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The Hopes of Christmases Past, Some Seedlings for the Future

December 22, 1985|Naomi Bliven | Naomi Bliven is a staff writer for the New Yorker.

NEW YORK — Our Christmas celebrations have been quieter in recent years, and I find that most of my friends are planning less frenzied holidays.

Our choice of tranquility is undoubtedly the effect of age, for holidays reflect each individual's place in Shakespeare's famous seven ages of man, from infancy to dotage. To be sure, there are variations of custom and climate, but although my childhood Christmases brought sleds and ice skates, I am certain that children whose Christmases brought surf boards and snorkels share my mixture of anticipation, awe, excitement and (it must be confessed) greed.

I remember, too, the Christmases of my college years, embedded in a blur of dances and parties and excursions, a gaiety only slightly overcast by the research papers inevitably assigned as vacation tasks, perhaps in memory of Scrooge. Recalling the energy of one's youth is astonishing when one also remembers that all that was exhaustion was thought of as pleasure.

This past year, I came across some of my old college notebooks, and looking into them reminded me of the expectations I had cherished for the world in those years--the spread and perfection of parliamentary democracy and the increasing enrichment of American culture. Considering that what we have at the end of 1985 is terrorism and rock music, those hopes appear more extravagant than any fantasy I cherished about an implausibly lavish Christmas present.

At the approach of Christmas 1985, the world perplexes me, and I must admit I have been asking myself whether I have the right to be disappointed if my hopes were--and are, for I still long for those things--naive. Nonetheless I found myself, last June, disagreeing with a man so much older that he thought I was young. I argued that we who are older had a duty to encourage the young and not to disparage their generous visions even if we thought them unrealistic. My companion felt it was our duty to share the wisdom or sophistication of disappointment even at the risk of tainting young people's dreams.

Is discouragement wiser or more sophisticated than hope? Asking that question, I suppose, is a way of asking if Christmas is real, for Christmas is about hope. This fall a pair of experiences inclines me to trust the genuineness of Christmas.

On the weekend after Hurricane Gloria I drove the length of Long Island and saw, coming and going, 240 miles of blasted trees, whose noble forms, twisted and distorted, lay along (and in some cases across) the roads, looking like the wreckage of civilization itself in the aftermath of barbarian invasion. The following week, though, I went up to the mountains to write an article about an arboretum and wandered around a field and a nursery where saplings and seedlings were being prepared for the winter. These young plants looked tentative, and they faced a testing season, but past experience suggested they would survive.

If one week I observed the tragic grandeur of endings, the following week I saw the beguiling beauty of beginnings. My memory of those seedlings, which by now are buried in snow, tells me that it is wise to hope and by no means naive to celebrate Christmas.

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