‘. . . no powder blue Christmas trees hung with electric candles . . .’

creativegardens056Egad! Stop with the Christmas stuff already! Bah, humbug, and all of that.

The most important reality of Christmas is whether you and I spend more money this year than we did last. Not me! I’m about to retire, and any lavishness I have to offer is going directly into my Roth IRA.

The first time I heard Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Christ climbed down from His bare Tree this year” it was as a dramatic reading by Professor Rolf Knierim in the Christmas service at [what was then called] the School of Theology at Claremont [California]. Hardly the sort of thing one would expect an Old Testament scholar of the school of Gerhard von Rad to read in church. [See full text below that of the carol.]

Here I am, caught up in something like “the Christmas spirit.” Where in blazes is that coming from? No powder blue Christmas trees. My family can relate to that. One year [probably about 1957] either because we were in worse financial straits than we kids knew or because Mom read about it in some magazine, our Christmas tree was a branch of a cottonwood tree that had been chopped down in our front yard. Mom painted the branch pink—pink!—and that was our tree. Powder blue, powder pink, what’s the difference?

That tree was actually great fun as I recall. We decorated it with the same box of ornaments we always used and were quite proud of our unique tree. But that tree became, for me, emblematic of my [almost] disgust [at least usually intense dislike] of Christmas. Christmas is an orgy of unfulfilled expectations. That pink tree was no more or less able to satisfy my desires for Christmas splendor than the 12-foot miraculous wonders with their 3,000 ornaments that my late partner put up every year I lived with him, 1994-2003.

I’m not saying anything everyone hasn’t heard a million times. We know it. Why don’t we do something about it?

My junior year in college, the men’s music fraternity and the women’s music sorority gave a Christmas concert together. I was about the only “real” music major in the bunch. That is, the only Bachelor of Music candidate rather that Bachelor of Arts in Music or Music Education or some such. I was in the group because I was in love with the president [and he knew it, but was straight—I later played the organ for his wedding]. Since I had actually taken the one choral music conducting course at the college, I was elected to direct a chorus of the members.

Somehow I knew about the Oxford Book of Carols. I chose three or four of those wonderful [mostly unknown] carols, and we learned them. Our performance was more than outstanding [if you don’t mind my saying so]. Of course, the chorus was a bunch of music majors of one sort or another. But I conducted with skill and subtlety. One knows when one does such a performance—and I’m not bragging, simply stating a fact.tree_with_gifts_019155_

My opinion of my conducting was affirmed by my favorite professor who told me I should give up my dream of organ performance, change my major to choral conducting (the university would have made arrangements for me to study elsewhere for credit at our school), and get on with my real calling. We know how far that went. So bull-headed I couldn’t even take the advice of musicians who saw my real forte.

Does that sound egotistical in the extreme? Perhaps, but that idea was presented to me several times after that. The most credible was when two violinists, members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and ringers in the orchestra for a performance of the Bach Cantata “Deck thyself, My Soul, with Gladness” I was conducting at that same School of Theology in Claremont where Professor Knierim taught, asked me why I was wasting my time working on an MA in composition instead of in conducting.

I know, I know, this is self-congratulation on the highest level.

However, everyone I know has a secret unfulfilled ambition. Well, perhaps not everyone. I know many brilliantly successful musicians who can’t imagine doing anything other than what they are doing. But most of us lead lives of quiet desperation. Didn’t Henry David Thoreau say that? The end of his statement is usually ignored. “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Go to the grave with the song still in us.

Will I go to the grave with the [real] song still in me, still unsung? Is that what the desperate frenzy of oh-so-generous capitalism means at Christmas? Everyone is afraid of going to the grave with the song still in us, and if we spend enough money, if we put up more “rootless Christmas trees hung with candy canes and breakable stars,” if only we buy more “sacks of Humble Gifts from Saks Fifth Avenue for everybody’s imagined Christ child,” our songless deaths will be if not eradicated, at least postponed.

I have no answers. I know spending more money is not an answer to me for anything. I know powder blue or powder pink or12-foot spectacularly gorgeous creations of [rootless] trees can do nothing to calm the quiet desperation I feel. Even brilliant success as organist choral director will not, would not, could not, for sure be the vehicle for at the last singing the song that is in me.

So the best thing to do is to revert, to acquiesce to something I once knew that brought me both pleasure and fulfillment, and stop spending money trying to put Christ back atop his bare tree. Something like one of those carols I directed in 1965.

“The Lord at First Did Adam Make”, No.1, Oxford Book of Carols, 1928.

The Lord at first did Adam make
    Out of the dust and clay,
And in his nostrils breathed life,
    E’en as the Scriptures say.
And then in Eden’s Paradise
    He placed him to dwell,
That he within it should remain
    To dress and keep it well.
Now let good Christians all begin
An holy life to live,
And to rejoice and merry be,
For this is Christmas Eve.

And then within the garden he
    Commanded was to stay,
And unto him in commandment
    These words the Lord did say:
The fruit which in the garden grows
    To thee shall be for meet,
Except the tree in the midst thereof,
    Of which thou shalt not east.

And now the tide is nigh at hand,
    Int’ which our Saviour came
Let us rejoice, and merry be,
    In keeping of the same.
Let’s feed the poor and hungry souls,
    And such as do it crave;
Then when we die, in Heaven sure
    Our reward we shall have. Chorus.

[The full text of the carol is here.]
“Christ Climbed Down”
By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

CHRIST climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody’s imagined Christ child
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carolers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
ice skated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings
—(From the sixth printing of the author’s volume of verse, A Coney Island of the Mind. New York: New Directions, 1958.)

One Response to ‘. . . no powder blue Christmas trees hung with electric candles . . .’

  1. bobritzema says:

    So, is conducting your secret unfulfilled ambition? Do you still have it as an ambition? I did have some ambitions that were never fulfilled and never will be; I think I pretty well let go of the ambitions, though I still think occasionally of the enhancement of self that achieving them would have brought. The linking of those ambitions to my sense of self suggests that it wasn’t really about the ambitions in the first place.

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