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a different christmas

January 2, 2011

Capitol Records Christmas Tree, originally uploaded by bkh5858.

December 24, 2010, somewhere around 10:30 p.m. I’m shrugging off my jacket at an Episcopalian church in Koreatown. I’m also breathing a private sigh of relief that for the next two hours, all I have to do is sit here quietly.

This church — I hate to admit it — is perfection. It’s a miniature Gothic cathedral, the pipe organ gleaming, the altar nearly invisible under rows of tightly packed poinsettias. There’s a Christmas wreath at the top of every arch along the nave. Beyond the church gates, the neighborhood is seedy and neon-streaked, but inside is an oasis of candlelight.

It’s unusual that my Catholic family has ventured out its chosen denomination (and, nearly as striking, out of the Valley) for Christmas Eve mass. But here we are. Despite the change in venue, it smells exactly like this night has always smelled for as long as I can remember, a combination of incense and wax and evergreen.

I protested about coming here. A lot. There is a different church where we’ve been attending midnight mass for the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, and I was insisting that it was the only place we could possibly go. Now, I am a lapsed Catholic if ever there was one, and most days of the year I am taken to that church only under duress. But at 10:30 on Christmas Eve, it’s where I want to be. Never mind that the priest sounds like Boris Karloff. Or that the lecters all have strange ideas about where you should pause for effect when reading aloud. Or that the hired musicians are united only in their shared disdain for a common tempo. Or that — for reasons never explained — the crèche is always illuminated by a black light, the baby Jesus bathed in a sickly purple glow. The consistent weirdness is part and parcel to why it’s so comforting.

I was feeling particularly in need of some traditional balm this year, since December 2010 has been one of the worst months in recent memory. I have been in state of panic, varying only in intensity, since the day before Thanksgiving — and I say this as someone who is typically so even-keel that I am occasionally checked for a heartbeat. I’ve been bellowing at Christmas songs on the radio (Really, how many times can you play Baby, It’s Cold Outside in a single day??) and forgetting to buy gifts. I have let my work life interfere with my every-other-kind-of-life, and have ended up in a physical and emotional knot, making a variety of poor decisions as 2010 comes crashing to a close.

So I was sulky before we even got in the car. But the drive started to work on me. It’s difficult to be out of sorts when it’s Christmas Eve in Hollywood, everything cold and clear, the 101 like a candy-striped ribbon of red and white. We passed the Capitol Records tower, topped with its hollow Christmas tree; the CNN tower; the new W Hotel; the Knickerbocker (its letters finally restored; for a couple of years, at least, it has proclaimed itself to be the K ICKER OCKER). At the Western Ave. exit, Griffith Observatory glowed like a captive star in the Hollywood Hills. La Descarga’s front curb was clustered with taco trucks and an ominous bouncer or two, making me wonder who on earth was out at La Descarga tonight.  My sister, perpetually hungry, made a plaintive but entertaining case for stopping at one of the 24-hour pho places.  Then it was chilly enough that I felt festive, glad of my boots and my sweaterdress, while we dashed across Wilshire — having parked sketchily on a broken meter, a true Los Angeles yuletide experience.

And now here’s this beautiful little church, straight out of a movie, doing its best to win me over. The Episcopalians, it turns out, believe in delivering the gospel from the middle of the congregation, which strikes me as a nice touch. So the reverend or father or whatever he’s called here stands halfway down the aisle to read us that old, old story — Caesar Augustus, Galilee and Judea and Bethlehem, swaddling clothes, angels and shepherds and the whole lot. The sermon that follows is striking and energetic. The choir is exactly what a choir should be, and they want everyone to sing along. By the time we’ve gotten to This, this is Christ the King, I’m sold, caroling enthusiastically and losing my thin attempts at the high notes in my sister’s strong soprano.

It ends with the most lovely rendition of Silent Night I’ve heard in a long time. They turn off anything electric, leaving us in semi-darkness, and everyone in the church lights a candle, one from another down every pew. Then we sing, softly, all the way to the quiet effulgence of Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is born! And just as the last strains are fading away, a baby at the back of the church begins to cry, as if on cue. Laughter runs through the crowd. Then everyone is hushed again, candlelit, as we file out into the night.

January 2, 2011, somewhere around dinnertime: It’s not until I’m performing the annual transcription of my New Year’s resolutions that I start to draw the parallels. (An inveterate journal-keeper, I am one of those people who doesn’t feel a resolution has really been made until I write it down somewhere.) I have a whole list of things I’d like to do differently in 2011, but I have hesitated over most of the really worthwhile items. I wonder about plausibility, gravitate back towards what’s comfortable. Maybe I just have a more limited imagination than I had always supposed, but this year in particular, the exercise makes me realize that I have a hard time seeing things as they could be rather than as they are.

It’s surprisingly difficult, isn’t it? To visualize a Christmas Eve you haven’t experienced 25 times before, or a life you don’t already lead. But sometimes a change is startling in its perfection. My real resolution, I think, is to remember that.

Happy 2011, everyone. May you do things differently this year.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2011 5:53 pm

    Kate, this has been your most inspired writing! Such stunning details and delicate, beautiful descriptions of things. I feel like I was right there with you at mass (and maybe next year I will be – it sounds kinda fun). Brava!

    • January 4, 2011 5:53 am

      Ah, a post from Kate. Always an exciting thing; and a excellent one at that. The comment from Ava is spot-on, lovely descriptions, indeed. I was telling HG that my blogging has definitely helped my writing and maybe it will you as well.

      I’m excited to read more this year so you keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

      Happy 2011! Let’s see what things this year brings us.

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