8 Jan – Another Christmas
Today’s message is a kind of sequel to my 2018 Christmas Day sermon. Apart from Gary Hilton, none of you will remember that, but you might remember me referring to American writer, Truman Capote’s short story – one of the great Christmas short stories – A Christmas Memory.
Capote had a bleak childhood. He was left in the care of his mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. His father was imprisoned for fraud, his parents divorced (this was in the 1920’s) and then fought a bitter custody battle over him, but in A Christmas Memory, he describes possibly the brightest period in his life – preparing for Christmas, age seven, with his best friend, his ‘sixty something’ cousin, Miss Sook Faulk.
“We are each other’s best friend,” he writes. “She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”
In gorgeous glowing detail he speaks about how, in mid-November, they would make fruitcakes; collecting windfall pecans from a local orchard, buying fruit and flour, spices and flavourings, “so many eggs…why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home” with the nickels and dimes they had earned – by any means possible – throughout the year, and then the perilous journey to purchase illegal whisky from Mr Haha Jones’s “’sinful’ (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing café down by the river”.
Capote also describes their hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. How they lugged it all the way home and decorated it with frazzled tinsel gone gold with age, crayon cut-outs of cats and fish and apples and, “a few winged angels devised from saved-up sheets of Hershey-bar tin foil”. So the tree would “blaze ‘like a Baptist window’”!
And then there’s his description of the wait for Christmas morning!
It’s Christmas in beautiful, heart-breakingly beautiful detail. In Miss Sook’s words again, “like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as coloured glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark…”
This is not Truman Capote’s only short story about Christmas, however.
In another short story, One Christmas, he describes the Christmas the year before when his father, who he barely knew, managed to get legal custody of him for the Christmas holiday. He cried when he heard. He didn’t want to go. He had never gone to sleep without Sook combing her fingers through his hair and kissing him goodnight. But, Sook said, “It’s the Lord’s will. And who knows, Buddy, maybe you’ll see snow.”
His father lived in New Orleans, so there was no snow. There was “a loud city tinkling with trolley cars and packed with dangerous foreign-looking people.” There was a strange man, laughing and crying and hugging him, saying, “Don’t you know your daddy?” There was a house of lacquered floors, wicker and velvet, that could have been mistaken for the house of a rich man. And there were half a dozen (“I’d say a full-dozen,” Capote writes) ‘lady friends’.
In this alien world, however, six-year-old Capote fell in love. It was with a model aeroplane in a big toy store window. It was green and had a red propeller and was large enough to sit in and pedal like a bicycle. He prayed Santa would bring him that aeroplane.
Christmas Eve in New Orleans, however, brought further revelations. His father held a party and watching, from the balcony above, it dawned on Capote that his father was much much younger than his guests, or any of the women he was dancing with. Years later his mother threw in his face that this was who his father was – how his father got his money – how falling pregnant to this man – falling pregnant with him – had destroyed her life.
He couldn’t sleep at all that night, and later he heard – not Santa arriving – but his father going up and down the stairs, arranging presents under the tree. It was another illusion shattered. So, when everything had been quiet for some time, he crept down to the parlour, and, with “an anger, a weird malice now spiralling inside”, decided to open all his gifts by himself.
When his father eventually emerged, he said, “Look, Daddy, look what Santa has brought me!”
“Do you like what Santa has brought?” his father asked.
They smiled at each other. There was a tender, lingering moment, Capote writes, “shattered when I said, ‘Yes. But what were you going to give me, Daddy?’” His father’s smile evaporated.
But hours later he was in a taxi headed back to the bus station with that extra gift – a green aeroplane, with a red propeller – the most expensive thing in the toy store, and his father, now heavily inebriated, whispering, “I’m not going to let you go,” and “Kiss me, Please. Please. Kiss me. Tell your daddy that you love him.”
There are Christmases you want to remember, and Christmases you wish you could forget.
