Life in Crystal Beach
Episode 7: A Most Unusual Christmas


Who doesn’t love Christmas? I mean there’s something for everyone. If you believe in the Jesus thing, you’ve got that; if you don’t, you’ve got the Santa thing. If you’re too old for the Santa thing, you can still enjoy a season of good will, cheer, awesome music and neat parties.  Christmas is just a great time of the year.

Before Christians took over the holiday, I’ve read that around December 25th the Romans had a celebration called Saturnalia. It paid tribute to Saturn, the agricultural God of crops and husbandry. They celebrated the renewal of light and the coming of the new year. They had a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, a public banquet, private gift-giving, and a lot of parties. So, no matter what you believe, Christmas is a time for celebration. 

Of course, here at the beach we don’t have a lot of the customary things that people think about when they think about Christmas.  We don’t have pine trees for cutting fresh Christmas trees or snowy days with sleigh rides.  And we seldom need to curl up in front of a warm fire; that is, unless you turn the air conditioner down really low. But we do have a celebration just the same—parties, music and gifts.

There are several churches here in Crystal Beach. Methodists, Catholics, Church of Christ, Non-denominationalists and, of course, Baptists are all represented in our community. I could never be a Catholic. I mean, you’re suppose to go to church at least once a week and confess everything you’ve done that’s considered a sin (and there’s a long list of those) to a fellow who is mysteriously concealed in a booth.  But then every time you go to church you have to look him in the eye, knowing full well that when he sees you he’s thinking of all those horrible things that you’ve confessed to. I figure the reason he’s sitting behind a curtain at confession is so you won’t see him laugh or get all bug-eyed when he hears about the things you’ve done. Listening to confession is the only appealing thing about being a priest to me. I think hearing confessions would be a hoot!  Only I’d probably burst out laughing or say something like, “no shit!” It would be my luck that the priest I confessed to would leave the priesthood and post all of my antics on Facebook or some other social media site. Of course, in my case that might not be a bad thing.  I mean, sometimes a bad reputation can get you a date. I, myself, have started rumors in hopes of getting such results.   

Personally, I grew up going to the Church of Christ with my Mom.  Dad wasn’t much of a church-goer.  In fact, he wasn’t much of a goer at all.  After work he pretty much just sat around drinking light beer and eating potato chips.  I hate fuckin’ light beer.  It tastes like dirty water. Just give me an IPA and I’m a happy camper.

In the Church of Christ they don’t let you use instruments, or at least they didn’t back then.  I haven’t gone in quite a while.  I never could understand why they didn’t use guitars or a piano or some goddamn thing.  Most of the people who were there couldn’t sing on pitch and having a couple of loud instruments would have helped a shitload. I guess they thought God didn’t like instruments.  Funny, when I was in high school I pictured God sitting back with his feet resting on a fluffy cloud and listening to some Eagles or other old rock band.  I mean, just think of all the great musicians that have died.  Man, God must have his pick of anyone he wants to hear! He probably has some kickass jam sessions!

I guess I just never understood God the way other people seem to. I mean take prayer for example.  People say that God knows everything even what’s going to happen in the future.  And then they pray that God will do this or that or make this or that happen as if they think they can tell God what to do!  I mean, hell, who knows best, them or God? I’ve had some well-intentioned people say that they will pray for me.  I want to say, “No, thanks”. God might decide to do what they wanted instead of what he already knew was best and I’d be screwed! Anyway, it just never made sense to me.

In addition to the music, at Christmas most protestant churches try to come up with a creative way to communicate the age-old story of the Christian Christmas.  Over the years of dropping into church at Christmastime I’ve noticed that there’s one method that seems to be very popular: dramatizations.  The church that I wandered into at Christmas this year was no exception. They had chosen to illustrate the manger scene with actors while the minister, Pastor Harris, read the Christmas story from the Bible.  It’s a commonly used no-brainer at Christmas. Now, I’m not going to be overly critical because I know that churches have to work with what talent they have available. But drama is something I know quite a bit about.  You see, theater was my major in college.  It wasn’t my intended major, it just kinda happened.  I guess you could say it was fate, or better yet, sex, that altered my career objectives. Originally, I wanted to be a forest ranger.  You know, live in the wild, commune with nature, talk to the animals and all that naturalistic crap.

