ON THE AVENUES: Truth, lies, music, and a trick of the Christmas tale (2016).
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
This column contains bits and pieces published previously in varying forms at various places. Each year, it functions as the blog’s unified, omnibus Christmas utterance — or, if you will, a primal scream.
It happens each holiday season.
During an otherwise random conversation about bridge tolls, lumps of coal, the uncanny ability of Jeff Gahan to be wrong even when he’s right, or nonsensical Trumpian apologetics, eventually someone looks at me with palpable dismay.
“Roger, you’re such a Grinch.”
My response never varies.
“Thank you very much.”
The roots of my longstanding Yuletide antipathy might be traced to Freudian conceits, Jungian counter-thrusts, references to childhood toilet training habits or the sheer pervasiveness of psychological repression stemming from residency in a nakedly fascistic state like Indiana, but in truth, it’s far simpler.
It goes back to that original, defining moment in every American boy’s life – not when it becomes clear that he’ll die some day without the saving grace of being able to hit a curveball, but the sudden, gut-wrenching discovery that in spite of the shameless propaganda fed to us by adults, who’d assured us that excruciating behavioral self-regulation would be rewarded by a gaudily costumed fat man parking his tricked-out sleigh on the roof and descending the chimney, that nope, in the end, it was nothing more than a shameless ruse.
Then it hits you: Santa Claus doesn’t really exist.
Our house didn’t even have a chimney, and you’d think this would have made me suspicious, but I was oblivious. When the shameful day of infamy arrived and my chum chided me — “c’mon, don’t tell me you still believe in Santa?” — I did much more than merely shake Santa’s grip, cold turkey, right there on the spot.
I irrevocably disavowed the whole contrived Christmas spectacle, because even at such a tender age, I could see the dominoes falling as the previously sacrosanct Santa myth vaporized in plain sight, because if the grownups could mislead us about Santa, where would it end?
They might also be fibbing about those other edicts demanding compliance and conformity, from the civic foundational edifices of religion, patriotism and obedience, to the commandment forbidding jaywalking.
The worst of it was sitting alone in my room, cross-legged on the cold tile floor, and experiencing the devastating frustration of knowing that I was far too young to properly drink my way through the rampant disappointment.
Santa’s unused cookies and milk were the best I could do, and then, as now, I udderly DETEST milk.
In 1991, at the age of 31, I spent Christmas in the city of Kosice — today located in sovereign Slovakia, which then comprised the easternmost lands of Czechoslovakia. It was the mid-point of a six-month stint teaching conversational English to doctors and nurses at the city’s main hospital, an experience made possible by the Cold War’s end.
|In 2016, Santa will bring the gadget to digitalize those Kosice slides?|
Upon returning stateside in 1992, there was a brief break, and then I went back into the food and drink business, where I’ve been, left, and remain, ever since (until someone pays me to leave, that is).
Remind me to check my stocking for a money order, will you?
Grinch or not, the approach of the holiday season in Kosice proved fascinating. With no Thanksgiving to serve as mile marker, few signs were evident that that Christmas was coming until the eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 6), when children scrubbed and polished their shoes, placing them on windowsills to be filled with candy and chocolate. Presumably, bad children would receive a bundle of twigs bound together for swatting their butts … as it should be.
In Communist times, the regime attempted to persuade the populace that a chap named Grandfather Frost brought these goodies, presumably on behalf of the benevolent leadership. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, back came Christmas trees and caroling in the streets, and while these were familiar to me, decorations didn’t even begin to appear until the first part of December. I remarked to my uncomprehending students that they should contrive a holiday like Halloween to mark the true beginning of the shopping season.
Shopping season? It was quite ephemeral. Surely it’s different in 2016, but in 1991, only a few understated window displays were to be seen in shops, and high pressure, guilt-laced sales tactics were nowhere to be found.
However, one necessary seasonal item became ubiquitous during the week preceding Christmas. This was carp, raised and fattened in farm ponds, not river bottoms, and brought to market in street-side barrels and oversized plastic tubs. Some buyers brought their own buckets to take the living fish home for a few days of further bathtub cleansing. Others had their purchase killed, weighed and wrapped on the spot.