Our reading for today is one of those Christmas stories, one of horror and heartbreak. We do not need to delve too deeply into its historical authenticity, there have been too many events just like this in human history. It was the 1920’s when the last officially sanctioned (officially sanctioned!) massacre of Aboriginal people took place. Following the murder of a dingo hunter, Frederick Brooks, Norther Territory police constable William George Murray led raids against the Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye (kay-ditch) people. The official death toll was 31, but analysis of existing documentation and Aboriginal oral histories reveal the fatalities were likely to have been around 200 people.
I am confronted, in this biblical story, by the forewarning angel, the dream, the working out of God’s will in these events, the suggestion that they are a fulfilment of Scripture. Why does this warning, this dream, this guidance not come to all mothers left bitterly weeping for the loss of their children?
Yet what this story tells us is that we cannot shy away from reality. The story reminds us that there are still Herods in our world who in their raging will hurt and destroy the lives of others. That all of us are all capable – in our pride, in our greed, in our self-centredness, in our fearfulness – of hurting and destroying the lives of others.
But – also – that there are still angels.
Towards the end of Capote’s story, One Christmas, his six-year-old-self is back at home in bed with Sook sitting beside him, “rocking,” he writes, “in a rocking chair, a sound as soothing as ocean waves. I had tried to tell her everything that had happened, and had only stopped when I was as hoarse as a howling dog. She stroked her fingers through my hair, and said: “Of course there is a Santa Claus. It’s just that no single somebody could do all he has to do. So the Lord has spread the task among us all…Now go to sleep. Count stars. Think of the quietest thing.” Lully, lullay thou little tiny child…
There are still angels and there are still people who seek to protect, to preserve, to nurture, to give life in places where life is being taken away. People who through their loving, through their caring, through their forgiving – even when they are hurt themselves – enable hope to survive and new life to come.
At the start of the pandemic my extended family instituted a weekly zoom call. It was a great comfort during those first months of lockdown and then during the two and a half years that my father had cancer.
Around the middle of last year, dad was struggling to hear and follow the conversations we were having on zoom, so we set him a topic for each of the zoom sessions – one of which was for him to tell us about some of the greatest personal challenges that he had experienced and how he had overcome them.
I was really surprised by what he told us because I know a bit about at least forty of my father’s eighty three years, and some of the real challenges he had had at different times, but what he spoke about was a much much earlier hurt – a Baptist leader who had blocked his ordination, and how he had not found out until the moment at the ordination service when, with mum and his family there, his name was not read out. It was a hurtful act and designed to hurt. “I have struggled with that all my life,” he said. “Struggled and struggled to forgive that man.”
“Who was he?” we asked. And we jokingly said, “We’ll go and beat him up for you.”
“No,” said dad, “I am ashamed that I cannot forget what happened, but I have forgiven him to the extent that I won’t perpetuate the hurt by telling you his name.”
I had just been away with the women’s book group, and we looked at a study on forgiveness and I shared with him a quote from that study, from Rabbi Rami Shapiro, that said, “Forgiveness is not forgetting, excusing, accepting, denying or numbing yourself to pain. If someone hurts you, it is unreasonable to think you can just forget and move on.” Shapiro goes to say that all human beings hurt each other. We should expect to be hurt and we need to decide for ourselves when it is right to forgive. But, he says, “not forgiving simply locks you into additional layers of suffering that have no beneficial results at all.”
Being on the side of the angels, on the side of those who struggle to forgive, to protect life, even when they have been hurt, is not easy, but it is how we bring life to others.
In the final lines of the story Capote writes that as he drifted off to sleep, “the last thing I remembered was the peaceful voice of the Lord telling me something I must do. And the next day I did it. I went with Sook to the post office and bought a penny postcard. That same postcard exists today. It was found in my father’s safety deposit box when he died last year. Here is what I had written him: Hello pop hope you are well I am and I am lurning to pedal my plain so fast I will soon be in the sky so keep your eyes open and yes I love you Buddy.”
May we listen to our better angels. May we hear the peaceful voice of God telling us what we must do. May we be guided by the child who was born into this hurting and hurtful world to show us what love amid hurt looks like, to help us bring more life not more death.