I Remember the Carols, I Hear Them Every Day
The annual ambush occurred after the winter pageant. All fifth graders were required to sing. No Exceptions: No exception for tone deafness, for adaptive PE, for religious observances, for stage fright. No exception for projectile vomit, for cultural objections or for prior commitments. Principal Goodsen insisted we all sing. Even Paul Evans, recovering from the flu, performed. Paul teetered on stage propped up by Ty Jenson and Stephan Kuylt. "Requirements are requirements," Miss Thurgen reminded us.
Miss Thurgen produced a short program lasting less than an hour. We started with, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” followed by “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Mrs. Jonsen and Mr. Brandenkeit presented a dramatic reading of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” assisted by select second, third and fourth graders playing Whovillians.
A musical interlude followed. Those of us who played instruments were encouraged to learn a medley of Broadway Christmas tunes. I left my clarinet at home. It’s better to blend in and hide, as much as possible, in the chorus stands. We sang,“O Tannenbaum” in German.
Principal Goodsen introduced Pastor Williams who delivered a sermon on the true meaning of Christmas. We sang, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” ending with “Stille Nacht.”
After our performance, I waited to retrieve my coat and mittens. The Mother's Auxiliary announced our names one by one and handed us our articles. Naturally, they called popular students like Daniel Krane and Jennifer Wilkins first. Bullies like Chas Grates, Dick Pincus and Karl Fandkin demanded their coats next. Slowly, they called less popular students followed by Hispanics, blacks and other minorities. Mo, Qing, Lester and I, true outcasts, received our coats last.
We exited through a side stage door into a corridor between the Auditorium/Cafeteria and a row of classrooms. Mo noticed most of the corridor lights were out. He stopped, wanting to turn back. While I explained the increased likelihood of bulb burnouts during winter months, I was tackled from behind.
Dick Pincus sat on my butt pushing my face to the ground. He let up enough to turn me over pinning my shoulders. I looked around. Chas straddled Mo, Qing lay in front of Al Peckwood and Karl trapped Lester.
Chas started singing:
On the twelfth day of Christmas
My true love, I give to thee:
Twelve fists a jabbing,
(In alternating sets of two, Chas pummeled Mo)
Eleven speakers a spitting ...
I heard Mr. Pincus’ direction, “Better get started, son.”
We wish (right hook to my jaw) you a Merry Christ(left hook)mas;
We wish (right hook) you a Merry Christ(left hook)mas;
We wish (right hook) you a Merry Christ(left hook)mas
and a Happy New Year(left cross).
Good ti (right hook)dings we bring (left hook) to you(right hook) and your kin(left hook) ;
Good ti (right hook)dings for Christ (left hook)mas
and a Happy New Year(right cross).
Oh, bring(right hook) us a figgy pu (left hook)dding.
Oh, bring(right hook) us a figgy pu (left hook)dding;
Oh, bring(right hook) us a figgy pu (left hook)dding
and a cup ‘o’ good cheer(right cross).
As my face swung from side to side, I saw my friends beaten to rehearsed carols. Besides Mr. Pincus, Mr. Grates, Deputy Fandkin and the fathers of several of my classmates coached, cheered and encouraged our assailants. Chas received the most attention. At “Five Brass Knuckles,” everyone stopped to watch.
Four Falling Rocks (Thrown at the head, two miss)
Three knee drops (his first drop landed on Mo’s groin)
Two sucker punches (standing over Mo)
And one last reminder that love hurts
I saw Chas’ left foot sweep along the sidewalk before it caught Mo’s jaw an inch below his chin. The clack of Mo’s teeth was followed a second later, probably a few milliseconds, by the crack of his skull as his head drove into concrete. As Mo’s blood escaped his cracked cranium, Dick resumed.
We (left hook) won't go until you (right hook) get some;
We (left hook) won't go until you (right hook) get some
Mr. Pincus yelled, “On the beat, son. On the beat. Remember, ‘tis a joyous season.”
‘Tis a joyous season. “’Tis a joyous season,” echoed in my mind until my mind echoed no more.
I awoke on our living room sofa. My face stung under with a pungent salve. It still hurt. I heard a faint version of my father’s voice at our front door.