Carp is the traditional Slovak meal for Christmas, accompanied by an array of special side dishes, and perhaps some steaming sauerkraut soup. There always was plenty of bottled lager, but the Christmas Eve toast in 1991 was chased with homemade peach brandy from a student’s village nearby: “To peace, health and a good harvest.”
Two or three lifetimes later, there was a second chance to be in Europe for Christmas. I hope it doesn’t prove to be the last.
In 2009, we stayed in a rental apartment in Bamberg, Germany, a mere stone’s throw from the Fässla and Spezial breweries. With the requisite open-air Christmas market, mulled wine and naturalistic decorations, Franconia’s version of the Yuletide season was obvious without being garish. The Grinch in me was shaken, if as yet unbowed.
On Christmas morning, we strolled through the Altstadt’s deserted streets and climbed Altenburg hill to the medieval castle, affording a sweeping view of the valley and Bamberg’s dizzying number of church spires. Most businesses were closed, but pleasingly, some food and drink purveyors were open in a city blessedly free of the archaic blue laws still existing in purportedly secular Indiana, which until 2015 prevented alcohol from being served on Dec. 25 – a purely Christian holiday.
Clouds rolled overhead, and it was a bracing and exhilarating walk. Descending the commanding heights back to our riverside starting point, we passed the city museum in the old town hall astride the Regnitz and saw that the doors were open. Inside was a fine collection of 18th century Porcelain from Meissen, and one of 38 nativity scenes on display in and around Bamberg during the holiday season.
A reconnaissance of Ludwigstrasse’s expanse revealed that Bamberg’s Chinese restaurant owners are not as ambitious as metro Louisville’s, with all three closed for the day. However, at the train station, the bakery and small grocery both were open, and I bought a handful of half-liter Schlenkerla Märzen lagers to accompany the evening’s home cooked vegetable soup.
With no close friends in Bamberg, we kept ourselves company, having procured groceries and libations in advance. With bottles of Fässla in support, Christmas evening selections on the telly revealed a diverse Euro holiday tableau.
There was a Basque celebration from Bilbao, with crazy costumes, quasi-operatic tunes and the inexplicable, pre-historic language spoken by the world’s first cod fishermen. The whole time, I kept expecting a Muse concert to break out.
We watched a performance in Salzburg of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; snippets of a schlocky Bavarian idyll, rather like the Osmonds meeting Lawrence Welk, but in lederhösen and dirndls; and then a Berlin performance by Max Raab and the Hotel Palast Orchestra, a stagy society presence reminiscent of Joel Grey’s role in “Cabaret.”
Finally came “City Lights,” the not-so-silent masterpiece by Charlie Chaplin, without dialogue but featuring a musical soundtrack as a concession to new 1931 technology. The Little Tramp falls for a blind flower girl … and meets a drunken millionaire along the way.
On the 26th, Café Abseits beckoned again, with a fine draft list of regional, seasonal Bockbier. Later, at Spezial, delightful Ochsenbrust in horseradish sauce with a dumpling was accompanied by several of the brewpub’s quintessential smoked lagers.
I don’t “do” Christmas.
On occasion, exceptions are allowed.
Through it all, music soothes the heretical breast, just so long as it isn’t the pervasive and disgusting same-old-suspect soundtrack heard playing in every public place, beginning the day after Harvest Homecoming and lasting through January.
Each year I make a special effort to listen to a recording of “Ring Christmas Bells.” As always, it reminds me of our high school choral director, Michael Neely, who warned us that later in our lives, we’d come to regret taking our singing voices for granted. We scoffed, and of course, he was absolutely right.
(Mick left us a few weeks back. He really did bring joy to our world).
Three decades of beer and tobacco have rendered my singing voice moot, and now I’m little more than an interpreter of songs, with the atonal wailings occurring well out of human earshot. Our three cats suffer the most.
Imperfect pitch aside, the only Christmas songs I can even tolerate are the ones we sang in choir, and the only other one I enjoy is “Fairytale Of New York” by The Pogues, with a guest appearance by the late, lovely Kirsty McColl.
I don’t “do” Christmas … but in spite of myself, the holiday occasionally provides a few pleasant memories — even if, quoting Chico Marx, some things never change, and “There ain’t no sanity claus.”
Especially in New Gahania.
November 17 and 24: (BYE WEEKS, literally and figuratively)