Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmases Past

A view from my chair. Lights from the tree reflected to the window glass.
Howard Kissel
Christmas always brings back memories. This morning while my last batch of cookies baked I sat in my living room with NPR in the background playing a beautiful choral version of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and I looked at my little tree. Its lights reflected in the window glass to the left, creating an illusion of another lighted tree--the bare tree outside the window looked to be lit as well. The magic of the moment--music, Christmas, and lights that were not there--transported me to a long past conversation about Christmas with one of the dearest hearts I've ever known, the very Jewish, very knowledgeable-about-everything Howard Kissel.

It was 1996. Howard was in Alabama directing a play for Jubilee Fish Theater--my theater--and I had just received a letter from my stepdaughter in Vermont who complained that her children's school had put a ban on the singing of Christmas carols for the first time that year. Howard and I were shocked and saddened to learn about this. He related how, growing up in a largely Gentile suburb of Milwaukee, he had attended an almost-entirely Gentile grammar school. Christmas was celebrated at school, and he had, as he said, "always been interested in that story," (he had a way of italicizing verbally, without the need for air quotes). Anyway, little Howard sang the carols with his classmates without a second thought. He loved music of all kinds and was very moved by the elegant old carols, particularly the religious ones about the star and the babe in the manger.

"I was in no danger of being converted, or anything of the sort," I remember him saying in that gentle, professorial tone of his. "No one would have thought the Christmas music would be bad for me." He related that recently he had been to a Broadway fund-raiser around Christmastime. It was held in one of the major theaters and the house was full of actors, producers, and high-level theatrical types. "They sang those songs," he said. These were, for the most part, professionals with magnificent voices, but what touched him most was their commitment to the carols themselves. "I realized it was their music, music they had known as children, music that warmed their hearts and meant the best of the Christmas spirit. It was possibly the most moving experience I'd ever had. I loved singing with them."

I sat there this morning, listening to the carol, looking at my magical little tree sharing its light with another tree outside, and thought, not only of how much I miss Howard, who died in 2012, but of how Christmas has power to bring us happiness through the ages. I don't worry about the commercialization of the holiday--that's out of my control anyway. I regret that the beautiful carols are no longer on the public school agenda, for some misguided reason or other. But I have seen so many transformations in the culture in my lifetime that I can only accept the changes as the way of the world. And I am glad to have special Christmas memories of my own and to have vicariously, through one of the most spiritual Jewish men I have ever known, been privileged to experience exalted Christmases in years past. The holiday invites beautiful memories. Today, mine are of a very special friend.


  1. A beautiful tribute to our friend and former colleague. I can hear him saying those words. He was a very special man and you have captured him perfectly.

  2. Thanks Mary Lois, it's a lovely remembrance.

  3. Excellent. I wish I had known him.

  4. Thank you, Mary Lois. Your note about how Howard would italicize his spoken words brought him back to me again. I remember him doing that many times. One time when I told him I was visiting my aunt and uncle in upstate New York, and I mentioned their name was "Pontius," he said, "A Pontius did not treat one of my people very well." Of course, "my people' was italicized. Another time after watching "Godspell off-Broadway, he italicized "my people" again. He said he felt like punching the young guy playing a very jazzed hippie Jesus in the face. "After all," Howard said, "Jesus was one of my people." I felt like I had not met any holy man like him.