The last word
Oh, we are a quaint, merry folk.
Don’t you just love how smart and good we are?
I do. I can’t think of any species smarter. Or gooder.
Take December. It is the month of wonderful, uplifting stories. Some are stories of transformation. Something small and simple — a broken nutcracker toy or a child with a crutch — conquers evil or brings goodness.
Some are stories of redemption. A reindeer with a big, red nose becomes a hero. Stories of secularized saints who leave candy and toys for children remind us what fun generosity can be.
The story of a little match girl teaches us compassion. O. Henry’s tender short story “The Gift of the Magi” shows us loving self-sacrifice.
We hear again miracles of a one-day supply of oil burning for eight days and a great star guiding kings to a baby in a manger.
These are stories and legends that inspire us, teach us and enlighten us. No wonder they come during the shortest, darkest days of the year. It’s the time we most need light and joy.
One thing I love about stories and books is that they can take on a life of their own. Some, like the stories mentioned above, grow to mythic proportions. Others, sitting innocuously on the shelf one minute, are run out of town the next. Such is the list of books singled out for disdain annually during Banned Book Week.
A school in Menifee, Calif., pulled “Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary” off the shelf because it includes the offensive term “oral sex.” Once, a couple of school districts in California banned “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” because Little Red Riding Hood’s basket for her grandmother contained a bottle of wine.
A book that illustrates how a story can grow legs of its own is “The Annotated Mother Goose.” It includes hundreds of nursery rhymes, songs and jingles. Some are just nonsense games like “Eena, Meena, Mino, Mo.” Some were to help children learn to count (“This little piggy … ”). Others were satirical religious or political jibes, saying in playful verse things that were too dangerous to say outright. Or maybe they weren’t. Such is the mystery of stories.
“Bah, bah black sheep …” may have been a rhyming complaint by the common people about how much of their wool was claimed by the king and nobility. “Hey diddle, diddle/the cat and the fiddle … ” may have referred to Queen Elizabeth and carryings on in the royal court. “Little Boy Blue … ” may poke fun at Cardinal Wolsey, supposedly greedy and so lazy he had bishops tie his shoes.
Which brings me, circuitously, to Christmas. This holiday has a history like banned books in reverse.
Christmas, it is generally accepted, is now and always has been a holiday about baby Jesus and three wise men. Not so. Christmas was not always celebrated as a holy day.
In Boston in 1687, the Rev. Increase Mather preached that the early Christians did not believe that Christ was born on Dec. 25. Over the centuries, he said, Christians adopted the pagan Romans’ Saturnalia festival and layered it with religious meaning. Originally the festival honored the Roman god Saturn with widespread intoxication, merry making and singing naked in the streets. The Puritans banned Christmas in Boston, and all of Massachusetts, from 1659-1681 because of its heathen origins.
We’re over that now. Some of the old hey, nonny-nonny hung on. The singing part became Christmas caroling, albeit dressed in warm scarves and muffs.
December is a month full of musicals, dances, plays and religious services that stir our souls.
We surround ourselves with glimmer and twinkling lights and we celebrate. Despite our occasional silliness and misunderstandings, with stories and good intentions, we move mankind forward, out of the darkness.
I like December because it is a time for wishes. I wish I knew someone whose first name is Increase. And I wish someone would bring me a bottle of wine in a basket.