This Year's Best Christmas Story
To advance this tale it must be understood by all that I have
been, off and on and for much of my life, a bookseller. And I am as prone as most others of that breed to fanciful notions and antique behavior.
So you will appreciate that when I dressed up that Christmas Eve, it was not at all unusual and it was in fact my habit and practice to do so for the weeks preceding each Christmas day. Clad in tailcoat, weskit and tophat,
with ascot and stickpin, every bit the Victorian gentleman, I would greet
customers into the store. I was always happy to bring a smile to holiday-stressed faces, and over the years the customers came to expect and appreciate my costuming. For those who inquired as to why I was garbed so I would reply: "Why, to reflect the spirit of the season, of course!" And to those who inquired as to my identity, I would say that I was representing the spirit of Charles Dickens.
So it was that when Patricia and I were headed home on that Christmas Eve, after playing elf and delivering presents, I was still garbed as
Dickens.There is a wonderful tradition in parts of New Mexico: on some important holidays, especially Halloween (Day of the Dead) and Christmas Eve, people decorate the graves of their loved ones. The graves are tidied and fresh flowers are set out, as are offerings of food and drink. On Christmas Eve small gifts, cards, and trees are left as well. And luminaria are set out around the graves, candle glow lending soft light to the cemetery. (On one night, the thought of which still brings tears to my eyes, we saw a mass of luminaria on a distant grave; on closer approach, we found that they spelled out "Love You".)
It is our custom to visit the cemetery late on Christmas Eve, to walk among the graves and witness the care given in honor of departed loved ones. On this particular Christmas Eve, we drove slowly through the parking lot
of the cemetery to get an overall view, then headed up a short service road
(amusingly and appropriately signed as a "Dead End") that heads up a slight rise beside the cemetery, to get another view.
To our surprise, there was a medium-sized Christmas tree lying in the middle of the dirt road. While we have often seen Christmas trees dumped along roads, it is usually after the event! It seemed a shame that this perfectly presentable tree should miss Christmas, so I got out and put it atop the car. Then we drove back down and parked in front of the cemetery gate.
In the Bernalillo cemetery, the area to the south is more recent and better-kept. Thus, on Christmas Eve it is the best lit, as it has the most luminaria about. By contrast, the older area to the northeast is dark and relatively gloomy, and a bit sad since the lack of light means that it has not had visitors.
While Patricia moved slowly through the southern part of the cemetery, reading the cards and messages and paying her respects, I took the
tree down from atop the car and headed for the darker area of the cemetery, intent on finding the grave most in need of a Christmas tree. I wandered about until I found just the one: deep in the unlit portion of the cemetery, not forlorn (someone had mounded the earth on the grave sometime in the last few years) but unmarked and obviously not recently visited.
So I set about giving the unknown resident of the grave a tree. I had nothing with which to dig a hole for the tree to stand in, but close
at hand there was a 2-foot wooden cross, the bottom of which had broken off at an angle -- just the thing for scraping a hole into the mounded earth of the grave. Holding the tree upright with my left hand, I crouched down and started making a hole with the cross.
Just then a minivan pulled in through the gate of the cemetery and began driving along the loop road that runs through the middle of it, very
likely a family coming to see the luminaria. As they reached the end of the road and were about to make the turn to loop back out, their headlight beams were about to fall across me.
Just before the light reached me, I stood up straight and still.
The minivan stopped. I can only imagine what they thought when
they saw me: a very tall bearded man, alone at midnight in the dark
section of the cemetery, clad in Victorian attire and tophat, eyeglasses reflecting blankly in the light from their headlights, a Christmas tree in one hand -- and a broken cross in the other. For a long timeless moment the van sat there; I stood perfectly still. Then the minivan left. Quickly.
So, my friends, if you are ever regaled with the tale of The Tree Specter of Christmas Eve (for, as we all know, tales grow in the telling),
you will now know its source.
Good Holidays to all, and a Marvelous New Year coming!