Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"Christmas in the Grand Tradition"

Four days before Christmas and I can't get anywhere near a shopping mall. Not that I haven't tried....

I took the hop, skip and jump across the Delaware River yesterday morning to hit one of the South Jersey temples of commerce. Couldn't get within a mile of the place, at 10am on what was, allegedly, a weekday.

Do people get Winter Solstice as a holiday now or something?

Unable to reach the mall to begin my holiday shopping season five days out, I settled into a local Barnes & Noble to peruse. And I ended up spending a good 90 minutes with Raymond Arroyo's bio of Mother Angelica, and found it quite an enjoyable experience. (More on that down the line....)

I also found It's Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider, which is basically a compendium of Muppet spirituality in the form of short quotes from Jim Henson, the characters which are his legacy to mankind and people who were so blessed to work alongside Henson at some point in his remarkable journey. Given that I'm a sucker for anything Muppet -- remember that I picked Muppet stamps for my Christmas cards this year over the traditional Madonna & Child (because, again, to the best of my knowledge, currying Bunsen Honeydew's favor has never been cited as cause to incite a holy or cultural war) -- I just loved it. Didn't buy it right then, though; gotta take care of the loved ones first. However, if you ever come across it, it belongs right next to The Imitation of Christ on every bookshelf as a classic guide for the spiritual life.

I'm not kidding.

Well, it finally feels like Christmas here because, at long last, I got to make my annual pilgrimage to The Show.

The picture you see above is of The Show -- i.e. the annual Christmas Light Spectacular at the store which, though officially called Lord & Taylor under this week's ownership, will forever be known in the Philadelphia consciousness as John Wanamaker.

Wanamaker was the great American merchant of the early 20th century. When his flagship emporium, covering a whole square block adjacent to City Hall here, was dedicated in 1912, no less than the president of the United States presided at the opening of what was the world's largest shopping extravaganza; remember that the notion of the shopping mall was still 50 years in the future. Even though six of the Wanamaker building's nine floors are now offices, and the Wanamaker brand name died when the May Corporation (about to be absorbed into the Federated -- i.e. Macy's -- empire) acquired the chain in 1995, the original Wanamaker's touches remain: the Eagle sculpture in the grand court, the world's largest pipe organ (which still plays twice a day, everyday) and, of course, The Show, which is the only reason people go into the building at all, ever.

It's the cheesiest thing ever, and if you've seen it once, you've seen it a million times. But every Philadelphia kid -- even the suburbanites -- was brought to it by their parents every year of their childhood, and it remains one of those things that, for everything else that changes in the world, you can count on to never change, one of those things that is a surefire way to make Christmas spring up in your heart just the way it did when you were four, one of those things that unites generations and... well, you know. It's just so wonderfully comforting.

To its discredit, May replaced the original 1940s narration track featuring John Facenda -- the voice of God, and of NFL Films -- but the music track is the same, the lighting, everything except the dancing waters which used to flow from fountains beneath the show display (the demise of the dancing waters remains a sore spot for many in this town).

As traditions go, the only older and more sacred one around is the Mass. Period. And as there'll never be such a thing as Lightshowiam authenticam, I can thank God that The Show is the one thing I can rely on anymore.

So I finally got to make it over to Wanamaker's this afternoon, and it was packed; I usually show up on Black Friday, but was hindered this year for a bunch of reasons. It's never been anything less than packed at every last iteration of it, ever. Until this year, The Show ran every hour on the hour; it lasts 11 minutes and many natives can recite the narration by heart. This year, because of the aging of the light-pieces involved, management cut it back to every other hour, so now it's double the usual crowd. Because the display takes place above the archways of the Grand Court, which rises to about 125 feet, you either have to crane your neck at an ungodly angle or lay on your back to get the full effect. It's easier (and much more enjoyable) to do the latter, and it's what I always do anyways, so I found a place to stretch out and made a pillow of my overcoat.

The excitement from the 400 or so little kids -- a new generation for the magic -- and their parents was palpable. As soon as the floor lights go down and the music kicks up, something inexplicable just takes over the cavernous space. And so it was again.

For all the absurdities, complexities and difficulties of life, those rare moments when the ostentations and burdens all just mystically float away and, even for a fleeting few minutes, you're returned to something simpler, something purer, something better (the worth of which you couldn't realize when you had it), are worth their weight in gold. After this killer of a minute-to-minute year, to have that moment of return, with the precious reminder that the day to day is exactly that and, for all the bullshit, that all really is well was a blessing beyond all price. As the introduction to the finale begins, it is the embodiment of "Christmas in the Grand Tradition."

And as always, it was waiting for me today in Wanamaker's Grand Court.