I search for the stranger side to Christmas in the shadow that an unlit tree casts on the wall.
It’s not hard to find, this less jolly aspect to the season, but you’re so often too busy with the chores of Christmas to realize how odd this season can be. Take this grinning, bearded old man who suddenly shows up in your home, wreathed in tree branches like some kind of forest god, reminding you about this season’s wildly un-Christian past. Take the songs that you’ve heard so many times that you don’t process the creep. Lyrics such as “Do you hear what I hear?” and “A voice as big as the sea,” out of the context of a carol, verge on damn near threatening, to say nothing about that grim later verse of “We Three Kings” — “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying / Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.” And otherwise, the relentless cheerfulness approaches the level you’d expect from a gingerbread house witch trying desperately to convince the remaining forest children that yes, despite all appearances, you should come in.
All that said, I do love Christmas; I just love all aspects of it — the . Maybe I’m always searching for the seamier side of the yuletide because my own Christmases have been so wholesome. Well, except for my mother’s Santa Claus punch bowl.
When she makes the foamy candy cane punch, the red and white make pink, and the scene gets ghastly — ghastly and minty.
But I was thinking about this attraction I have and whether I’d actually ever experienced anything other than perfectly mainstream, normal Christmases. And I basically haven’t, save for one incident — more weird than scary — that actually happened in November.
Hear me out.
In the wake of the Tea Fire, one of the more charmingly named wildfires to require a mass evacuation in my old home of Santa Barbara, I had packed up my car from a friend’s house and began to drive home. Given how long I’d been up and given how draining it was to work in a newsroom during that type of emergency, I actually probably shouldn’t have been driving. However, the road home was short — oddly so, given how we’d been evacuated to save us from a raging, tea-smoked death — and I just wanted to sit among the walls I felt most comfortable. I’d set the radio to some AM station in order to hear news updates. Wanting to avoid any and all news that night, however, I fumbled around for anything that sounded like music. Now keep in mind this was the last day of the fire — Monday, November 17, days before Thanksgiving yet — but somehow I happened a station that was playing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” That was a good enough soundtrack. To this day, I have no idea why that song on November 17, but that’s not even the most unusual part: It began to rain ash on my car. I had to turn on my wipers, the windshield was so white with ashes from what the fire had burned. As I pulled into my parking spot, “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” faded out and into some non-Christmas-related oldie. I don’t remember what. But just for a second, I, a resident of Southern California, experienced a white Christmas — in the wake of a major emergency, in November, only for a few seconds and the snow smelled like barbecue, sure, but I’ll take what I can get.
I suppose I could have been listening to the one radio station that slips the occasional Christmas carol into the mix, just to be fun, just to liven things up, but I feel like it’s more likely that the deejay simply played the wrong song — or at least the right song a few weeks prematurely. But in bed that night, finally, I wondered if anyone besides me had experience that coincidence. Maybe one other, I’ll guess.
And that’s the strangest Christmas story I have.