For several years when I was about middle-school age, my family would go at Christmastime to a local church that put on an elaborately staged production of A Christmas Carol.
This production not only adapted the story into a musical, but also turned it into a musical with an explicitly evangelical Christian theme. The conceit was that Scrooge, rather than seeing the error of his miserly ways after his three ghostly visitations, instead accepts Jesus into his heart as his Lord and Savior and wakes up on December 25 as a born-again Christian.
Even today, as a precept-following Buddhist, I have to admit that, for its purpose and audience, it’s a pretty brilliant take on the material.
My father, raised Catholic by first-generation Polish parents, had at some point started attending the evangelical Christian church my mother had long belonged to. (Though I’m not sure where and how my mother got there since my maternal grandparents weren’t terribly religious.) My mother died in 1987, and I have to believe that that event wove us even more firmly into the community of that church, especially given how much they did for us during the year or two that she was dying of cancer.
My father’s brother and sister and their children—my cousins—all remained more or less devout Catholics, so my siblings and I were always slight outcasts among our clan. We didn’t get First Communion parties and were exempt from Midnight Masses. However, we never had that many friends our own age at my dad’s church, despite multiple years of attending Vacation Bible School for a week during the summers and the fits and starts of attendance at early morning Sunday school when my father, a gigging musician who often played late on Saturday nights, could get us all up early enough to ferry us there on time. The church was truly most important for my dad as a social group and support network. There was even a woman there, another single parent, whom he sort of dated for a while. Though he never defined their relationship as such to us, I hated her viciously anyway.
In subsequent years, he became more and more involved with the worship music at Sunday services, playing keyboards in the praise band as the music choices began to drift away from more traditional hymns played on piano and organ toward the kind of light pop that called for more elaborate instrumentation. He had consummately good taste and a short-fuse temper, which was sort of a hilariously bad combination in that context. Though never the actual worship leader, he essentially ran their Wednesday night rehearsals, putting the band through its paces and cursing them out when someone was playing lazily or sloppily, the way he would with any other musician in a jazz band or musical theater orchestra. As I grew older, this behavior embarrassed me terribly on his behalf, but his fellow musicians, aside from the occasional frustrated remark or rueful shake of the head, always insisted that they appreciated his perfectionism and were grateful for his attempts to turn them into better players, so that they could then, in turn, give greater glory to God.
So, the fact that we made trips to see this Christian version of A Christmas Carol for so many years in a row really meant something—it meant that it was really, really well done. My father was also deeply sentimental and liked to do the same rituals over and over, year after year, so it was a given at that time in our lives that we would all attend this show as part of our holiday traditions.
The church that put on the show was maybe 25 minutes away from where we lived, in a town we didn’t have much reason to go to otherwise, so even though the drive wasn’t that long, there was always a sense of occasion to our yearly pilgrimage there.
In the early ’90s, my dad had officially given up the huge, boxy full-size van that he’d used for years to cart musical gear to and from gigs, in favor of a more manageable and comfortable minivan with sufficient seating for me and my brother and sister. Though I usually rode in the front seat if it was just the four of us traveling together, I’d have to cede the place if there was another adult, like one of my three living grandparents, coming along with us. Since my dad loved introducing people to this version of A Christmas Carol and thus we often were driving new attendees to the show, my memories of driving to and from this church are predominantly of my sitting in the inky darkness in the back of the minivan, bundled into my winter coat but still shivering against the frigid air. Christmas music would be playing softly on the stereo and whatever conversation might be occurring would feel light years away from my little nest. I would stare out the window at the passing lights of streets I only dimly recognized and would occasionally smell the heavenly scent of greasy fast food billowing on the cold night air.
These trips in the van always felt removed from regular life, but also curiously suspended, coherent, since they were, for a time, a yearly constant, unique unto themselves. And even though there is now scant evidence available (that I can find online, at least) that this show ever existed, and even though my own Dickensian Christmastime traditions favor Great Expectations over A Christmas Carol (that opening scene of Pip in the graveyard on Christmas Eve is as indelibly a part of me as if it had been a real life event), I find myself referring back to this cluster of memories more than I might expect. Not out of nostalgia, really; more like opening the oven door periodically to see if the muffins are done baking yet. I keep waiting for this strange combination of sense memories to cohere into something solid, something that will sustain and nourish me.
Cold air. Nighttime drives. Holiday anticipation. A warm theater. A lovingly produced performance. My father’s standards of excellence. A spiritual lens on a familiar story. Seasonal predictability. Cherished art to share with family and friends.
Is it selfish to want to form a more definite story out of these events and impressions? Is there something a little pushy about wanting to force them into some kind of digestible narrative or anecdote?
Maybe it’s actually OK that these memories don’t quite cohere. Maybe they’re best left as clusters, as constellations, the space between them leaving room for me to trace a line that creates a shape that exists only in my mind’s eye. Maybe this vague shape suggests, instead of a specific lesson, a useful mythology.