Anyway, I had to walk through the Fine Arts building to get to the Forestry Department.  As I passed by the theater, I noticed that they were having auditions for some kind of play.  I also noticed that there were like a million great looking girls auditioning.  So, what else could I do? Led by my male compass, an anatomical part of me that has always been a major influence in my decision-making, I decided to stop for a minute and audition. As it turned out, I got a part!  I was always sort of a ham growing up.  So I actually got cast in the play.  Little did I know that the play was Macbeth, a very lengthy, hard-to-understand play written by Billy Shakespeare. Turns out he wrote a lot of long, hard-to-understand plays. Problem is that all of the characters in his plays talk weird. Instead of saying, “Will you go to the fair?” he’ll write, “Wilt thou goest to the fair?” I mean, who talks like that?  Did people ever talk like that? I mean except Amish people? So, that was the play and I was cast as one of the murderers.  Appropriate, I guess, cause I’m sure I murdered the part!

It was opening night.  The theater had a men’s and women’s dressing room but only one makeup cabinet. When you’re in a play everybody has to wear goddamn makeup! The cabinet had wheels but it mainly stayed in the men’s dressing room.  I guess they figured that if the makeup cabinet was in the men’s dressing room, the guys wouldn’t spend all night going to the women’s dressing room to get makeup and cop a look. The show would probably never go on! 

In this play, all of the actors who had minor parts had to wear greasepaint.  This crap is appropriately named because it’s nothing more than some kind of colored greasy shit mixed with water.  It smells like shit and it makes you feel like your covered in shit!  Anyway, I had just painted myself with this toxic substance and started to apply eyeliner (yes, eyeliner! It was required. Hell, I was 200 feet from the audience. Who was going to notice if I was wearing eyeliner or not? It wasn’t like I was going on a date or anything, or that I was gonna have to run into the audience and give them a close-up of my face!) So I was struggling a little with trying to draw a line around my eye with a sharp, black pencil without putting my eye out.  Hell, I never could stay in the lines when I had a coloring book! Complicate matters with the fact that half-naked girls kept parading into the room to get their makeup.  It’s hard enough to draw those lines when there are no diversions but add half-naked women to the mix and you’ve got a very fucking dangerous situation!

I had one eye just about done when this hotter-than-hell babe walked up behind me.  She was only wearing a bra, panties and a smile. I didn’t have to turn around.  I could see her very clearly in the large mirror over the dressing table. In anticipation of her approach, I stuck myself in the eye with the damn pencil! She grabbed my head with both of her hands and thrust my head back between two of the largest cantaloupes I had ever seen in person! A tear ran down my face.  I’m not sure if it was a result of the pencil I had jabbed into my eye or just the ecstasy of the moment.

“Can I help?” she asked. 
“You already have!” I wanted to say. 
“Sure. Thanks.” That was probably the best answer.

It was at that moment that I knew that I had chosen the best new career path. However, it was what happened after the opening night’s performance that validated my decision.
The play was over and I was eager to get that greasepaint crap off my skin.  I stripped down and got into the shower in the men’s dressing room.  I was the only one in the shower. Some guys are shy about taking a shower around other guys, I guess. I was an athlete in high school and so we all had to take a shower after gym class.  The worse thing about it was that there was always some asshole who would wet a towel and start popping other guys on the ass.  Man, that hurt like hell!

I had just about scrubbed my eyelids off trying to remove the eyeliner when I heard a feminine voice behind me.

