Christmas is a time of magical realism. Not in the literary sense necessarily, where magic plays an integral part in the mundane world, but in the sense that magic encompasses the past and colors even the future. I know my favorite writing genre is a form of magical realism, in that I write fantasy, but that's for another time.
I often associate different Christmases with different carols. One year, it was What Child is This?, better known as Greensleeves. There is a persistent rumor that King Henry VIII wrote the tune of Greensleeves for his then-love-interest Anne Boleyn, during a period when the couple was fighting. Whoever wrote it, the melody remains haunting and no matter what lyrics are sung, there is an air of melancholy and foreshadowing of sadness. It was like that for me one Christmas.
I had just finished the course-work part of graduate school, and was planning to go home to work on the final project/thesis. During the last few weeks of the semester, the apartment I was renting was sold, and I had to move lock, stock, and tons of books into a student transient hotel. I owned a 20-year-old car, which I had acquired for $5 and a Greek cookbook. There were three working parts to the automatic transmission: Park, sort of Reverse (you had to push the car and jump in and it caught), and D3. To start it, you had to stick a pencil down the carburetor, and you prayed the brakes worked when going downhill. Nevertheless, the car got me through graduate school and home again several times, for which I was truly grateful.
The day before my last final, my mother called and told me that my uncle Mike had emergency surgery on his bleeding ulcer. He was doing all right, they had a heavy duty IV in him feeding him nutrients, but I had to figure out how to get home on my own.
So I used that car, which I had been planning to sell to a local mechanic. The turnpike was out of the question, so I took all the back roads. When I started it was noon, and the three-hour drive turned into a ten-and-a-half-hour marathon with only fuel stops along the way. No heater, no radio, no reverse, and a tape deck that only looped the same song.
For over ten hours, I sangGreensleeves, mostly to keep awake and not watch the asphalt slip by through the holes underneath my feet.
I made it home and the car, literally, died across from my house, the transmission frozen solid. It was an ancient Plymouth Valiant, and for me, that car was just that - valiant.
It was almost eleven, pitch dark and snowy. On the side door, instead of a wreath, there was a note telling me that my uncle had some type of heart issue and they were at the ICU.
Here it was, Christmas Eve. I had no car, called a cab, and no one could come for five hours, and all the neighbors were out or asleep. I was stuck at home. I emptied the car and found my guitar. I didn't know what else to do, so I started to play Greensleeves. Repeatedly. The only lights in the house were on the small tree my Yiayia always put up in the kitchen - a two-foot artificial thing with ratty fake needles and red bows. I sang and cried into my guitar strings. I felt helpless.
After a while, I expanded my repertoire and morphed into all twelve verses of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and then Silent Night, Joy to the World, A Mighty Fortress is our God and others. However, it always came back to Greensleeves.
After a couple hours, a car pulled into the drive and my mother and Yiayia came in. Stella, my mother, grinned at me, and gave me a huge hug. Yiayia turned on all the lights and they told me that whatever happened to my uncle was not a heart attack but a reaction to the IV nutrients, and that he was just fine. It was Christmas magic.
The phone rang, and it was my uncle. He knew that I was probably all hyper and wanted to reassure me that he'd be home before New Year's Eve. He sounded pretty chipper for having spent the day in ICU. I told him about Greensleeves and the harrowing car ride home. He laughed, and in his off-key baritone began to sing the Christmas lyrics, What child is this, who. laid his head, on Mary's lap is sleeping
I joined in, and then my mother as well. After a moment, Yiayia did too, and we all sang the carol together. Yiayia improvised some lyrics in Greek that made no sense, but by the time we were done, we were all relieved and laughing. We all slept well that night.
The next day we took our presents to the hospital. My uncle Mike, being the generous man he was, had ordered trays of food for the whole floor - staff and patients alike - and my mom had brought whole stacks of baklava, cookies, and other treats as well.
We had quite a party, and of course my uncle, always the host, made sure that everyone had a good time. Until the day he died, he always loved to entertain and share his joie de vivre. It was infectious, in a good way, even at a hospital.
The residents, the nurses, the staff and the other patients that were mobile all gathered in the large waiting room. It was gaily decorated and with our contributions we had quite the party! It was not quite the usual family Christmas, but it was an amazing experience nevertheless. After about an hour or so of feasting and chatting, my uncle suggested we sing carols.
Then he looked at me, with a twinkle in those kind brown eyes, and said, "My niece here will start us off with her favorite carol..."
We sang Greensleeves.