I brought back A Christmas Carol this year after a three-year hiatus. It was a middling success. Perhaps my kids are still too young to follow Dickens’s sentences. Of course, we did Luke 2 last night, like every Christmas Eve, whether they get it all or not. Plus, we’ve turned the pages (over and over) on all those piles of picture books that get taken out of boxes each December. Add to that sung stories like “Rudolph” and “Frosty” and my kid’s have no shortage of Christmas tales, the best of which tie thematically or metaphorically or literally to a certain babe in a certain manger.
My grandmother used to buy random old books, many of which are on my own shelves now. For instance, I have an unmodernized version of Holinshed’s Chronicles, and if you’ve never read Shakespeare’s source material with all the Us and Vs switched you must. Another, older book is a crummy, late eighteenth-century reproduction of an even older—that is—medieval manuscript. You can make out the illumination though deciphering the words is impossible, not least because of an apparent smear. I like to imagine that the monk had stayed up late, taking great care with each letter, then, as he stood to head for bed, his sleeve dragged over the drying letters as he reached for his candle.
The picture’s an old man dressed a bit raggedly hunched over a shepherd’s crook talking to a man dressed like—I don’t know—a merchant or something. As my grandma told the story, the merchant is Ananias of Saul-turning-into-Paul fame. She would take on a “scriptural” voice and intone (yes, intone):
Ananias went forth to the market where he met an old shepherd who reached out to him and instructed him to listen. He was there, the old man says of himself, and Ananias purchases him bread and they break it.
The man is a visionary man, he says through the dust in his beard. No one saw the angels before he saw the angels—before he pointed them out. No one heard them sing until he told him to listen. And, for some reason, this time, for the first time, they did listen. And they did see. And they followed. And they saw. And they heard. And they remembered.
The visionary shepherd remains visionary now, in his old age. And he tells Ananias that he, Ananias, will tell this tale to his children who will tell their children who will someday tell a scholar who will record the story which will then travel to a distant place where the floors and walls are always clean, and then it will be told on the wings of the wind and then and then and then.
My grandmother, as she spoke of the place where floors and walls are always clean, would wave her arm slowly around her own home—yes,perhaps it could stand another quick vacuum, but the walls were white (save for a water stain along the west wall) and the dirt was outside (save where we grandchildren had tracked it in) and by the time I came around, the coal shute was unused.
Like her, I see myself in the future of clean floors and walls. Sure, we too could stand to vacuum, but our walls are still the blue or green or white we painted them. We keep our dirt floors below our wooden ones. I’m a big fan of our plumbing. We light the night with electrons rather than smoke.
Like me, my grandmother grew up in cleanliness and electricity. But whatever monk illuminated her book’s original probably did it by candlelight. Ananias lived more cleanly than the shepherd and the babe was laid in a manger which—clean as it may have been—was a manger—in a stable—two thousand years ago. He grew up to have feet so filthy that cleaning them was a heroic act. He died caked in sweat and dirt and blood. My grandmother died with an utterly clean outside surrounded by utterly white walls. I suspect the same could be said of her inner vessel.
But though clean as the shepherd was dirty, I doubt she needed anyone to point out the angels.