“How do you think the show went tonight?” she asked nonchalantly.
Needless to say, I was a little fucking startled. I mean, for me it’s hard enough to make conversation with the opposite sex under normal circumstances, but I found that it was even more difficult when you’re naked as a jaybird (whatever that means) and the girl’s staring at you skinny, wet ass! Turn around and discuss? I think not! I suddenly had a place to hang my washcloth and I wasn’t about to show her the towel rack!
“Yeah,” I said timidly. “I thought it went well.”
“I thought you did a good job.  Is this your first play?”
“Yeah.  First time for a lot of things,” I replied.
“Well, I’ll guess I’ll be seeing more of you later,” she said as she walked away.
“You won’t be seeing much more of me because there’s not a lot more of me left to see!” I said to myself.

Wow! What a college! If this was any indication of what the next few years was going to be like I figured I was destined to be a career student!

At church, the play started. Mary and Joseph entered the sanctuary and meandered down the aisle.  Mary carried a real infant in her arms. They took their places on stage in a make-shift stable.  There aren’t a lot of young people who live in Crystal Beach.  Most people who live here are retired folks.  So, the characters were around 60 years old. Obviously, it was a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  I immediately realized this adaptation provided a second miracle: the virgin birth and the idea that this Mary was still a virgin!

Then came the wise men: three elderly gentlemen in bathrobes and flip-flops. I actually recognized one of the men. He hung out at the bar every now and then, sort of a know-it-all with a superiority complex.  I figured that what we really had here were two wise men and a wise ass.  But tonight was a special occasion so I accepted that he was a wise man.
Usually it’s just the opposite.  Churches normally use young children to reenact the story. Some little girl who’s too young to know where babies come from plays Mary and there’s always one wise man that picks his nose or scratches where he shouldn’t.  But, they’re kids and it’s Christmas and no one cares about shit like that.

The service seemed to be going well: the actors doing their part, the preacher reading the scriptures.  And then, something unexpected happened. The old man playing the part of Joseph, standing next to Mary, suddenly grabbed his chest and quickly found a seat on a nearby bale of hay.  Pastor Harris noticed the unpredicted movement and realized that this was not part of the play. She stopped reading.  There was an uncomfortable silence in the sanctuary.  The infant who was playing the part of the baby Jesus began to cry.  Its mother took it out of the room. Since most of the congregation were older folks, they understood the seriousness of the moment.  Two men rushed to the stage.  The old man leaned over into the arms of one. I heard someone behind me call for an ambulance. Whispering broke out around the room.  The scene on stage had become more intense.  One caregiver was beginning to perform CPR and administer chest compressions.  Fortunately, the church was close to the fire department and the ambulance arrived quickly. The EMTs rushed to the old man.  They urgently worked on the patient. One EMT made a phone call. Finally, their efforts seemed to be less urgent. They laid him on a stretcher and left.  The old man had died.

The room was still. Some wept quietly, others simply sat in shock.  Pastor Harris walked back to the pulpit.  The mood was somber. She spoke about the fragility and uncertainty of life.  She talked about the child born at Christmas and how, whether you believed that he was the savior of the world or not, you must confess that he was surely the savior of his world—of the people whose lives he touched.  He healed the sick and was an advocate for the poor and downtrodden. She said that we should all strive to be like that—to help where we could, to be a savior to our own world, in our own neighborhoods; to sacrifice our time and abilities in the service of others; to be like the child born at Christmas.

After the sermon was over, we ended by singing Silent Night.  They turned out all of the lights and everyone held a lighted candle.  I dripped wax on my leg.  It burned like hell! I didn’t yell.  I just took a deep breath and blew on it. Then peeled it up.
After I left the church I walked to the beach and watched the sun go down over the Gulf. For the first time in a very long time I pondered life. Who knows, maybe I’ll do that more often. I thought about the old man who died and the baby who cried. I was reminded of the lyrics of an old Blood Sweat and Tears song,

And when I die, and when I’m dead, dead and gone;
there’ll be one child born in this world to carry on, to carry on.

There seems to be some kind of balance in the world, you know?  One life leaves, another life arrives. Heavy shit. The sun was going down over the surf. I felt like listening to some music but since there weren’t any choirs on the beach I called up iTunes on my phone and God and I played some old Eagles songs. Then I sat by myself and watched the most awesome sunset that I had seen since last week. It was a most unusual Christmas.