“A regrettable sacrifice … necessary, yes, necessary … no, just a few bruises … he’ll be at school after the break … of course we’ll be there., can we bring anything? … You are very gracious … Shalom.”
The door shut. Father puttered in the kitchen for a while before visiting me in the living room. He placed a bowl of soup on the coffee table and pulled up a stuffed armchair. “Try to drink some soup,” he said. I swung my feet floorward, picked up a spoon, scooped some broth and opened my mouth. Intense pain. I dropped the spoon slamming my body into the back of the sofa.
“Sorry,” I said.
“No,” he said, “don’t worry. You’ve been through a lot this evening. I’ll clean it up in a bit.” Reaching into his vest pocket, he pulled out a straw. “When the soup cools off, you can use this.”
Gingerly, I laid my head on the padded armrest and pulled my feet up. I let minutes pass before trying the soup again.
“Most of those songs were stolen from the Jews,” my father started. “Not just the Broadway songs like White Christmas were written by Jews. No. Most of them.” My father stood up adopting his cantor’s posture and sang:
Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant
“That’s not about their Christ,” he explained. “Christ was born in a time of Roman oppression, false kings and false prophets. There was nothing to be joyous or triumphant about. And it just grew worse. So bad the Jews rebelled twice and twice they were put down so hard they could not rise up, militarily at least, again. Not for two thousand years. It wasn’t till the final defeat that the gospels, their good news, were even written. No, son, the joyous triumph was the return from Babylonian exile.”
Oh come ye, oh come ye to Jerusalem
“You see, son, the Assyrian king, Nebuchadnezzar, exiled the Jews from the Kingdom of Judea for seventy years. Not all of the Jews, mind you, just the nobles and their households. Priests and all of the other leaders, as well. Workaday Jews not employed by prominent ones remained. The nobles and all, well, they were deported to Babylon for several decades. Like all good Jews, they prospered there like we prosper everywhere on earth we go. So only some nobles, priests and leaders returned. There were not enough. A song of recruitment went out like this:
Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant
Oh come ye, oh come ye to Jerusalem
Oh come and behold it
Oh come and behold it
The Temple of Solomon
My father possessed a beautiful singing voice. For the moment, I was convinced. I was not strong enough to argue or debate. I doubted, however, that ancient Jews sang in English.
His argument continued.
“The Christians took the song and made it their own the same way they took the one God and remade Him into three. Father, Son and Spirit … oy, vey. Now that last song you sang tonight did come from one of their own, but it's a long story. Try your soup.”
I started to sit, but sunk back into the sofa. I shook my head in dissent.
“OK,” he said, “I’ll tell you the history of ‘Silent Night.’ The true history begins in Rome. Many Jews went to Rome and there prospered. Wherever Jews go, they prosper. Back in Jerusalem, Roman rule remained oppressive. Many revolts, big and small. A group called 'Zealots' started assassinating Romans. They used a long thin blade that snuck it’s way through Roman chain mail and even through seams of their plate armor. The knife stayed in Jewish hands. In Rome it was called a ‘Stiletto.’ The Stiletto traveled with the Jews as they followed the Romans into Britain. There, too, the Jews prospered, They prospered when the Romans were there, and they prospered after the Romans left. They survived Britain’s Catholic period and gained prominence when the English king removed the Catholics from power. One Jew, Benjamin Disraeli, even became Prime Minister, but that’s well after the story.”
“What's so funny about a Jewish Prime Minister?” He asked.
“What’s funny is that you said so much without telling the story,” I said.
“When you know stories to tell,” he said, “tell them your way. My point was simple. English kings and Jews faced a common enemy, Catholics. By Catholic, I mean the Irish. They threw their armies at the Irish, but even in subjugation, Irishmen fought back. The lashed out at the Jews. They invented the Blood Libel. The Jews drew out their Stilettos and that’s how the song came about.” He collected himself and sang:
Stiletto knife, deadly knife
Draws sweet blood, takes a life
Dear young children ritually slain
To make Moses’ unholy pain
Hide now child, try to sleep
Quiet child, try to sleep
Stiletto knife, deadly knife
Settles scores, causes strife
Young William of Norwich has gone
From his family unnaturally torn
Lies in damp field slay_ain
William of Norwich is slain
“It goes for several more verses,” he said. “Some German took the melody and the mood. Winter is a time of suffering. ‘Tis a solemn season. The hour grows long. Drink your soup and try to get some rest.”
