Anne Notations

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The meaning (to me) of Christmas

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him. …
– Francis Thompson

Linus pretty much nailed it in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" when he cut short the round-headed one's Yuletide dithering and took center stage. "Lights, please." Then he recited the gospel of Luke, chapter 2, with its startling observation: "The glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid." Sore afraid. I love the King James Bible's phrasing. Not "terrified" or "scared." Afraid to the point of pain.

What, you may ask, does fear have to do with the joyous festival of Jesus's birth? Maybe this: A door opened upon searing light – the “glorious impossible” we had never thought to see.

Annie Dillard made this point spectacularly in an essay, "God in the Doorway," that can be found in her brilliant little collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982). I can't bear merely to quote from it; you have to read this piece straight through.

This is my Christmas gift to you. May Annie and her publisher forgive me.


God in the Doorway
By Annie Dillard

One cold Christmas Eve I was up unnaturally late because we had all gone out to dinner – my parents, my baby sister, and I. We had come home to a warm living room, and Christmas Eve. Our stockings drooped from the mantel; beside them, a special table bore a bottle of ginger ale and a plate of cookies.

I had taken off my fancy winter coat and was standing on the heat register to bake my shoe soles and warm my bare legs. There was a commotion at the front door; it opened, and cold wind blew around my dress.

Everyone was calling me. "Look who's here! Look who's here!" I looked. It was Santa Claus. Whom I never – ever – wanted to meet. Santa Claus was looming in the doorway and looking around for me. My mother's voice was thrilled: "Look who's here!" I ran upstairs.

Like everyone in his right mind, I feared Santa Claus, thinking he was God. I was still thoughtless and brute, reactive. I knew right from wrong, but had barely tested the possibility of shaping my own behavior, and then only from fear, and not yet from love. Santa Claus was an old man whom you never saw, but who nevertheless saw you; he knew when you'd been bad or good. He knew when you'd been bad or good! And I had been bad.

My mother called and called, enthusiastic, pleading; I wouldn't come down. My father encouraged me; my sister howled. I wouldn't come down, but I could bend over the stairwell and see: Santa Claus stood in the doorway with night over his shoulder, letting in all the cold air of the sky; Santa Claus stood in the doorway monstrous and bright, powerless, ringing a loud bell and repeating Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas. I never came down. I don't know who ate the cookies.

For so many years now I have known that this Santa Claus was actually a rigged-up Miss White, who lived across the street, that I confuse the dramatis personae in my mind, making of Santa Claus, God, and Miss White an awesome, vulnerable trinity. This is really a story about Miss White.

Miss White was old; she lived alone in the big house across the street. She liked having me around; she plied me with cookies, taught me things about the world, and tried to interest me in finger painting, in which she herself took great pleasure. She would set up easels in her kitchen, tack enormous slick soaking papers to their frames, and paint undulating undersea scenes: horizontal smears of color sparked by occasional vertical streaks which were understood to be fixed kelp. I liked her. She meant no harm on earth, and yet half a year after her failed visit as Santa Claus, I ran from her again.

The day, a day of the following summer, Miss White and I knelt in her yard while she showed me a magnifying glass. It was a large, strong hand lens. She lifted my hand and, holding it very still, focused a dab of sunshine on my palm. The glowing crescent wobbled, spread, and finally contracted to a point. It burned; I was burned; I ripped my hand away and ran home crying. Miss White called after me, sorry, explaining, but I didn't look back.

Even now I wonder: if I meet God, will he take and hold my bare hand in his, and focus his eye on my palm, and kindle that spot and let me burn?

But no. It is I who misunderstood everything and let everybody down. Miss White, God, I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.


  • Thank you for this beautiful post and all you cite. I was struck by the early part of it - the Peanuts allusion and the poem. You just introduced me to an amazing poet and poem.

    By Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann, at Sun Dec 20, 06:24:00 PM EST  

  • Very enjoyable, Anne.
    I do enjoy reading your blog.

    By Blogger r_weeks, at Wed Dec 23, 07:27:00 AM EST  

  • Beautiful, Anne! Isn't it funny how we fear the positive as much as the negative? Fear of love seems untenable, yet it is pervasive. What strange creatures we are. Opening one's heart is one of the hardest things one can do, but I feel compelled to work at it every day. It's definitely a "one step forward/slide back down the mountain" proposition.

    By Anonymous Dawn, at Thu Dec 23, 12:02:00 PM EST  

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