the neighborhood as we celebrate the mystery within the rare nighttime silence of our urban landscape.

Peace to all as you journey through this season.

(North End resident Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.)

9 Replies to “COPP’S HILL MOMENT: Christmas in the City

  1. There is nothing more sad than a disgarded once Merry Christmas tree…every year I would take great pains and effort to be sure it would never be thirsty to keep it from decay only to toss it out to the elements all naked and unloved after Christmas has passed…this year I decided, I won’t do it…no Christmas tree for me! Tom, I have always enjoyed your stories through the years, you are a great story teller and a good friend. I want to wish You and Yours a very Merry Christmas….Maryann

  2. Thanks, Tom for sharing such an honest reflection to which I fully identify as travels to the Jersey Shore via Newark Airport brought many of the same experiences. I truly enjoy the peace and quiet of staying in the North End for Christmas Eve and lifting our voices in praise at the sacred liturgy at the Paulist Center. Merry Christmas to you, Mary, Christina and all your loved ones. ?

  3. Tom, A beautiful Christmas family story. We saw a Christmas tree discarded on a side street nearby the other day. Now, there’s a story behind that one. Monika joins in all best wishes to you and Mary and Christina.

  4. Always enjoy a “TS” tale. Thanks for bringing a smile to our face- the best type of Christmas greeting! Happy New Year to TS, MM et al!

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