For the friend who has everything, why not give the gift of tears?
The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke, Illustrated by Ruth McRae, Peter Pauper Press.
The Fir Tree, by Hans Christian Andersen. Illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, translated by H. W. Dulcken. Harper & Row, 1970
The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry. Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger, with type by Michael Neugebauer. Picture Studio/Neuegebauer Press, 1982.
The point of this exercise initially was to discover illustrated books, primarily used, that I could make some pretty pictures with. Limiting my search to cheap used books meant that I was always browsing other people’s cast offs. Someone – or no one – wanted these books any longer, and they must not have wanted them real bad. If you wanted to keep them, you could certainly find the room. See how skinny they are?
But Bill, Mary and Julie were done with “The Fir Tree.” “Christmas, 1989,” had finished with O. Henry. And no one ever cherished “The Other Wise Man” enough to brand it with so much as an initial. Truth be told, I didn’t want these books either, when I bought them. Too sad, I thought. Hans Christian Andersen is responsible for what is possibly the most cold hearted “fairy tale” tragedy ever told, The Little Match Girl. And the wounded pride of O. Henry’s couple made me cringe the first time I read it in high school. Nonetheless, into the box they went – because of their beautiful images, because I buy Peter Pauper editions on principle, and because they filled my most important criterias: cheap and pretty.
This year, though, these sad friends feel like true friends. The characters, lead astray by vain aspirations to fulfill a Christmas quest, pulsate sympathetically with my own vulnerability. I see how they endure their mortal disappointment, only to discover it has been transmuted into something new through love. I trust their self-centered, misguided actions. I even love them for their honest frailty.
Maybe I knew someone who sacrificed her greatest treasure to keep her pride (The Gift of the Magi). Or the urgent beauty of the present moment is finally seeping through some fissures in my Fortress of Might-Have-Been (The Fir Tree). Or the glow of Artaban’s Pearl of Great Price, at the fulfillment of his journey, illuminates an unanticipated freedom – even joy and peace – for me, too:
What had he to fear? What had he to hope? He had given away the last remnant of his tribute for the King. He had parted with the last hope of finding him. The quest was over, and it had failed. But, even in that thought, accepted and embraced, there was peace. It was not resignation. It was not submission. It was something more profound and searching. He knew that all was well, because he had done the best that he could from day to day. He had been true to the light that had been given to him. He had looked for more. And if he had not found it, if a failure was all that came out of his life, doubtless that was the best that was possible. He had not seen the revelation of “life everlasting, incorruptible and immortal.” But he knew that even if he could live his earthly life over again, it could not be otherwise than it had been.
This year, I heap blessings on O.Henry, and Van Dyke, and even on Mr. Andersen, whose blind and unlucky protagonists reassure me that I am not alone. Loss and hope inevitably mingle on Christmas day. Perhaps that is, finally, a reason to celebrate – to see that, while painful, failure has been the path, all along, and I am in good company.
And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.