"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Why Christmas Finally Means Something

Joseph Ponti  had never been a fan of Christmas.  The Holidays were supposed to be happy times, but they never were. No matter how much his family tried, they always ended up squabbling, drunk, and pissy.

His Aunt Betty did all the right things.  She and her sister cooked all the right things -ham, turkey, sweet potatoes, and mince pie.  Uncle Eddie strung the lights on the yews and in recent years went upscale and wound blue LED lights around the dogwood. All the cousins were there, great uncles and neighbors.

Everyone started off on their best behavior until Myrtle Bottoms just couldn’t help making a crack about her brother’s trophy wife. “A tart”, she hissed to her husband but loud enough for half the living room to hear; and then went on to lavishly and sarcastically praise the outrageously inappropriate outfit that she wore – oversized breasts pushed up and out in a wide décolleté, spiked heels, retro-bouffant hairdo, and diamonds as big as the Ritz on four fingers.

Joseph’s second cousin Margaret was drunk before the last guest arrived and started in on Lou Layman, the only Jew in the house, the aging consort of the maiden aunt of someone.  “Read Acts”, she shouted at him, “if you still want to deny the role of Jews in Christ’s death”. 

Religion for Lou Layman ended at the last book of the Old Testament; but he had read Acts out of self-defense. Luke had it in for the Jews, he knew, never let up on the scribes and Pharisees, and after the crucifixion, went after Jews with a vengeance.  Of course Jewish kings, courtiers and lieutenants wanted him dead.  All a matter of politics, thought Lou, not rising to the bait of drunk Margaret Grillo who looked around the room for someone else to badger, but vowing never ever to have Christmas in New Haven again.    “Next year I’ll do a Shylock”, he said to himself. “No dinner with goombas.”

“Very nice ham pie”, said Great Aunt Mary who made a great show of chopping  her slice into little pieces and eating them with a spoon. “Very nice indeed; but next time you might want to be more generous on the eggs.” Betty had slaved in the kitchen since five in the morning, she was never too shy to tell us, and she had finally had it with Mary, an old crone who should have been boxed up and buried long ago.  She went into the kitchen, pulled a potato-masher out of the drawer, and hammered the pie down to glue and ham bits and dumped the mess on Mary’s plate.

The children whined about their presents, the adults belched and farted after way too much lasagna, corn fritters, and eel, and Joseph listened to the car radio wrapped in the horse blanket his father kept in the trunk for winter emergencies.

Christmas morning always started right.  Everyone in the family went to church, received Holy Communion, and wanting to preserve their State of Grace for as long as possible avoided every occasion of venial sin.  Joseph’s father was mild and considerate to his mother instead of ordering her around. His older sister helped set the table without bitching and moaning; and his mother smiled through the eggs benedict and cheese toast, her one English, non-Italian meal of the year. 

Sitting down at the breakfast table was torture.  Joseph and his siblings had gotten used to the family circus, so when the breakfast nook became as quiet as a confessional, they fidgeted and squirmed.

It didn’t take long for the State of Grace to wear off, however, and before the donuts and Danish, his sister was blowing bubbles in her milk, Johnny was imitating a dog chewing a tough piece of tripe, and his father yelled at both, spattering them with bits of egg and toast.  By the time we got to Aunt Betty’s any expectations the family might have had of a happy Christmas were long gone.

“Unreasonable expectations”, Joseph told me many years later. His mother made last-minute runs to all the Hartford department stores to get presents – any present would do since gifts were only ways of rounding the edges of family gatherings.


Joseph Ponti had never been religious.  Although he was raised Catholic, the religion never took.  He simply never believed the cant, ceremony, and injunctions.  Despite the Carmelite nuns, the wild ravings of Father Brophy, and the censorious priests in the confessional, he emerged relatively untouched and, unlike a lot of Catholics, unscathed.

Catholics don’t pay much attention to the Bible, for the Church has always asserted its right to mediate between man and God, to interpret Christ’s teachings, and provide a strong institutional home for the faithful.  ‘Tradition’, as Catholic teaching stressed, was as important as Scripture; and although Biblical references could not be avoided, the Bible itself was not seen as the sine qua non of religious enlightenment.

As a result, Joe Ponti had never read the Bible; and although Harold Bloom had made extensive references to the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah in his course on Romantic Poetry, Joe skipped over them and parsed Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright and Mt. Blanc on what he thought were their own merits.

In later years Joe had become reacquainted with the literature of his Yale days. With more enthusiasm than he ever had had in college, he reread all the plays of Shakespeare; the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Chekhov; Williams, Albee, and Miller; and every word that Faulkner wrote. Maybe Shakespeare, far more insightful about human nature than any historian – might have some answers.

“I wrote to Bloom”, Ponti told me, “and told him how after 50 years I had finally understood what he had been trying to say.  William Blake’s poetry was indeed not simple. Wordsworth was Romantic but definitely not romantic. Shelley’s and Coleridge’s opium addiction was irrelevant. Only text and subtext mattered.

“He wrote back and said, ‘But you haven’t read the Bible.  Without it, you will never get anywhere’.

“On his recommendation, I bought a Bible.  ‘Where have I been all these years?”, I asked myself after only three chapters of Genesis.”

“For the first time I understood the story and who was who – Christ, God, the Holy Ghost, the apostles, and Lou Layman’s Scribes and Pharisees.  I got the iconography and the words of hymns and carols. The paintings of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Fra Filippo Lippi made sense.  I knew where prayers came from.”

Coincidentally Joe’s study of the New Testament coincided with Christmas. “It was not a good time to read the real story of Christ”, he said. “Aunt Betty’s Christmas dinner was never pretty, but this time every dripping mouthful of lasagna, every expensive and irrelevant present, every drunken, sarcastic remark hurt.”

Joe Ponti was not born-again, and although he admitted only to being ‘illuminated’, he had clearly got some kind of religion. “There is no way to understand Western culture without reading it”, he said.  “Every moral and legal principle is derived from it. Principles of war and peace, ideas of vengeance, retribution, and forgiveness.  There is no way to appreciate Creationism, traditional marriage, or gay marriage without reading it.

“Spirituality, sexuality, and the nature of devotion. The roles of church and state, ethnic rivalries, and extension of power. The Founding Fathers. The Pilgrims.  How can anyone judge Israel harshly after reading Exodus?”

Ideas familiar to many, but not to Joe Ponti.

I asked him if he still went to Aunt Betty’s Christmas dinners. “No”, he said. “Betty, Margaret, and Lou Layman the Jew are all dead now.  We have small family Christmases chez nous”, he went on, “about as far from the Family Circus as you can imagine.”

I took him up on his offer last Christmas and was surprised to see so many religious pieces.  Reproductions of Giotto and Fra Angelico; a 15th century Spanish crucifix, Medieval rosary beads from the Abbey St. Michel, and a colonial era prie-dieu. 


“Reminders of Bethlehem”, he said. A FedEx truck was making a last-minute delivery next door, and we heard the cargo bay door roll shut. “And”, he continued, pointing out the window to the driver running from house to house delivering packages,”it helps me ignore that.”

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