Monday, December 18, 2006

Please have snow...and mistletoe...

I have always placed considerable importance on traditions around Christmastime. December rolls around, and I instinctively go digging for a recording of the Messiah, stock up on extra butter for cookies every time I go to the store, and get sentimental at the smell of trees wafting over from the parking lot at Cub Foods.

Being overseas has not altered these seasonal compulsions one iota. I realized this suddenly on my way to work one day. Leaving the metro stop, I thought I caught a faint whiff of pine emanating from above. Sure enough, to my surprised delight, there were piles of prickly pleasantness just waiting to be taken home. That is, by anyone willing to drop the necessary euro. Aye, there's the rub!

Given our restrictions of space and budget, we had to content ourselves with something a bit more modest. As I told Karl, this will (Lord willing) be the only year that I will be okay with a tree that he can carry home in one hand. Here you can see him, struggling home with the burdensome mass. Poor guy.

Still, we mounted the final product high and proud on a barstool. Hopefully I didn't give it an inferiority complex with all of my whining. For trimmings, I had some mismatched earrings and postage stamps that seemed to be to scale.

Stop laughing. It's true. Still, it's kinda pretty.

Of course, admiring the tree leads - quite naturally - to eggnog and cookies. Eggnog? In France? Good luck with that one. After wandering the confusing aisles of the supermarket fruitlessly for a spell, we decided to have a go at the old fashioned route and make it ourselves. I can hear a chorus of clucking tongues and disapproving glances from all of the mothers who read this blog regarding the dangers of samonella. Allow me to explain. One of the best things about France is their obsession with the freshness of certain foods. One of these is eggs. Believe it or not, each egg is separately date-stamped. In addition, the fancy, organic type all have the name of the farmer right on the carton. Convenient, if you're dying of the dreaded disease and you want to contact them and let them know how crappy you feel. Unlikely, with the precautions that I've just described. So, the evening of the tree concluded with glasses of frothy wonderfulness and candlelight.

Of course, how can you nosh on goodies like that around the tree and avoid breaking into song? Rather than singing the glories of "O Tannenbaum", however, we joined our voices with those of fellow Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. We've feted His coming together on a number of occasions over the past few weeks. Last weekend, for a change of pace, our church met in the 13th century basement of a former jazz club downtown to sing carols. It was a treat to sing old favorites in French and English, and sometimes German.

Without any further ado, here we came a-caroling. (A few samples that my ingenious husband captured along the way):

Go Tell it on the Mountain

Joy to the World

Finally, we donned every inch of wool, leather, and Gore-tex that we own, and endured a stiff wind outside of the Notre-Dame. (Their Christmas tree was a little but bigger than ours. Really, I'm okay with that. Really...) Our patience "in freezing winter night" was well-rewarded with an exquisite rendition of Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of the Carols and a few other tasty morsels from the Middle Ages. En plus, it didn't cost a mite.

Sing we all Noel!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

It's Christmas time in the city

As the big day approaches, there is a certain glitter and glitz that gathers in corners of this city. It is as if the winter rains we've been having were showering down tinsel and strings of lights overnight instead of angry little drops of rain. Like snowdrifts, the decorations pile up in certain areas...public squares, restaurants, butchers and bakers.

But above all, the glam of the holidays clusters around the Champs-Elysees and the shopping district of the Galeries Lafayette, Europe's largest department store. There's the temple to, sorry....front lobby at left.

And then there are the famous shop windows outside of the Grands Magasins, along the Boulevard Haussmann. Those of you in Minneapolis, take the 8th floor Macy's show, multiply the square footage by about 10, and then squeeze it into hundreds of windows along many long city blocks. There's something for everyone here. The kids bunch around the colorful, animated displays of teddy bears and dollies, on little wooden steps built especially for them to see. The adults -when not busy rounding up the kids - are eying the more "artistic" of displays with that grave astuteness that comes so naturally to Parisians. This year, in awkward contrast to the somewhat saccharine displays for the little ones, the Galeries Lafayette did a series of pale women intertwined in various (some disturbing) ways with nature scenes. Seemed quite odd, till I thought of Edgar Allen Poe and those dark romantics. 'Course, then it seemed even more odd, because what on earth does birth of Christ have to do with a swooning lady in a wood?

