We're not Christians. That's how we wound up with a brick of smoke.
See, actually I've been a Christian. Not just an it's-Sunday-so-we-go-to-church Christian, either. I was quite devout, in fact, a born again, evangelical, God-is-tough-love kind of guy. (If I seem to belabor this point, it's because no one who met me after that period in my life is likely to believe it.) I wasn't overly preachy, at least not the way I remember it. Others who were there may have different opinions.
Somehow the feeling faded as I got older. In fact I can pinpoint the moment when I finally stopped believing in the hereafter, souls, and Someone who designed the whole works. I'd always believed that our consciousness had to have some immaterial spark, something that transcended the physical realm. Else how could humans love, laugh, remember thousands of faces, and do all the other incredible things we do? There had to be something more going on, something independent of the flesh, and if so it wasn't a big jump to believing that it persisted after death.
But when I learned about chaos theory, and how incredibly complex and unpredictable behavior can result from relatively simple nonlinear systems, I began to wonder. I realized that self-awareness, emotions, language, the whole rich inner life of the mind may very well be emergent properties of a biochemical system that's not "relatively simple" in the first place--"insanely complex" is more like it. The Neuroscience for Kids Newsletter, for example, estimates that there are about 1 quadrillion (1 x 10^15) synapses in the human brain. And while it's unutterably sad that something as beautiful as a mind could just vanish when its physical substrate dies...I could find no compelling reason to doubt it, other than I wished so heartily that it were otherwise.
So much for religion. I'm not smug about where my journey has taken me so far, in fact I envy my religious friends. Their certainty gives them bedrock, a place from which they can base their lives and derive a great deal of joy (not to mention their charitable works, which far exceed my puny efforts). It's just that personally, I feel I'd be practicing willful self-deception to deny what my reason tells me is true.
I certainly still value the spiritual side of life, and firmly believe there's a place for ritual therein. So does my wife. And while it would be somewhat hypocritical of us to throw a Christmas party...the winter solstice is right next door, and has its own deep personal and spiritual significance. Anyone who's ever battled depression likely will feel the resonance, the deep rightness of holding a celebration on the eve of the long night.Take that, dark! Take that, night!
So we have a Solstice Party. We turn off all the electric lights, put candles throughout the house, put together a roaring blaze in the fireplace, and surround ourselves with loved friends. There is ritual: Each arrival lights a candle, and each person in attendance must perform. We've had singing, music, prose, poetry, and...other.
We've had Poe's "The Bells" read to us (with bells jingled at every mention of the title phrase). We've had eldritch violin duets. Our goddaughter enthralled us all with a chapter from...hey, did you know she was writing a novel? Me neither! We've had "The Cat In The Hat" performed as theatre nouveau (and if you've seen our tiny living room, you'd realize it's pretty dang nouveau). Stan read from his journal once, revealing that his writing is every bit as sideways and brilliant as the man himself.
We've pretty much got it down after a dozen or so parties. We get scads of candles out, initially lighting just a few so we and the first guests don't trip. (Later, when they're all lit, the place is actually brighter than it is when the electric lights are on.) We build a good-sized bonfire in our little fireplace, get it all stoked up and ready to light when the first guest appears. My wife does those spring rolls and cilantro shrimp and gets out the hand-dipped chocolate-covered cherries. We fire up the big pot of spiced cider.
I have one friend--LJ--who almost always makes it, and it's almost the only time I ever see her. She was a coworker, years ago. She's tall and blond and has a perfectionist streak and a laugh like musical bells. We'd introduced her to another close friend once, and they enjoyed a brief incandescent span of months as lovers before it ended with tight-pursed lips and volumes unsaid and a metric ton of mutual resentment. (My wife and I learned much later that when they were splitting up, divvying up their shared possessions, there was a bit of a tussle over who "got" us. Fortunately they worked out a visitation schedule.)
So she's one of the early arrivals. Her beauty, and this history, and knowing that her ex-beau is going to be arriving a little later with his wife and kids, all add a certain...tension. I'm delighted to see her, you understand. Still, I'm a little more concerned with not looking like a dork in front of her than I am with most of the other guests.
We light the fire, and I close the glass fireplace doors. LJ and her date light candles. I get them drinks, and chat a bit. LJ asks if I opened the flue before lighting the fire. I roll my eyes. "Of course I did. We've been in this house ten years, c'mon already!" We talk about work, her new job is going really well and I'm thoroughly enjoying my new writing gig.
"Umm--are you sure about that flue?"
I turn around and look at the fireplace. It's a little hard to adapt to the contrasts between the dimly-candle-lit room and the hearth. Certainly it's burning nicely, but for some reason the flames, while nice and large, seem...dim. Suddenly, my brain does that optical-illusion-inversion trick and I realize that what I'm looking at is a perfectly bright fire, embedded in a solid brick of smoke. The smoke is so thick that it doesn't even appear to swirl in there.
I know I'm going to have to open the doors. But I'm clinging to the last shreds of the illusion that I know what the heck I'm doing, and so I hesitate. The smoke, incredibly, thickens, which snaps me out of paralysis. In one smooth move I jam a glove on one hand, fling open the doors with the other, and reach into the fire to slam open the flue.
Instantly the living room fills with smoke. It's as if a bomb had gone off. I hear LJ trying to stifle her laughter as I bang the fireplace doors shut again and leap for the window. The smoke alarms go off--my children begin wailing in unison with them. After the window's open, I snatch open the one on the opposite wall. I sprint to the basement, and come up lugging a big box fan, slapping the furnace "off" switch as I run by. Positioned in the window, the fan begins to suck the smoke--and all the heat--out of the room.
A crowd of guests appears all in a rush. They stop, surveying the cloud of smoke drifting into the howling fan, and shiver. This is the point at which LJ loses control completely. "I'm sorry", she gasps to me, "It's just...just", and then she's off again.
I won the "best performance" award by acclamation that night. First time ever.
So it goes, year after year. On the eve of the longest night, we gather and make light and make merry and make tasty food, and we enjoy it thunderously. So may we, even unto the eve of the longest night of all. Take that, Death!
We may not believe in the devil around here. But on Solstice Night we still spit in his eye.