LONDON, ONTARIO – That’s our firstborn daughter’s dog, Gummy, which is short for 'Montgomery'. He was named after Montgomery Clift - not the famous field marshal - and is sporting the protective cone that a British Columbia vet outfitted him with about ten years back so he’d stop licking and fussing with a wound that needed time to heal. Our daughter had acquired Gummy in the fall of 2008 when she and her partner and two thirds of our grandkids were living back in London for a spell. Gummy had attained a particularly gangly adolescence by the time we acquired a new puppy of our own on May 1st of 2009 and through that summer, Gummy taught Grace all of her essential life skills and the pair of them simultaneously destroyed our back garden through sheer canine exuberance.
It was too bad about the garden (which my wife was able to heroically restore for the next growing year) but it was something else to watch the way those two could goad each other on to feats of landscape-trashing derring-do. Only the plants weren’t sorry to see the last of Gummy that fall when we mailed one crated and heavily tranquilized dog out to be with his people who’d decamped back to sunnier job prospects in B.C. a couple weeks before.
I believe it was the fall of 2010 when our daughter was able to capitalize on Gummy’s unusually placid recuperative state to work up a sweet sketch of him and then decided to add the decorative lights around the rim of his cone and feature the image on her family’s Christmas card that year. I thought it was a seriously brilliant work of art and was able to persuade her to adapt the image a little further to use for the front cover of our Christmas edition of The London Yodeller in 2014.
A thoroughly rambunctious mutt who was recklessly eager to get as much fun out of every minute as he could, not too long after the ‘cone of shame’ came off, Gummy was tearing after a tossed tennis ball and, forgetting that he already had another ball in his mouth, managed to lodge the first one in his gullet while snapping up the second. The poor mutt actually stopped breathing and passed out and might well have bought the farm if a neighbour with medical training hadn’t sprung to his aid by grabbing Gummy under his belly and executing the Heimlich manoeuvre. And then with one grotesque and lumpy act of expectoration, Gummy came hurtling back to the land of the living where he happily resides to this day.
And if I may commit a segue about as graceful as that relinquishment of a fuzzy green orb, I would say that Gummy's near-death experience parallels a dilemma which I believe prevents a lot of people from properly enjoying the full glory of the Christmas season. If you’re solely fixated on Hoovering up all the goodies that you can, you risk cutting off the supply of oxygen to your brain and your heart and terminating the festivities too soon. There are at least two aspects to Christmas; one primarily focusing on the social, familial and material end of the spectrum and the other relating to the psychological, the sacred and the divine. If either aspect goes unaddressed, one’s Christmas is likely to come off feeling flat and one dimensional. The aspect that is most frequently short-changed in our society today is the original one – the religious.
Some folks just don’t want any of what they regard as spiritual hooey in their lives and are likely to turn surly if you suggest that they’re shortchanging the purpose and opportunity of the holiday. They regard Christmas as a kind of universal birthday party where everybody gets to rake in a mountain of gifts on the very same day. The obsessive givers and takers among us may think they’ve been having a very intense Christmas experience but come Boxing Day morning, the jig is up.
Then they awaken to the grey realization that there’s nothing left to unwrap or hand over and that aside from a slightly more exotic class of leftovers in the fridge, this is probably going to be an utterly barren day. Unless . . . unless . . . yes . . . the Post Holiday Half-Price Sale is on at the malls and if they snap to it and grab a cup of Joe at the Timmy’s drive-thru, they might get there in time for the Gate Crasher Specials on crock pots and scuba equipment. The agony of confronting an empty day thus averted, they can forget all about Christmas for another year and get back on track with their lives.
Those who cherish the religious significance of Christmas, often sense that it’s been eclipsed or pushed out of the way by the more gaudy secular celebration. But this is only the case if you fall for the lie that the season is over by midnight of December 25th. For Christians struggling to find the quiet heart of Christmas amidst all of the bustle, that can be the hour when a deeper Christmas observance finally takes hold.
I remember first twigging to this in high school. Back to the daily grind after my Christmas break, I madly envied a Ukrainian Orthodox girl I scarcely knew who always took the first full week of January off as well so that she could celebrate Christmas according to her church’s calendar. Sure, part of my envy was just wanting more time off but it was more than that. I’d had my Christmas and enjoyed the gifts and getting together with family and friends but I was reluctant to put Christmas away for another year just yet.
I wanted another week of downtime, not so much for partying and not because there were more gifts to be exchanged, but for some reflection and mental preparation for the year ahead. And that most irritating of carols, The Twelve Days of Christmas, which marked off the days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany (by Christian tradition, the day the Wise Men took their leave from the Holy Family and went back to their homes) seemed to indicate the same thing: Christmas wasn't just a one-day blowout. When I joined the Catholic Church in 1984 I discovered that the full season of Christmas doesn’t actually wrap up until Candlemas on February 2nd, when the Church commemorates Christ’s presentation at the Temple on the 40th day of his infancy. But it would take me almost twenty years until I truly observed that full duration.
My father died on December 13, 2003. Then it was another week until his funeral and a few days after that, Christmas was supposedly done. Well, phooey on that. We were so preoccupied with funeral arrangements and grieving that year that we didn’t even have a tree until the night before Dad's funeral when I dragged one slightly used conifer home from a curbside garbage display that I came upon while walking the dog around midnight. (Had its previous owners vamoosed to Florida for the hols? Or suddenly converted to Hinduism?) That was the year I finally partook of the full Christmas season and found a deeper sense of consummation and fulfillment than I’d ever known before. And I’ve continued the tradition ever since.
Sure, there are plenty of days in that stretch when I have to put in a shift of work but – particularly in contrast to the weeks leading up to December 25th – those days are otherwise wonderfully clear and quiet and uncluttered and conducive to prayer and reflection on themes of mortality and incarnation. Since Bob Pegg hosted an outdoor fondue party along the west fork of the Thames on the last night of 1999 (and Grace's predecessor, Badger, in an unattended moment, wolfed down half a pot of melted cheese) I really haven’t bothered much with New Year’s Eve parties. And throughout those usually snow-socked weeks of January, everybody’s partied out and tired of yakking anyway. And because they're trying to lose a few pounds, nobody's really whipping up or loading up on rich or exotic foods. It’s a golden opportunity to step back a bit and contemplate broader – even eternal – vistas.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :