But my father was an alchemist—he could turn misery to joy by focusing on what we had rather than what we did not. There were the same tree ornaments we had had back home (some of which survive to this day at my brother’s house), and the same nativity scene; we attended the aforementioned Hollywood Christmas Parade (then called the Santa Claus Lane Parade); the four of us sang carols, and the Midnight Mass at Hollywood’s gorgeous Church of the Blessed Sacrament in those pre-Novus Ordo days was magnificent. The next day, there were presents under the tree and proof that Santa had arrived in the form of soot marks around the fireplace.
A few years later, in response to what I heard kids saying at school, dad and I had The Talk. No, not that one—that was later still. I mean the Santa talk. A little of it was in the “Yes, Virginia” vein. But most of it was about the real St. Nicholas, whose stories and legends turned out to be far more exciting than those of Santa Claus. Dad pointed out that since I was a born New Yorker, St. Nicholas was my special patron, and he gave me an American Heritage article on the topic to read. This was the start of a lifelong love of the saint. His shrine in Bari is one of my favorites, and one of my most prized possessions is a vial of his “manna.”
This was the secret of my father’s oft-displayed talent for celebrating Christmas in the midst of adversity: a) rooting it deeply in religious belief; b) enjoying the secular aspects as tributes the flesh occasionally gives the spirit; and c) making the most of local observances, wherever one might be. Christmastime travel has led me to savor Yuletide experiences as diverse as luminarias in New Mexico; Menudo and Tamales in El Paso; Midnight Mass at St. Louis Cathedral and reveillon at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans; the Christmas Festival of Lights in Natchitoches; and a Colonial Christmas at Williamsburg. If you cannot be with loved ones this year, savor what is around. Enjoy others enjoying themselves.
Now that I no longer travel at Christmastime, I have rediscovered the local celebratory scene. Los Angeles’s ethnic and religious diversity offers a dizzying array of possibilities, from traditional Lessons and Carols at St. Mary of the Angels to meditating on the Twelve Holy Days with the Anthroposophists. On a more secular level, the same area destinations that trap tourists for Halloween do so for Christmas: Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Knott’s Berry Farm. There are incredible light displays and historic home celebrations. But however you manage it, have a Merry Christmas.
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