Even as I write this, I sense the double meaning–white as in snow-covered, aka, Minnesota Northland Christmases, but also “white” as in belonging to those with white skin. When I was growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, we “whities” were surrounded by people with brown skin, who celebrated Christmas much as I thought we did. They shopped with us at the dime stores, though not yet sitting at lunch counters. When I occasionally passed their homes, especially those on the barrier islands south of Charleston, the decorations shouted “Christmas”–strings of red bells, twinkling colored lights, maybe even a Rudolph and a sleigh cavorting across a roof top. Christmases were not white at all–but often brilliantly blue and green, with palm fronds clacking, and street-corner Santas looking hot in their red flannel as they rang their bells.
We kids in the Old Citadel decorated our family trees with homemade ornaments cut from colored paper. My parents hung glass dew-drops and balls up high. Lower we placed funny pipe cleaner guys in striped trousers and black vests along with our homemade angels, purple and pink. Who knew where those funny guys in striped pants had come from. Maybe from our parents’ Christmases before my sister and I were born. They lived in Pittsburgh for a decade through the Depression and parts of World War II before having children. Sometimes my mother talked nostalgically about big iced cakes from “Swan’s” which she picked up after work for Christmas eve. (I have no idea if that was really the name of the store, though something like it rings a bell.)
I have lived in Minnesota longer than anywhere else and Christmases are often white, white and cold. If we’re lucky, a brilliant blue sky compensates for unbearable windchill. Again I muse about the line “May all your Christmases be white,” and remember that the day before Christmas this year, my husband and I drove west from our Saint Paul neighborhood, across the still unfrozen Mississippi. Another old song popped into mind: “Over the river and through the woods/ To Grandfather’s house we go.” We certainly wouldn’t have wanted to try driving a sleigh over the river this Christmas eve. Not until a few days later did snow and piercing cold arrive. Even now, I bet the Mississippi is not frozen solid.
Still there are these expectations. As Fran and I commented, driving through a still brown urban landscape to Minneapolis and the first of our family Christmas celebrations, so many Christmas songs assume the land will be covered with snow–“that stings the toes and bites the nose as over the ground we go.” This is a Nordic assumption, probably from Germany and Britain, I think. “Good king Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen, When the snow lay round about,/ deep and crisp and even.” Suddenly, my mind springs back to an encounter I had with my daughter years ago in the huge Munich museum called the Alta Pinakothek.
We were standing before a painting by Albrecht Durer, the great early Renaissance German painter. We’re looking at the subject of the painting, a firm-cheeked handsome man named Oswald Krel (1499). He looks thoroughly Renaissance, meaning clear-eyed, in command of his existence, and wearing a fur-trimmed collar. Yet in panels beside him, hairy men brandish clubs and firebrands, attacking travelers on snowy forest roads. “How creepy,” I say to her. And she, with her superior knowledge of German language and culture, labels them “Krampus, Austrian ghost walkers who around St. Nicholas eve, Dec 6th, attack villagers in the fields.”
As I will write in the book I’m finally finishing called “The Shared Leg or Falling for Botticelli,” these ghost walkers and their cruel, unprovoked attacks reminded me of something I hadn’t thought of for a very long time. My mother, who grew up in eastern North Dakota, with a German father and Swedish mother, used to tell us that she and her brother and sisters almost always received a piece of coal in their Christmas stockings. When I thought of those killjoy Krampus, I thought of the coal in her stocking. What was it supposed to mean?
A reminder of their inherently “fallen-from-grace” devilishness? Or that “Papa” was always on the lookout for wrong-doers? Or that all of us need the guidance of a loving saint across the winter wastes at Christmas time? The carol about Good King Wencaslas tells us exactly that. Like the King’s page, we need to step behind someone who has “dinted” the snow, and when we encounter a poor man, we need to call out “Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither.” Because in the bitterest weather of the year, the message of Christmas is…
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
That still leaves the uncertain meaning of coal in one’s stocking, and attacks by Krampus in snowy fields. Deep in the Nordic psyche, I think, lies a delight in shocking expectations, in shocking the innocent on a forest path. Like a snowstorm that roars in out of the west, making it impossible to push open the front door for days. I’m not wishing such a development on any of us. I’m just remembering…
May all your Christmases be white!