As a secular humanist, I have no particular spiritual connection to Christmas, but I do enjoy very much the atmosphere that surrounds the whole phenomenon of Christmas every year (“don we now our GAY apparel….”). In my neighborhood, Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, the main commercial street gets decorated with beautiful lights everywhere. It’s a playground of traditional consumerism and yet also a festive and exciting time for many, many people -- even jaded New Yorkers.
I remember it being very special for me in the early sixties, growing up in Puerto Rico. The innocence in believing in Santa Claus and the “Three Kings Day”, the neighborhood houses decorated with bright cheerful lights, the ritual of getting the house ready among many other clear memories.
Not long ago, I was scrolling up and down Facebook and ran into a Christmas ad. I thought it was a bit early but nevertheless a couple of objects brought me back to 1966, to my hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico. There I was, surrounded by my brothers around the traditional Puerto Rican aluminum Christmas tree at Grandma’s house. It was always exciting to wait for the moment when grandma would switch on the magical, rotating color wheel light that made her “traditional” aluminum Christmas tree explode with rainbow colors. The turning on of the “Christmas Tree Color Wheel,” was always a moment of pure joy and always followed by big smiles and happy hands as we gazed in wonder at this particular Christmas miracle of shiny, multicolored, shimmering, metallic Christmas tree branches.
As a very young child, I can remember thinking that the baby Jesus must have really loved this part of the first Christmas.
Not long after Grandma’s lighting ceremony, the house was filled with the eagerly awaited aroma of “Pernil y arroz con gandules” (roasted pork with rice and pigeon peas). Surely this Christmas treat would have been a favorite of the baby Jesus, his mom and dad, the Three Kings and maybe even the shepherds. (Years later I was saddened to learn that because it wasn’t kosher, Jesus, Mom and Dad never tasted roast pork)
I used to call all the beautiful, blinking Christmas lights “happy lights” because they made me happy and were a favorite part of the holiday season. Decorating grandma’s house included putting “happy lights” on grandma’s rose bushes in front of her house.
The second object that caught my attention while I was scrolling through Facebook was another favorite Christmas accessory. Apparently, my urge to “accessorize” goes all the way back to my childhood -- the object was a lapel pin. It was the very same pin I first laid eyes on when my aunt arrived one Christmas with it attached to the lapel of her dress. The pin consisted of a particularly jolly portrait of Santa Clause framed by a branch of holly. Just below Santa’s face was a red string with a bell attached at the end. My aunt told me to pull the string and when I did, Santa’s jolly, red nose lit up. I was ecstatic when my aunt then presented me this wonderful Christmas surprise.
At some point in our traditional Garmendia Christmas ritual everyone would suddenly burst into exuberant applause. Christmas just wouldn't be complete until one of grandma’s dogs would christen the Christmas tree by peeing on it. This particular ritual confirmed in me that Christmas had indeed arrived.
Thanks to FaceBook, I was reminded of these iconic Christmas objects from my past. The rotating light contraption and the Santa Claus pin triggered in me powerful feelings and memories that seemed to almost overwhelm me. I was transported to another time, to another body that I had almost forgotten. I was for a fraction of a second, the happy child that would always mail his wish list to Santa a few days before Christmas. The iconography of Christmas in Puerto Rico will be somewhere in the back of my head forever. Suddenly, the image came back to me of that fragile, effeminate, cross-eyed, shy child who still believed his letter was going to be read by Santa surrounded by his elves.
Back to the present time: I’m in my late fifties. Christmas isn’t what it used to be but the images related to that little child inside of me find their way into my heart and mind as the days grow shorter and shorter, leading up to the Winter Solstice. As an adult, whatever yuletide memories I still managed to retain associated with the Christmas season were tainted by receiving the news that I was HIV positive on December 19, 1990. I was actually decorating the Christmas tree when the phone rang and I received what was then a death sentence.
Receiving a phone call like that could have extinguished any and all Christmas “happy lights” for me forever BUT it did not. From that moment on, Christmas was not in any way negative or sad, just different. Different in the sense that I have learned to appreciate life itself and accept gratefully every day. When that child used to play around the aluminum tree, his days were pure magic, magic like Santa’s blinking red nose. Looking back, like most kids, I guess I took all this Christmas joy for granted.
These days, the Winter Solstice continues to occur and by nature of the shorter days and longer nights, I’m reminded that my days continue to challenge me as my physical condition declines. There is still a Winter Solstice but there is also a Spring Equinox. Every sundown is counted, every smile is felt deeply and appreciated, every new day is a gift full of life and the choice is made every day in order to defend my happiness. Today, one more time I celebrate the gift of strength that was planted in me decades ago. I choose to remember a different December 19th. A December 19th close to grandma and my family. The era when my inner child, very much alive inside of me, got happily blinded by the brilliance produced by grandma’s miraculous rotating light projector on while wearing my precious Santa Claus pin with his happy blinking red nose.