“And they sat there and they marveledAnd they knew they could not tellWhether it were angels, or the bright stars a singing”**
I was surprised by the large and heartfelt response to the recent post “The Ghost of Christmas Past,” a story I hesitated sharing. Obviously there is something about this season that produces nostalgia. Even though it comes around faster each year, there’s a collective sigh around our house at the sound of that first Christmas song and the smell of the pine garland, as I shake out the loose needles and drape the branches on the fireplace.
(pictured above, our fireplace in New Orleans’ Faubourg Marigny, with artwork by George Rodrigue and, dispelling the myth that artists do not collect the work of other artists: Jean-Pierre Serrier, Dan Corbin, Albert Paley, Robert Indiana, Fritz Scholder, and New Orleans artists Thomas Bruno and Juli Juneau; ceramic dogs by Jeff Koons and George Rodrigue)
It all comes rushing back this time of year: duets at the piano, re-runs of The Little Drummer Boy, friendly arguments over who sets up the manger scene and who places the angel on the tree.
Whether one believes in angels or not, in the birth of Jesus Christ or not, there is a warmth to this season that, if one gives it a chance, dwarfs the commercialism and anxiety. Even for folks like George and myself, who long ago abandoned the established religion of our childhood, there is the sense that something else is going on, namely a spiritual embrace of family, friends, and tradition. We look at our city anew this time of year, enjoying the lights at Jackson Square and City Park, along with the flocked trees on Fulton Street and the wreaths on the streetcars. Things we barely glanced at yesterday catch our eyes today and look special once again.
By ‘the season,’ I mean all of the season. Not just Christmas, but also Hanukkah, the first snowfall, and the approach of a new year. Following the traditional Jewish wedding of a friend’s daughter in Birmingham, Alabama a few years ago, I told George that I felt the lure of this ancient religion, this way of life. It is something I didn’t know growing up in the Methodist Church, a sense of family intertwined with faith and history. I wanted the whole package.
“The only problem is,” I explained (quite seriously), “if it’s to work, I have to convince our entire family, even our long-dead ancestors, to get on board.”
George replied (also quite seriously),
“My mother would never go for it.”
Of course he was right. When she died in 2008 at age 103, George’s Catholic-French mother still clicked her rosary beads and worried over his salvation.
(pictured above, a holiday family portrait; Marie Courrege Rodrigue displays a rare and rather adorable sense of Christmas spirit, 1997, Lafayette, Louisiana; also pictured, George’s sons André and Jacques)
When George and I married, the Catholic faith was an anomaly to me. Since that time, although I’m no expert, I’ve attended mass, weddings, and funerals, too many to count, and listened attentively to sermons, with hopes of understanding this important part of George’s culture, the Cajuns.
(pictured, a book of hand-written and typed sermons belonging to Marion Edwards, a Cajun from Marksville, Louisiana. As a young man Edwards and his brother, former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, preached for the Church of the Nazarene; with appreciation to Marion for allowing me to peruse his sermons and take some pictures earlier this week at the home he shares with his wife Penny in Broussard, Louisiana; more on this coming in January)
It was one wedding maybe ten years ago in New Iberia that I sat between George and Dickie Hebert (pronounced 'a-bear'), his oldest friend, who works today in the Lafayette Rodrigue Gallery. As we listened to the priest, I hung on his every word, astonished at the spiritual pressure placed on the young couple.
“Dickie,” I whispered, “Is this the way it is in your marriage? Do you abide by everything this priest says?”
“Oh I stopped listening years ago,” said the sixty-five year old man who attends mass every week of his life. “What did he say?”
Perhaps this is the answer I should have expected from Dickie, a boy who made up for his small stature by shooting the neighborhood bullies with a bb gun from his hiding place under the house, and who rode up and down New Iberia’s St. Peters Street on his bicycle carrying a large Confederate flag.
Dickie’s happy-go-lucky nature and sense of humor belie his on-going obsession with firearms. In the late 1990s, this petite Cajun volunteered as Santa Claus at our neighborhood parties, stuffing his clothing with pillows and padding, so that the 140-pound man fooled both children and adults with his Ho Ho Ho. Around that same time, he nearly found himself arrested when, while shooting rats in a cane field, he shot a hole into a woman’s trailer, knocking a picture off of the wall, interrupting her breakfast, and narrowly missing her head.
George and Dickie have been friends for sixty years. Each Christmas, George inevitably spends long hours telling stories about their childhood adventures.* He also indulges my memories of favorite gifts of roller skates and Neil Diamond sheet music, as well as my awe over the twelve-foot flocked tree at my aunt and uncle’s house on the New Orleans West Bank.
These memories are the greatest gift. My family doesn’t sing around the piano these days, but we couldn’t replicate that exact experience anymore than George can revisit 1950s New Iberia. Thankfully we make new memories, replacing our childhood obsession of receiving gifts with an adult obsession of giving. This year more than any other, we’ve felt the joy of giving through the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts. We’ve seen first-hand the happiness of children, whether hearing a story, playing outside with their friends, or lost in their imagination as they paint a picture.
And we’ve seen the unabated joy as our nephews race to bed the second that, according to the computer’s radar, Santa’s sleigh hits North America.
“Words of old that come a traveling, by the riches of the times,
And I softly listened, as I stood upon the hill
And I softly listened, as I stood upon the hill”**
**Lyrics from “Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913” by Robert Bridges, 1936
*For one such Dickie-and-George adventure see the tail end of the post “Swamp Women”
All Blue Dog images in this post are original silkscreens by George Rodrigue, editions of 150, 20x16 inches, printed in 2000
For a related post visit “The Ghost of Christmas Past”
I hope to see you at my new blog, a weekly column for the on-line version of the New Orleans paper, Gambit.