A QUAKER CHILD WISHES THERE WERE LIGHTS ON HER HOUSE, TOO
Christmas was good in our family. I even managed to behave well, once putting on a dress I loathed (and my mother adored) on Christmas morning. It was 'darling'--hand smocked, sash, full skirt--and I was 9 or 10 and already had a crush on Paul McCartney's edible-looking eyes. I wanted white go-go boots (never did get a pair) and short skirts with wide plastic belts.
But that year, for my mother's sake, I wore a symbol of her own privileged childhood, the end of which she still mourns.
We were encouraged to be disdainful of people who had a) artificial Christmas trees, especially the "dreadful" metallic ones b) lots of colored lights on their houses (my mother has since recalibrated her sense of what "lots of" lights actually means). We had two red celluloid wreaths with single red bulbs, which shone pluckily in the dining room windows. I loved them. We had a plastic Santa who lit up from a bulb in his belly and held a “Merry Christmas!” sign. My English grandmother, who met my mother's American father during World War One when they were both doing relief work in Europe with the Quakers, had been a truth-teller who had deprived my mother of belief in Father Christmas. Our visits from Santa were one correction my mother made.
And at Christmastime, we had Darkness. I remember a Sunday night when my father and brother had gone off to Young Friends, the Quaker equivalent of a church youth group. I might have been twelve. I lay in the living room on my stomach next to the tree, which was decorated with ornaments from my mother's childhood, above all my favorite glass icicles, and the large bulbs that were the only Christmas lights available then. My mother, a rare person who actually doesn't like music, had put on a record of the French carols she favored. We had a little portable record player that must have sounded sad, but it was what we knew. Perhaps the day had still been light outside when the music started, but she didn't turn on the lights. The tree smelled lovely. Its lights made me think of what magic might do to snow.
The rest of the room, the rest of the world, was Dark. The record ended, and I thought of another carol: In those dark streets shineth the everlasting light. I lay on my stomach with my mother close by, patient in the dark, and we didn't talk. In my mind I saw a town, only vaguely, because no houses were lit. But there was something onyx in that night. Something hidden. There were spears of light along dark streets, faint to the eye, but permanent: Waiting. Powerful.