Christmas Carols

It was one of those December days where the distant margins of San Francisco Bay were obscured in haze, and the warmer inside temperatures made the lower deck of the gleaming GT Marin a welcoming club house for a second grade field trip from Larkspur Landing to the City and back. Capable of carrying 700 passengers, the sleek-nosed ferry boat was mostly empty for its 10 am run across the waters, and the 30 students in school uniforms and what in California passed for winter coats, quickly settled in to the over-sized airplane seats, and looked out through the oversize window that had been festooned with garlands of craft paper Christmas trees and gingerbread men. A few parents had volunteered as chaperones. I was the only father.

We had barely claimed the cabin, when the excited sounds of more children could be heard on the stairway, and shortly thereafter, a second crowd of second graders filed into the room, with their own teacher and parents, and it now emerged that we would have company for the journey:  Catholic school children from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and public school class from Larkspur Elementary, the schools about 5 miles distant, separated by a steep hill, a winding road, and a cultural chasm.

A glorious Christmas excursion on San Francisco Bay for second graders turned out to be something more.

The excursion was meant to be an adventure for the children, nothing more. The vessels horn sounded, and the huge gas-turbined vessel backed into the channel, and soon was gliding past the outer works of San Quentin State penitentiary, with an occasional spray splashing across the windows. It was Christmas month, the season of peace on earth, and we  had not initiated the singing.

Accompanying the Larkspur group was the teacher, a tall, sinewy woman, with white hair and glasses. She dominated her stage, and gave every indication that she had done this many times before. The ship had barely cleared the headlands and was picking up speed, when she clapped her hands, all eyes of her twenty-five second graders snapped toward her, and she launched a rousing chorus of “Frosty the Snowman.” We glided over the waters, hearing of the jolly snowmen, jingling bells, and of Santa Claus coming to town.”

Santa Claus had just come to town for his final stanza, when caching the eye of the Mt. Carmel teacher, I intoned “Silent Night.” Our thirty Catholic children, slid into the music, cherubic in their rendering. Two verses. Sung slowly.

Larkspur listened, poised, and struck back with “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

And so it went. The male leader of the Catholic tribe, fiercely combating the kingdom of the world:  Larkspur and Mt. Carmel, children innocently unaware, pitting mangers against sleighs, and lowing cattle against silver bells,

Eventually we reached the city. The children were allowed onto the deck to see the tall buildings, and catch some of the distant excitement, before the ship’s horn again sounded and we were on our way back, the skyline dimming into the distance, the great rock of Alcatraz, Angel Island, and mercifully there was no more singing.

Many years later I asked my daughter Catherine, now a mother, what she recalled of the trip. “We sang carols,” she said. “I don’t remember much more.” Thank goodness. At least in her memories, the day had not been consumed by a battle of Christian values against creeping secularism.

Thinking back over the affair, I wonder what to make of it. I could have been more gracious. Perhaps I could have led our own round of Jolly Old Saint Nickolas, or Deck the Halls.  I could have done something besides pointedly, insistently arguing that Christmas had to be Christ or nothing. I might have had a conversation with the veteran teacher and spread a little cheer.

Christmas, after all is not something to lock up: its message of Peace on Earth, good will to men is meant to be shared. As Christians we seek to preserve the spiritual in Christmas, by displaying our crèches in public, and hanging Keep Christ in Christmas signs. But these are gentle symbols of deeper things, not ends in themselves. Our celebration of the Christ Mass  played out in symbols that give deeper significance to the lights, the stars, the mystery of winter, or gift-giving, that many do not understand and yet find meaningful. We celebrate the once and for all coming of Distant Love in the abiding presence of the infant at Bethlehem. In the grand and mysterious scheme of things, whether our Mt. Carmel had sung louder, or heaped on more songs than Larkspur that morning on San Francisco Bay really does not matter that much.

Larry Mullaly

Nov. 29, 2012