Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Christmas Omen (as in Gregory Peck)

Sense memory doesn't have to be traumatic. Can be delightful in the right circumstances. Candles don't have to smell like Christmas, but they always do in churches to me. This is the primal brain- innumerable midnight candlelight services in a baptist church, so all candles in churches must be Christmas.

I'm not saying rational brain, I'm saying primal brain.

The candlelight service is a lovely idea for a Christmas night service. Of course they heat the room up, and it's amazingly easy to set somebody's hair on fire. Downright amusing too, in the right circumstances, although a little hard on the person's head. And hair. I can't say I condone such behaviour.

Cheap wax candles, the small ones, which have been kept in a freezer in a church basement (freezing parrafin is supposed to make it dripless- whether this comes to pass or not is a matter for some conjecture) will always make me thing of Christmas, despite the fact that cheap wax candles are sort of, well everywhere. Maybe the scent needs a few other elements. Hairspray. A too-warm room from all the open flames and the smell of cold air from a cracked-open door in an effort to get a draft moving. And perfume. Somebody's perfume.


This brings up 'The Omen' Christmas special. A brief history- The Omen is a not very good mid 70's movie about a nice millionaire who accidentally adopts the anti-christ. Hey, these things happen. It's pretty intense for those who freak out at religious imagery (and they are legion). The tot is taken by his trusting father (who's had to replace the nanny, who's hanged herself crying his son's name) to church where the kid freaks out, froths at the mouth and generally acts up to the extent that the local clergy get a bit concerned. Yes, church is pretty dry for the under (and frequently over) 10-year-old set, but c'mon...

Anyhow...the Omen...famous for the being-strewn-from-the-church scene. Keep it in the back of your mind. Go rent the DVD if you must. It does have Gregory Peck, and he's always fun to watch.

My father liked company for the candlelight service and my mother was usually too beat from a few Anglican Christmas related services of her own to get one more dose of the carols/blessing/gentle commercialism admonishment. I would willingly go with my father for two reasons- it would make me feel less guilty for not going to church consistently during the year and it was also kind of a nice service. Quiet. Dark. Would have been even nicer without all the singing.

One year (I think I was 20 or so) I lit my cheap wax candle at the appointed time and waited either for the holy spirit to move me or for the service to be over so I could meet some friends for a late coffee to complain about how weird our families get at Christmas. Whichever came first. Some bright light had included artistically matching tiny buckets of sand alongside the pews in the event of disaster.

Sure enough, something came into me. I still don't know what- perfume. The cheap candles. An aftershave, or a hairspray, or something...but my eyes began to water. I wear contact lenses, this is not an unusual occurrence. My nose running was an expected side effect. It was my shortness of breath and shakes that bothered me.

After around two minutes of this, I realized that I was either having a fairly epic allergic reaction to something, or I had become spawn of Satan and Christ and all his Saint buddies were throwing me out of a Baptist church. C'mon. Bill Clinton remains a member in good standing, so I really don't think some kind of spiritual excommunication was taking place.


I finally tapped my father on the shoulder and said "I'm sick" and shuffled past him, disappearing into the church basement where I found a large group of choir members getting ready for their big entrance. I knew one of them from early high school - I hadn't Sarah, a perfectly nice person, for what felt like a long time - and wanted to strangle her after 5 minutes simply because she was being nice rather than listening to me.

"Michael, are you okay?"

(overcome with coughing, sneezing, eyes watering) "Hi Sawah. Sowwy, I'm sick fwom..."

"I understand, Michael. It's a very emotional season for everyone..."

"Sawah, I'm not cwying. I'm sick, I'm awlergic."

"Is your dad here? Are you fighting?"

"Sawah! I'm awlergic to the candwles or somebody's perwfume!"

"I love my dad, but sometimes we disagree and..."

"Sawah, I'm not fighting with..."

"Do you need a hug?"

"Uh..sure. And do you have a kweenex?"

Why did everyone assume we were fighting? I never fought with my father.

The symptoms faded after 10 minutes or so minutes, but I sat out the service and only wandered back in at the end (dodging a group of 6 year olds who were sure that their timeless rendition of 'Away in a Manger' would be their 15 minutes of fame), and promptly got hit with another wave of whatever it was.

My father, always one to stay for coffee and brownies, skipped the usual festivities and led me to the car and, weirdly enough, my sense memory hit me in another fashion. Hard soled shoes on an icy parking lot and the weird orange glow that the skin in a city gets on a snowy night remind me of Christmas, of Baptist Sunday School services in winter in particular. I had marched over that parking lot in that context from the age of six onwards. The slippery pavement, the cold, the sky, the waft of (potentially poisonous) candles flooded together. It was a crystallizing moment, that year.


STAG said...

Me, I am allergic to whatever additive they put into iceberg lettuce....but only in fast food places. Gives me an excuse not to eat fast food. Candles eh? Hmmm....the dust in old wooden churches gets to me too...the incense just chokes me. I can see how "The Omen" struck a chord.
Toronto is a place to BE introspective and a little lonely. I have never felt warm and cozy on Bay Street. And for all the huge population, one can walk behind the train station and find yourself all alone. People in cars don't count...they are not part of your personal space. A darn good place to live if you don't really want to know your neighbour.
Merry Christmas. You will survive this one same as you have survived all the rest.

Mike D. said...

and merry christmas to you sir!

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