Tonight is the opening performance of A Christmas Carol at my college. My two sons have roles; one plays Tiny Tim, and the other, Ignorance. I have a role too: to drive them to and from, and to sit at every rehearsal and watch and listen, and to help them get dressed and made up and tell them to be quiet a lot. It’s a strange position, to see all the behind-the-scenes coming together of a show and to be only a passive observer. As it’s taken shape, they’ve moved from piecemeal scenes with characters missing each night to full dress rehearsal. Though it’s been tiring, I’ve found myself more fully in the spirit of Christmas than I’ve been in many years. Last night, sitting in the dark theater, I listened to the madrigals singing their carols, and the lyrics, profoundly and unambiguously religious, prodded into my brain and began to stir around a heap of ashy coals. Underneath, what breathed into life was the glowing red memory of sitting in the dim balcony at Sacred Heart Church when I was a child, among the hundreds of other Catholics rustling and pressing against each other, and singing. In that arch ceilinged space, and all the saints arrayed around, and the ladder-ribbed Christ suspended above us on the cross, I had known very early that I was faithless, and yet I loved that place, and the poetry of it. When I was old enough, I became an altar server, knotting my rope belt around my robe and lighting the candles, inclining my head toward the priest’s to pour water over his hands as he murmured, to me alone, it seemed, “Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me of my sins.”
I no longer go to church, but I sometimes miss the sacramental hush, and the ritual, the rising and kneeling, and the echoing chant. But I found myself listening to those same hymns of Christmas in this different place, under a plaque of the comedy and tragedy masks and listening to the Dickensian syntax of the band of players. And though the songs are religious, the play is not really so. The admonishment to “keep Christmas in one’s heart” is given to mean kindness to one’s fellow man, and charity, and a care for the common welfare. Scrooge’s nephew says Christmas is “…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” The heavy punishment for failure to see that is to be fettered as the ghost of Marley.
That’s all I look for Christmas to be. I’ve been avoiding the round-the-clock radio of more secular Christmas songs–Jingle Bells, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, and that–and tried to hold in my head the sound of pure human voices raised in darkness. I hear so many stressed out laments over Christmas, and over the dichotomy of choosing either the veneration of a Savior, or the golden calf of retail. This theater is my third way. Sitting in the seats among the waiting actors, watching Act I rehearse, the bewreathed Ghost of Christmas Present is tapping time behind me, Tiny Tim spinning his crutch beside me, and the student actors with their glowing cell phone screens are scattered here and there in the dark. I listen, and cannot wait to see it all at once, with a full audience. For despite having heard these lines over and over, it’s never quite the same as when the play goes off for real. The audience, after all, is transformed by the players, and the players by the audience, and we are, all of us, fellow passengers.