By Madonna Hamel
Jan. 6 is the day we celebrate the Epiphany, when the Magi arrive in Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Described as “the day of gifts”, I avail myself of any remnant of Christmassy wonder I can grab. This year I was on the road home from Medicine Hat where I spent New Year’s week with my sister, her hubby and two gifted sons, one a musician, the other an illustrator.
The sky was one of those gauzy winter ones that could swing either way – cloud over into a white-out or break into a bright glittering jewel. One thing was for certain: the wind was up – it shoved at my little car like a linebacker – and it was cold out there. My mind was swinging every which way too, thinking about Christmases past, while trying to honour my new word for the year: Presence. As in: stay present.
My thoughts eventually settled on the Epiphany of 2013, the year we sold the family home of 43 years. I was living with dad in the house my father had built according to a plan my mom chose. We knew the Christmas just past would be our last on Keith Road and so all the siblings came home and thus began the long and arduous emptying process.
That epiphany rendered up many gifts. As a child I always knew that Epiphany was about an arrival after a long journey. But I confused the three Persian kings: Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior with the tin man, the lion and the scarecrow. Much later my brother, a Jungian and Joseph Campbell adept, suggested that the point of all heroic journeys: If you travel far to see the wizard, or the good witch, the Christ child, your gift is finding the child inside.
Passing from Alberta into Saskatchewan a song came on my car stereo: “Take it with you when you go, take your soul with you when you go.” These are words attributed to St. Augustine, bidding the traveller to not leave the soul behind when taking to the road. The song suggests that our travels will glitter with gifts of wonderment and surprise if we pack along our essence. Augustine wrote about a holy longing that could be eased with the realization that what we yearn for lies within.
That Epiphany of 2013, when my siblings and I began the long emptying process, we began with the kitchen, yanking things from the backs of cupboards. There were grubby jars clogged with old spices, dozens of lids to a handful of unmatching Tupperware containers. There were old cake mixes, solid clumps of coconut flakes, and cans and cans of beans, as if my mother were stocking up for the end times, or just couldn’t shake the fact that she was no longer living in a Saskatchewan farmhouse far from any amenities.
“Everything must go,” was our mantra. “It’s just stuff.” “Take a picture of the things you can’t seem to part with,” we’d remind each other. But I kept the scraps of paper my mother hastily wrote upon every year she took down the Christmas tree, after everyone had left. On those pieces of paper, tucked into the box of decorations, were the date, temperature, names of her children who made it home for Christmas and a small sketch of a tree or a star and the words: God Bless us all!
Also unearthed that Epiphany week: a tiny angel lapel pin behind a garbage can; a water-colour painting of a man with an umbrella walking in a storm, with the date 1974 in the corner; a bookmark with the words: trust in yourself and your journey will bring you home; sheet music I cannot decipher.
“You know, classical music was my introduction to the bible,” I said to my sister holding up my mother’s well-marked score to Handel’s Messiah.
“Yeah, and Bugs Bunny was my introduction to classical music!” she replied. At which point we broke into: “Welcome to my shop, let me cut your mop. Ding-ta-dling!”
Pulling books off the shelves I found a copy of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”. It occurred to me that the first time I heard the 91st Psalm was in a scene from Christmas Future, in the movie version, where the eldest son is reading it aloud, by the fire, to comfort the family after Tiny Tim dies. Somehow, I had absorbed that language and made it more than just words, in the same way, my bother would say, the king’s gold, frankincense and myrrh were more than precious metals, incense and spices.
Part of being able to see the gifts life renders us daily is being able to sit with language and allow the universal as well as the evolved personal meanings to reveal themselves, while at the same time allow for the probability that others will not have the same experience of certain words as you might. Believing in Baby Jesus was easier than believing in Santa because I was raised on a language of “miracles” rather than “magical tricks”. The multiplication of loaves and fish was a story easier to swallow than the spontaneous appearance of a million easy-bake ovens and goalie masks under a million Christmas trees all over the world all at once.
I pulled up to the gas station in Tompkins. The wind yanked open my door, the same friendly woman greets me every time I stop there. Her smile and “Happy New Year” brings tears to my eyes. I made for the washroom. We always wept at miracle stories, I thought, looking at my face in the mirror, but the tears were a release. We were so full we were spilling over, like creeks in spring.
That year of emptying the family home a friend invited me to go on a one day silent retreat in a big farmhouse. It was sponsored by a group of people who “knew their bible,” I was told, but were not “bible thumpers.” We were read a story and then invited to “sit inside it” and assume a character and “let the character take us.” The characters came from the story of Gabriel bringing tidings of great joy to everybody. He was a busy angel, running between Elizabeth and Mary and a bunch of shepherds. No wonder he is the patron saint of broadcasters. I chose Gabriel because I was earnestly trying be less glum and grumpy, more the kind of person capable of bringing “great joy to the people”.
I walked away from that weekend with a yearning for my old friends – the saints and angels of my childhood. I had stifled myself from talking about them in both my art and radio milieus. In Quebec, religious-themed art was rejected. It was doubtful I’d get accepted as a performance artist if I continued my work exploring this influential force of childhood, especially if I wasn’t willing to be irreverent. But I began by exploring the religious language to discover what the old words might mean in a new world. What does an Epiphany look like for us all – not just the die-hard Catholics – in our world, right now?
My mother collected Christmas decorations until she died. That Christmas of 2013 I dug out all the wreaths, tree ornaments, artificial evergreen boughs, glittery bells, neglected mistletoe, berry red tablecloths and matching napkins, advent wreaths with stubby candles and, the most cherished of all, the Nativity Scenes (which, my friend Page admitted he’d always thought were “Activity Scenes”).
My favourite among the Nativity cast were always the three exotic kings, in colourful robes and wild hats. I was equally entranced by their camels. Pulling out an old, worn camel from a shoe box, its head came off. The plastic, having lost all elasticity, had simply disintegrated. I could not throw that head out. “What do you plan to do with that?” asked my sister, rolling her eyes at yet another of my secreted knick-knacks. “Turn it into a finger puppet?”
At one point my mother stopped bothering to take down the wreaths and trumpeting angels that decked the halls and sideboards of our home. I seem to have taken up that tradition. The camel finger puppet and the proclaiming angel hover over the everyday “Activity Scene” that is in my home. I’m not sure if I let them hang around all year because of laziness, superstition, longing, or just a desire to, as the ghost of Christmas Present reminds Scrooge: “keep the child in our hearts every day of the year, not just on Christmas Day.”
“All gifts are buried in crises,” the author Lewis Hyde writes in his modern classic, “The Gift”. I find it hard to believe, when in the midst of a crisis, that anything good will come of it. But that’s what was said about Nazareth – nothing good comes from it. This Epiphany, pulling off the icy, wind-swept highway into Val Marie, I said a quick thanks for the gift of home.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.