No more than the birth of Christ has to do with a Christmas tree, I guess. Perhaps it is a small step from the sentimentalism of festooned pine trees with piles of presents to the somber specters of Gothic literature. One could argue that both indulge in empty emotionalism for its own sake. Either way, all the department stores really care about is whether their displays move me enough to buy that new pair of fine leather boots. (Oh wait...wasn't I supposed to be shopping for other people? Dang, it's hard to stay focused this time of year...)

Indeed, the question renews itself every year. How do we dwell on the true meaning of Christ's first coming in the midst of the hustle and bustle? Many people -Christians or not - find themselves turned off by the sentimental conventions of the holidays. (You can tell, because these are often the ones that are suddenly struck with the inspiration to fly the fam' down to Mexico for a week or two.) But really. Whether you're in snowy Minnesota or sunny Acapulco, the holiday is still so far removed from the original event. From the date we chose to celebrate His birthday, to the host of other traditions that have sprung up - not much can be traced back to that night in Bethlehem, really. Now, I happen to like many of these inherited customs, right down to cookie baking, elaborate gift-wrapping, and tiny white lights. But we let them steal the show. We expect nothing more than trimmings to hold up the glorious weight of eternal truths like "Hope", "Peace", and "Joy".

(Seriously. Read the paper napkins next time you're in Walmart.)

So, does Christmas as we know it "cheat [us] through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ" (Col 2:8)? Or, can these cultural pleasures serve to remind us of Christ's coming? Should Christians make a fuss about Christmas time, or not?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Work and Play

"My goal in life is to unite"

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a class of students the possibility to describe one passion in their life. By all appearances, the prospect of giving a presentation in English in front of others did not enthuse the majority. For example, during a brainstorming session that same class period, I caught one mopey student with no suggestions for a topic, but plenty of ideas on how to re-present his teacher. In caricature format, primarily.

Appearances can be deceiving.

When it came to presentation day, this student had one of the most dynamic and coherent deliveries. "Why read fantasy literature?" Between his dramatic pauses for effect and breathless excitement for the topic, he had us all on the uncomfortable edges of our institutional, molded-plastic seats. As I succinctly told him afterwards, he simply belongs at the front of the classroom, scratching out reading assignments on the blackboard. Which is fortunate for him since he's planning to be a primary school teacher.

"My vocation and my avocation
As my two eyes make one in sight."

Others spoke equally well about topics ranging from sports to music : Why surf? Why dance? Why play piano? Why take photographs? Why salsa? Why scuba-dive? Why ski? Why play tennis? Why create hip-hop? Why draw? The marvelous thing was, for many of them, these pastimes had somehow paved the way for their career.

For a number of them, this was something of an epiphany. One thanked me afterwards, saying, "this has actually helped me make some sense of my life." (Whoa!) She explained that her varied interests, which had always seemed rather erratic to her (boy, can I relate!), suddenly were a meaningful path to her present life. Maybe she can help me out with that, now. (Though something tells me she already has.)

"For only where love and need are one"

Some students gave us a little window into their care for others: Why work with handicapped children? Why visit the elderly? Why work with socially-troubled teens? These people that I have the privilege of teaching every week have rich lives, interwoven often with pouring out their time and energy for others. The common thread here was that a family member, ravaged with disease of mind or body, had propelled them into compassion for similar situations.

"And work is play for mortal stakes"

Oddly enough, the most offbeat offering was also the most emotionally-charged, given by the young man in the class known as the "humorist". With intentional irony, his talk on "why am I the class clown?" was a recounting of the abusive childhood that he was obliged to walk through, and how he used humor to cope. Courageously, the class clown took off his mask for a while, and spoke frankly. Much more impressive than any of his jokes to date, it won him respectful applause from his teacher and closest colleagues.

"Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and for future's sake."

Per usual, my students taught me more than I could ever teach them. As I watched their careful and nervous preparations, their beaming countenances, the light in their eyes when they realized what meaning ran like a thread through their lives, I couldn't help but think of dear old Robert Frost. Whatever we do on earth, at work or at play, may it have an eternal value.

"My goal in life is to unite

my avocation with my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

For only where love and need are one

And work is play for mortal stakes

Is the deed ever really done

For heaven and for future's sake."

~Robert Frost