Herod the GreatWritten by Donna Marmorstein. 

Early in December, when stars seem sharper and bluer than at other times, Christmas music seems to sharpen them even more. I unpack my age-old Christmas record collection. I’ll put on “Goodyear’s Great Songs of Christmas” with Mitch Miller and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I’ll brew some cinnamon tea, light a mulberry-scented candle and write Christmas cards. Usually, when stamps, return labels, address book and cards are arrayed before me, the carols swirl up together with the tea steam, and my toes turn warm. A deep, bone-radiating satisfaction takes over. Renewing contact with friends is one of the best parts of Christmas.

But this year something went wrong. It started when I tried to write a Christmas greeting to my aunt. How can you wish holiday cheer to someone who just lost a husband to cancer? Her chance of merriment at Christmas is about nil. My pen froze in midair as I tried to think of something to write. How jolly will her Christmas be, as she tries to mix celebration with grief? And his death will mar Christmases to come. My uncle’s voice, singing every morning as he shaved, now stilled. His jokes, smiles, and positive outlook–all gone.

And what do I write to warm the spirits of friends whose youngest child drowned in a lake this summer? Merry Christmas? Right. Every mall, every shop they enter where toys just right for a 6-year-old boy sit on display will become a torture chamber. No message I write can convey joy without pain. There’s no way around it.

My address book isn’t what it used to be either. Every page has abandoned addresses now. My grandpa, long gone. My grandma, who every Christmas cooked up fudge divinity and sugared walnuts, can’t receive my Christmas greetings now. My other grandma–whose flashbulb ALWAYS malfunctioned Christmas morning–is dead, too, and I would love to feel her knobby, blue-veined hand on mine once more, and watch her “fiddle with” her camera now. Her sister, wise, warmhearted Auntie Faye, died Christmas morning in her sleep at 97. Her address still echoes in my book.

All the expired addresses accumulate, and suddenly ripples spot my envelopes. The candle flickers out, the record player grinds to a halt. Stars blur and fall. The needles on the tree all turn brown and drop to the floor. Death creeps into my address book. It grips my pen and tries to overpower my Christmas. No carol seems able to withstand its ugly claw.

But then the turntable starts up again. The Coventry carol plays: “By, by, lully, lullay/ Herod the king, in his raging/ Charged he hath this day/ His men of might, in his own sight/ All young children to slay.” The only carol I know that mentions Herod’s slaughter of the innocents to destroy the Christ child and, consequently, Christmas. Pain, grief and fear riddled the first Christmas. This problem goes back a long time.

Herod, however, did not have this day. Death does not have this day. In fact, the whole reason behind Christmas was to overthrow the power of death and sin and hell. So when death creeps up and grabs a loved one, Christmas kicks death in the teeth and says, “You can’t keep that one. That’s mine.”

Death, where is thy sting? Stuck somewhere under the mistletoe, I suspect. The needles fly back onto the tree and turn green. Falling stars rise and shine, resharpened. My cold tea steams up again. The candle relights. Appropriate, hopeful words spill from my pen onto cards. And Christmas, if not always merry, is always, always victorious.

Donna Marmorstein, December 2003

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