We were in Hamilton, for many the hub of the Land of Pleasant Living, and suddenly we knew that Christmas would really happen. We had had doubts.
In this year of recession -- with the population engaged in acts of mopery, with consumers keeping their fingers wrapped tightly about dollars, with a whining president and at least one fretful governor desperately imploring shoppers to spend us out of this mess -- we had doubts. We didn't expect to see ye olde Christmas Spirit wearing anything splashy this season.
But then we went to Hamilton.
Not every, but certainly many houses were decked out in long beads of electric light. The shrubs had lights. The naked dogwoods had lights. There was a modified colonial with lights along the roof line, down rain gutters, along a board fence. Even the garage had a halo. There was a glowing plastic Santa on the lawn, and glowing plastic reindeer and choir boys.
"This reminds me of the neighborhood where I grew up," Lillian Donnard, baby boomer and product of Catholic schools, said from the back seat of my car when we stopped at a red light. "My father had all that stuff. It was tacky, but I loved it. He had lights on the roof, along the porch. He had Santa and reindeers and choir boys. Every house was like that."
"That's the spirit," I said. "Get nostalgic. Go ahead. Let it happen."
The way I figure it, if something happens -- if you see something, anything -- and it reminds you of a happy Christmas from long ago, then you are blessed. If the lights stir awake memories, and you start to feel wonderfully sentimental, if something in this season of gloom makes you smile, then that is a sign of spiritual vigor. It means you still have hope the good old days are not quite gone forever.
We went to Batavia Avenue. It was downright festive.
At Sherrie Trabert's house, best evidence of a vigorous Christmas spirit was the snow-dome collection on the covered radiator in the front hallway. Snow domes -- those water-filled glass or plastic balls that snow when you shake 'em -- are prized by collectors of Christmas kitsch. Ms. Sherrie's are gorgeous. She must have had 30 of them arranged with a heavy garnish of evergreen and those white made-in-Taiwan lights. Inside the domes were plastic Santas and elves, plastic snowmen, doves and angels, even two ice-dancing chickens. Bad taste was never so tastefully presented. It was inspired.
You should go to Hampden and to Woodberry for further evidence of holiday inspiration and, more, the resilience of humanity. In those two neighborhoods, you'll find very humble houses with extraordinary displays of electric lights and high Christmas kitsch, pink flamingos included.
From Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, you can see the twinkling of the spirit where you least expect it -- in the lofty windows of the housing projects. From Irvington out to Catonsville, from Linthicum down to Ferndale, the Christmas spirit is making a pretty good show in this season of woe. It reminds you of the good old days.
Yesterday at lunch, Paul Mugavero wasn't buying into this silver-lining stuff.
He said Christmas memories only affirm how very different -- and therefore bad -- things are today. For one thing, many Catholic churches had discontinued midnight mass. This sadly included the West Baltimore parish in which Paulie Mugs -- that's what I call him -- had grown up, back in the 1940s. So, naturally, he was reluctant to tap into a sacred memory.
But I talked him into it.
"Go ahead," I said. "Get nostalgic."
"The place was packed, packed!" he said. "All the children were dressed in Sunday best. On the altar were three Passionist fathers, attended by three altar boys. On the sides of the altar were the seminarians, in their black robes and sandals. They would come in a procession from the back of the altar, chanting in Latin, each carrying a candle. Kneeling were six altar boys in red, white and gold cassocks. The mass unfolded, and the priest would chant prayers in Latin. The seminarians would respond in a resonant a cappella. All the while, the smell of fresh flowers mingled with the sweet aroma of incense. From the choir came the Latin hymn, 'Panis Angelicus,' and for a moment a little piece of Heaven descended upon me. . . . "
Beautiful. And, as he spoke, I detected something in Paulie's eyes -- something between a twinkle and a tear.