Friday, March 23 , 2018, 11:58 am | Fair 59º


Jamie Stiehm: Christmas at Speed of Light — and Dark

So I was not in the Christmas spirit, even with carols pealing from the Washington National Cathedral. I live within the bells’ sound, but somehow my secular Protestant heart wasn’t moved.

Washington was unseasonably warm. Maybe that’s why it didn’t feel a lot like Christmas.

Going to visit family in Santa Monica, there was zero climate change from the East to West Coast. Strange stuff. Ho hum, I felt about the holidays, as I waited by the crowded baggage carousel.

At home, I was not alone. Nobody in the house was up to speed on buying presents or sending cards.

We set up a Christmas card operation on the dining room table in addressing envelopes outgoing to Wisconsin, Texas, New York. Especially Wisconsin, where my parents come from. Hopefully, they would have snow for a white Christmas.

With every Christmas card I wrote, it felt like there were less to send and fewer received. My parents confirmed that death had taken a toll among their friends; they have reached that age.

I realized several friends, between 45 and 55, have lost a parent lately, two to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s relentless, cutting a swath closer to home.

A Baltimore friend said her family was not giving its 48th annual Christmas Eve party, with gingerbread ornaments, because her mother’s mental state would have been too “bewildered.”​ Sally Michel was a leading civic figure who befriended me when I was a rookie reporter.

And there were farewells from other maladies. Sitting down at the table, I reckoned with the loss of a magnificent editor in June, John Carroll, who hired me at the Baltimore Sun years ago. How kind he was when I once took ill, inviting me to go sailing with him and his wife, Lee, to get some fresh air in recovery.

You remember that “kind” of thing even more than the many Pulitzers he won as the leading newspaper editor of his generation. Just 73, as handsome as could be. Writing to Lee, I faced that John was gone.

Invented in London, Christmas cards are a social mechanism to take stock and check in with each other, in a larger community over a vast piece of land, America.

If you have a new baby, a new house or a wedding to spread joy to the world, then have at it with a picture. Otherwise, skip the detailed mass-produced month-by-month family narrative that comes across as, well, a bit smug.

We got our share of these incoming, as we were getting ready to ship out our 60 or 70 — (it used to be 100.) We don’t suffer them gladly. My father is one of the brave few men to write a personal line on every card.

Going to a performance of Handel’s Messiah changed us, nine of us. No more weary, dreary sentiments for an evening or two at least.

To hear the Los Angeles Master Chorale nail every note under exuberant conductor Grant Gershon was tremendous. The passages range from elegiac to majestic within moments, fit for a king. They reason why all rise for the “Hallelujah Chorus” is because King George II did just that in 1743 — and so everyone rose.

Then the trumpet sounded in a duet with the baritone so that the post-modern hall, designed by Frank Gehry, seemed to float. My dad’s face alone told the story. That’s his high note, literally.

Soon we got “​dready” for the holiday fest we always give. In family slang, that means “dreading getting ready.”

Out came the punch bowl for the front hall, and we put out quite a spread on the dining room table. I lit the Christmas tree lights and the candles. My mother arranged her signature Rice Krispies Treats. Yeah, it’s retro.

Soon a crush of 60 to 70 guests filled the rooms like a crazy quilt. Some have known me all my life. A college friend and two high school friends came.

Neighbors showed, including a president’s daughter. My sister’s pals came. The children’s room rocked with marbles and screams of laughter.

Having all generations under the roof made me merry.

“Are we in the holiday spirit now?” I asked my dad.

Said he: “Ho ho ho.”

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. The opinions expressed are her own.

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