Flashback Friday: “Silent Night”

It was a decrepit building, not really fit for anything more than storage. My father always said that walking inside reminded him of walking into the aquarium store that his father would take him to when he was a little kid. Strange how dropping me off and picking me up from kindergarten made my dad think of Siamese fighting fish and freshwater tanks.

To me, however, this drab, befittingly cruciform building was my baptism into the world of religious schooling. Within the boundaries of those butter cream-tinted cinder block walls, I wrote my first words, made my first fumbling attempts at friendships, first learned that I was loved by a supreme being…even though I was already apparently falling short of his glory and love.

It was also here that I attended my very first Christmas party. We didn’t yet have the albatross of political correctness slung about our necks, so we still could refer to it as a Christmas party. Besides, we were Baptists. It was all right to keep Christ in Christmas. The week prior, we helped our teacher decorate our room with snowflakes and stars and paper chains made of thick green and red construction paper. She taught us the words to Christmas songs like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman.”

Even though they let us sing these secular holiday songs, there were no effigies of Santa Claus inside the school. They never told us he wasn’t real (although my mom never humored the rumor that a jolly fat man was going to bring the presents that she and my dad actually bought me), but they also didn’t support the idea.

No, the holiday was about celebrating the birth of our savior, and that’s what they focused on. We colored dittoed drawings of baby Jesus in a manger, surrounded by farm animals and strangely cloaked men. I can still feel the weird wet warmth of the paper that had just been run through the ditto machine, still smell that distinct scent rising off those bright bluish-purple lines.

Our teacher would then read to us the story of Jesus’s birth, as told by Luke. I remember her calm cadence and her deliberate enunciation, pausing after almost every verse to make sure we were still following along. It was a lovely reading, although to this day, I still think Linus did it best.

Then, the last Friday before our Christmas break, we had our party. Parents arrived with treats for the class: pitchers full of bubbly ginger ale-infused punch, popcorn and pretzels and potato chips galore, cookies coated with crunchy sugar sprinkles and cupcakes top-heavy with thick dollops of frosting that were bound to color our teeth and tongues diffused hues of red and green.

Afterward, we bundled up in our coats and accompanying winter gear—bright pink Strawberry Shortcake scarf and hat with a giant pink pom-pom on top for me, thank you—and scurried outside to run and chase and scream, to hang from our knees on the monkey bars or to rock our swings as high as we could, chains bucking beneath our tiny, cold-chafed hands, before letting go to float for that briefest of heartbeats in the infinitesimal infinity that separated us from the ground.

When our teacher felt we’d had enough time to burn through the surplus of sugar we’d been fed, she lined us up single-file, hand clasped obediently behind our backs, and led us back into our classroom. The final treats for us that morning, before we were released for our very first Christmas break, were a gift swap and a sing-along. Several parents had volunteered to help out that morning, including mine. They had even brought in a little artificial tree for the room so that we would have something under which we could place the gifts that we’d all brought in that morning. As we came back inside, we were allowed to select one present from under the tree to open once we got back to our tables.

I remember the cacophonous crinkle of wrapping paper as we all tore into our presents like little sugar-buzzed jackals. I wish I could remember what I received that year. Unfortunately, time and far too many Captain and Cokes have extinguished that particular memory. All that remains now is the memory of the juvenescent glee felt at opening a present before Christmas Day.

As the other parents quietly moved in to gather up our hyperactive detritus, my mom and our teacher had us all settle down on the floor in a haphazard semicircle. My mom had volunteered to lead us in singing some of the Christmas songs that we had learned that week. She patiently tried to join in with us through the still sugar-fueled shouting that we felt passed as singing. I’m sure by the time we were finished, we’d shattered poor Rudolph’s nose and Frosty wished his ears would melt off.

And then my mom started to sing “Silent Night” to us.

I know nothing of musical terminology. I don’t know notes or scales. I don’t know the difference between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano. But I do know this: My mother could sing. Hers was a voice of operatic largesse, bright bold streaks meant for the canvas of a concert hall rather than a classroom of cinder block and construction paper decorations. There was perfect pitch and power behind every note that could send her voice to the farthest reaches of whatever building she was in, if that was her choosing. It was beauty unrefined—the rawest form of the material before the maestro formed it into art.

My mother’s voice was the marble before Michelangelo’s touch.

In another time, in another place…well, who knows what might have been. But in that moment, she was brilliance in my eyes. I wish you could have heard her sing that day, denizens. Time has melted the edges of so many memories from my childhood, but this one I cling to. This one I protect.

Merry Christmas, denizens, if that’s your thing. Happy Hanukkah if you swing that way. Blessed Solstice or Special Saturnalia, even. Whatever your pleasure might be, know that I am thinking of you and wishing you peace and joy.