With a muttered “’Tis a solemn season," he straightened up and went upstairs to bed. The soup cooled. I sucked it through the straw clumps of schmaltz and all. My older brother bopped down the stairs. “Wow!” He exclaimed. “Someone really beat you with the ugly stick.” I grimaced. He sat down next to me. The soup sloshed over the brim.
“At least you’ll get to recover at home,” he said.
I managed a “Huh?”
“Remember a couple years ago. I spent Chanukah with Uncle Marty. I almost looked as bad as you. You’re the last son. You get to stay home.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Why what?” he said.
“Why didn’t you warn me?”
“Dad told me not to. But we can talk about it now. Now that it’s done. That is, if you could talk.” I grimaced again. “Get some sleep,” he said. “Tomorrow’s goin’ to be a long day.”
It wasn’t long. It was near the winter solstice, but it was trying. I slept on the sofa under a quilt Mother laid on top of me in the night. In the morning, I went up to the room my brother and I shared, disrobed and showered. I saw my face and almost collapsed. It looked worse than it felt. My brother prompted me through tooth brushing and dressing. I read in the living room till lunch. More soup. Mother told me to put on my suit.
Mo’s funeral was a simple affair. We gathered in the backyard of the house the Muslims used as a mosque. Rabbi Feldman joined my family near the gate. Mo’s enshrouded body lay on its right side in a simple pine box. The mullah stood on the other side with his back towards us leading five silent prayers. The Muslim men took the coffin to cemetery. Leaving Mom behind, we followed. They carefully orientated his eyes toward Mecca. Father started to sing the Kaddish, but the rabbi shushed him. The mullah asked us to spend forty days reflecting on Mohammed Khalid al Habib’s virtues and how we should incorporate them into our own lives. We walked to the mosque.
Many of the Muslim men pat me on the back offering words of encouragement. They shook hands with father and Rabbi Feldman and walked ahead. I overheard comments like:
“In Palestine, they would be mortal enemies …” one said.
“As it should be,” interjected another.
“… but here, they were best friends,” one concluded.
“As it should be,” commented another.
Some news filtered through the conversations. Lester reversed Karl’s hold and sang a punishing song of his own. Afterwards he and I barely said, “Hello.” Qing was beaten badly. His family moved out of town before Mo was in the ground. They came back for their possessions and put their house up for sale. My nose was broken in several places.
Despite Father’s protestation of Jewish prosperity, there was little prosperity in our household. Even though several doctors offered to fix my nose without charge, we never saved enough money for the operating room, anesthesiologist, recovery room and other charges. Father refused charity though little was offered.
A couple of profitable patents and several good gigs as a product development consultant generated sufficient funds to repair my nose. By my mid twenties, my mouth breathing days were over. No longer an undesirable male, I dated, I wooed, I finally got laid and, eventually, I married.
It’s been a year since Dad died. I did not go to the remembrance. Instead, I called my brother. The topic of the annual ambush came up:
“It’s a matter of justice,” he said.
“Yeah, right,” I retorted. “What the hell did I ever do to them.”
“No, no,” he insisted, “it’s not justice of novels and TV. It’s not the justice like our courts. It’s the justice of millennia and centuries and we played our part. We carried on the memories.”
“So,” I challenged, “it’s just settling old scores?”
“The original grievances and counter grievances were forgotten long ago. Replaced by new ones then replaced again. It’s sorta like the telephone game. The message gets twisted with each retelling. But that’s not important. It’s not important who beats whom. What’s important is that we carried on the traditions. We kept alive the memories. We preserved justice.”
I disagreed. It seemed silly to keep alive memories lost long ago. He said I was too young or stupid to understand. When I asked if he was going to move his family back now that dad was dead, he said, “Not any time soon.”
“’Tis a joyous season.” It’s fearsome to live with such insanity. “’Tis a solemn season.” It’s insane to live in such fear.
I have my own song now. It’s more like a chant since it has no rhyme and little meter. I sing it to myself to get through December’s grocery marts, shopping malls and Starbucks.
I moved out
I moved on
But I remember the Carols
I hear them every day.