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For Americans anyway, December usually means Christmas and the colors of Christmas are red and white. I would assume that associating red and white with Christmas began with the nineteenth-century Thomas Nast illustration of St. Nicholas for the poem, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” For the first time, and forever after, Santa Claus would wear a red suit trimmed with white fur.

So, a picture of a red sleigh in snow means Christmas, as do red bows on a white picket fence. In my father’s childhood, Christmas also meant the rare gift of a shiny red apple wrapped in white tissue paper, the snap of his teeth through the red skin into the white meat of the fruit, and the sweet juice of the fruit running down his chin.

Red is the predominant color in one of my earliest Christmas memories. When I was five, Santa Claus gave me a beautiful Toni doll wearing a red, satin ball gown with red netting. I was stunned. Mother and Daddy sat on the couch across the room with waiting smiles.

As I stared at Toni, however, I began to worry about the impracticality of the ball gown. Toni couldn’t wear nothing but a ball gown. You can’t wear a ball gown to school or out to play. Assuming negligence on the part of Santa Claus, I asked with real concern, “Doesn’t she have anything else to wear?”

I could not know that Daddy’s mother had made the dress on her sewing machine, that she had shown it to her son proudly, with an eager smile, anticipating the reaction of her five-year-old granddaughter to such riches.

And, too, he might have been hung over, or he and Mother may have been fighting the night before. All I know is that as soon as I had spoken, the snarl of “God…” was followed with the shout of …damnit!” and the cold blade of terror plunged into my heart. He lunged to his feet and walked out of the living room. My terrified eyes flew to Mother’s haggard face and Christmas and my heart emptied.

People are complex. We carry within us the dark seeds of our own destruction. At the core of an apple, for instance, protected by sharp-edged pods, are the regenerative seeds of the fruit, but the small, black seeds contain minute traces of cyanide.

In the fairy tale, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Snow White is realized from her mother’s vision of a girl with hair as black as the ebony of her windowsill, skin as white as the snow upon the ebony windowsill, and lips red as the drops of blood in the snow. She is realized from her mother’s blood. As was I. As was my father. And she is poisoned with an apple.

Twenty years after the Christmas I received a Toni doll in a red ball gown, I was walking down the narrow sidewalk of a New England town on Christmas Eve. The glowing windows of the eighteenth-century shops along this walk and the sparkle of red Christmas lights in the windows mellowed the gloom of the late, December afternoon. To make the scene picture-perfect, snowflakes began to drift past the windows.

Wearing a red, Scottish plaid tam-o’shanter and a red cape (like little Red Riding Hood) and with hair as black as Snow White’s, I was lost in my own little fairy tale; I was walking in a Christmas scene right out of Dickens. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

When I came to the end of the walk, I was facing the harbor. The scene before me was grey and white. The dark, lowering sky was clouded with snow, the snow sifting over the dock, over the fir trees piled at the far end of the dock, over motionless sailboats. The snow falling silently into the black water was terrible in its beauty.

I could not look away. I could not turn back. My face grew cold.

We are all suffering, from one cause or another, to one degree or another and in varying degrees of consciousness. That is why we need one another, and bright baubles like Christmas with its gifts and songs and sweets and carols. I think that in the highest vibrations of our spiritual essence, we are all very brave—both those who turn to back the lights, and those who face the cold.

 

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