Christmas disarray

A confidence, first: I love Christmas, by far my favorite holiday. I like the atmosphere that sets in at the beginning of December, with the decorated trees in the houses and the lights in the towns and villages. It’s cold, the sun fades too soon, the year draws to a close and, tired, we long for rest. Christmas embodies this heartwarming and possibly joyous truce.

I put up with the sentimentality that accompanies it. I listen with pleasure to Christmas songs; they console me for the harshness of existence. I even enjoy listening to cinematographic bluettes telling garlanded romances. All that reassures me.

I want, however, more and better. Feast of the birth, therefore of promises, and, for Christians, of the new covenant with God, Christmas carries too strong a symbolic load to be satisfied with superficial expressions. Literature then comes to my rescue, revealing the human depth of the event.

Can we find a more powerful illustration of the indifference and cruelty of humans than The little match girl (1845), this moving tale of the Danish Hans Christian Andersen, which has no equal, perhaps, only The baby jesus (1893), by Rainer Maria Rilke? In Quebec, the sweet tales of Louis Fréchette, gathered in Christmas in Canada (1900), “Little Pauline”, in particular, shine with their exquisite refinement.

In the contemporary world, however, the vein of collected Christmas tales seems to have dried up. There are quite a few recent successes. The Christmas stories for young and old (Québec Amérique, 2011), by novelist Micheline Duff, are charming and offer a nice little music, but are a little too kind to make a strong impression.

In a more social register, The Christmas Eclipse, a beautiful tale by the writer Jacques Côté, published in The Hurry in 2003 and unfortunately become difficult to find since, is essential like a piece of quality. Addressing his daughter
Rose, then very young, Côté evokes one of the most painful Christmases of his youth, at the end of the 1960s.

His father and mother have just been fired for union activities. Life is hard. The family looks for pennies in the interstices of the sofa in order to buy food. Union solidarity comes to put a balm on the wound by providing fir and turkey. “Don’t forget that somewhere in time, my love, you came from poverty and that your duty is to show solidarity. Never look away, ”Côté wrote to his daughter as a moral.

Côté’s tale is all the more precious because it is a rarity. Nowadays, in fact, under the influence of American consumerist sentimentalism, the Quebecois imagination of Christmas almost always tastes like an overly sweet holiday log and its literary manifestations, moreover, are infrequent.

This year, against a backdrop of Covidian Christmas, the popular novelist Mylène Gilbert-Dumas is venturing down this too little frequented path with Christmas at Kingscroft (VLB, 2021, 178 pages). The story is that of Clarisse, a single mother of six children of different fathers, who is preparing to celebrate a Christmas tarnished by the severe health constraints of last year which put everyone on the nerves, including the father of heroin, rather resistant to government instructions. A charming neighbor of Syrian origin and of the Orthodox faith completes the portrait by opening the door to romance. Rustic and cozy, the work has certain soothing virtues, but lacks spiritual elevation. The Christmas she tells is sweet, but down to earth.

The evocative force of Christmas, whether we like it or not, lies in its religious dimension. Without the latter, the party flattens out and becomes commonplace. We need the genius, and perhaps the age too, of Denys Arcand, like that of the poet Jules Laforgue (1860-1887) in his Skeptical Christmas, to understand that even the atheist needs the religious mystery of Christmas to grasp the human richness of the event.

In But where are the snows of yesteryear ?, a hymn written by Arcand and set to music by François Dompierre, in 2020, for the concert The way to Christmas (Atma, 2021), designed by chef Bernard Labadie, the filmmaker, delicately evokes the faith that animated our ancestors and gave meaning to their lives, while noting its erasure.

Instead of celebrating this development, as the half
skillful despised by Blaise Pascal, Arcand meditates gravely on the spiritual desert thus created. “Christmases gone forever, / Christmases of our old loves, / Who will come to our aid? / Where can we find a last resort? / Our dismay is constant… / But where are the snows of yesteryear? He writes beautifully. Happy are those who find real answers to this cry of conscience.

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